A frigid winter isn’t a seasonal occasion most people look forward to.
For Mike Wheeler, though, it can’t get cold enough.
Wheeler is the president of Nugget International — the largest sheepskin and pelt company in the U.S., with facilities in Greeley and San Antonio, Texas — and his business, along with the rest of the industry, took a big hit when the weather stayed warm last winter. What’s processed at Nugget International — 5,000 to 6,000 sheep and lamb carcasses daily, coming from meat-packing plants such as JBS USA in Greeley, Superior Farms in Denver and others — is eventually transformed into UGG boots, Ralph Lauren Polo clothing, and other cold-weather attire.
When it stays warm, such goods aren’t needed.
Last winter, inventory of sheepskins and pelts backed up, and the value of the products was cut by as much as half from the record highs the industry saw in 2011 — a year that featured excellent sheepskin and pelt prices thanks to the popularity of UGG boots, Wheeler noted.
But now, Wheeler said, the industry is on the rebound — which is good for Nugget International and its 35,000-square-foot, 30-employee facility in Greeley.
Wheeler made his optimistic comments last month as a presenter during the 2013 American Sheep Industry Association/National Lamb Feeders Association convention in San Antonio.
As Wheeler noted during his presentation and in a phone interview last week, the current market situation reflects that the U.S. is trending up, China is very aggressive and Australia is experiencing rapid price increases.
Bottom line, Wheeler said, it’s been colder across the northern hemisphere this year — though it has been unseasonably warm in Colorado — and demand for wool products has been getting stronger since October.
In addition to supplying raw materials for giants of the fashion world, the hides processed by Nugget International are used for the interiors of vehicles put out by Rolls Royce and Bentley, and the company provides skins for a variety of other businesses across the globe.
Nugget International began in San Antonio in 1945 and is still headquartered there.
The company’s building in Texas also serves as a tannery, where leather is made from the lamb skins.
The Greeley building, where Wheeler spends some of his weeks, is simply a storage facility for hides.
In Greeley, employees trim the wool of the hides, salt them for preservation, dry and store them, and strategically decide what skins are appropriate for which purposes, and to which company the hides will go.
The size, wool length and color of the hides all play a factor in determining their uses.
The business started in San Antonio as a meatpacking operation called the Melton Provision Co., supplying local grocery stores and sausage-makers.
The company evolved over the years to eventually deal primarily in sheep and lamb skins by the mid-1980s.
In 1989, the company added the storage location in Greeley — in the heart of Weld County, which ranks No. 1 in the nation in terms of numbers of sheep and lambs, and No. 1 in the value of sheep, goats and their products, according to the most recent U.S. Census of Agriculture, released in 2007.
“We’re glad to see at least our side of the industry is on the rebound,” Wheeler said, while acknowledging that much of the sheep and lamb industry is struggling at a time of drought and high feed prices. “Hopefully everything can head that way.”