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They tan the skins of the animals they loved and learn about the women-owned Driftless Tannery | WUWM 89.7FM | Wisconsin

It’s deer hunting season in Wisconsin. Some hunters think not only about harvesting the meat, but also the skins.

For a woman-owned company in rural Southwest Wisconsin, tanning always comes first.

The team at Driftless Tannery in Argyle, Wisconsin strives to live their mission: to naturally preserve an animal’s coat, reduce waste and protect the environment.

Bethany Storm sort of focused on hide tanning.

Her journey began in 2014 when her family left the Chicago area for a windy peak in Green County. Storm wanted her two young daughters to lead healthier lives.

This meant that tons of fruits and vegetables were grown on their five-acre property. Gradually a gathering of chickens, goats and sheep followed.

In addition to her own sheep and goats, Bethany Storm takes in orphaned lambs and other animals.

She was pretty much a vegetarian, but Storm discovered for her that it was important to know exactly where her family’s food came from. So she started mixing meat raised by other residents in her meals.

“My freshman year, I swapped eggs for bacon. My friend April raises pigs. I make lotions and soap and trade them for meat or whatever I need,” says Storm.

She was also inspired to have the skins of her sheep and goats tanned.

She sent the skins to a tannery and then had them made into things to see around her house. A cushion here, a throw there – they are presented tastefully.

“So this is Jim. Jim was a hair sheep. So he’s got this really funny curly hair about him,” says Storm.

Storm says harvesting a sheep, for example, meant using everything possible out of respect for the animal and the earth.

But it was difficult to find a tannery that didn’t use chemicals.

“These were commercially made and what really struck me when I got them back was that they smelled very strongly of chemicals. I could taste it in my mouth sitting next to them,” says Storm.

The method, commonly referred to as the Chrome method, is generally faster and more resilient, according to Storm. But chrome is used. In addition to being concerned about the toxic heavy metal she smelled in her home, Storm was concerned about the danger the industrial tanning method can pose to the environment.

They tan the skins of animals they loved and learn about the women-run Driftless tannery

In early 2020, Storm and two other homesteaders set out to learn how to tan naturally. Experiment first in a barn, then a warehouse, before settling down at this 1890s cheese factory in the small town of Argyle. It is now the home of her company, Driftless Tannery.

Dozens of hides – mostly sheep, but also some goats and deer – are neatly hung, waiting their turn.

“The main thing we were looking at here — because we’re not using chemicals — is bacteria getting to the skin and stripping the hair off,” says Storm.

Nearby are stacks of 50 pound bags of baking soda.

“It’s sodium bicarb. We neutralize everything with it,” says Storm.

They also consume a lot of water and salt. Mimosa bark and alum are other key ingredients in the process.

Storm came into this world from a completely different world. She is a biologist. Co-founder Danielle Dockery spent years coordinating international shipments by air and ground in Chicago. Today they are often elbow-deep and sometimes ankle-deep in tans.

According to Dockery, much of their gear has been donated or modified, or they made it themselves. That includes everything from the work tables to the concoction they use later in the process to oil the skin.

“We start in this power vanity that we built. We started with a similar setup but without the curtain. And for a year we just put the backspray on our face,” says Dockery. “It was pretty miserable until we could afford a curtain because those things aren’t cheap.”

Skins are pouring in from across the country from people looking for a natural tanning option. Dockery scrolls through recent orders.

“Vermont, Tennessee, Arizona, Minnesota, Connecticut, Georgia — we really take them coast to coast. I mean, we haven’t gotten anything else from Hawaii or Alaska, but everywhere else,” says Dockery

Curing is part of the tanning process.

Customers send in their skins, which they have to salt dry. Driftless Tannery will either return the finished product or sell it on the customer’s behalf.

Bethany Storm says her mission goes beyond practicing the most natural tanning method. They want to show that sheep, for example, can be twice as valuable, especially for small family businesses.

“A lamb off the hoof, they’re going to make about $150 from selling the meat, they could get the same amount of money after we’ve processed them to sell the hide, which is really big for a farmer,” says Storm.

They also want to prove the economic added value of hides. They work with a local seamstress who makes pillows, bags, mittens and muffs.

And Driftless encourages other entrepreneurs. A women owned butcher shop will soon be opening in Argyle.

“We’ve been working closely with them for years to get them up and running,” says Storm.

Meanwhile, Danielle Dockery says they continue to streamline and improve their operations.

“Sometimes we’re like a holey Moley, can we physically take it?” Dockery admits.

Jon Thompson and Bethany Storm team up for the pickling process.

She says adding Jon Thompson to the team helps tremendously.

At the moment, the Argyle-dweller raises hides that have been pickled in a mixture of water, citric acid – a natural compound – and salt. Jon is both busy and a man of few words.

“I saw an ad in the newspaper and here I am,” says Thompson.

What does he think of the operation? “I like it,” says Thompson.

Stella Jacoby raises sheep and taught herself to tan before joining the Driftless team.

At the other end of the building, Stella Jacoby is working on the almost finished product.

“A way to stretch them and soften them,” she says.

Jacoby seems to have magically fallen from the sky.

Her family lives 10 minutes drive away, she is homeschooled and just finishing her high school requirements. Stella had already tanned a few skins herself before getting into the tanning scene.

“My first skins were deer because my father said we couldn’t do anything with them. just throw it away I felt bad, so I looked it up on the internet and figured out how to do it, because I didn’t want to waste it, and that’s kind of part of the whole mission of it — using every part,” says Jacoby.

Driftless Tannery’s mission seems to be coming naturally.

They have filled 800 orders this year. For 2023, the team expects over 1,000 orders.