Dyed in the Wool: Larry Prager
Larry Prager has spent a lifetime involved in the sheep and wool industries. A recipient of the 2022 University of Wyoming College of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Natural Resources Outstanding Alumni Award. He calls himself a “product of the system” but his career has been anything but run of the mill.
Growing up on a ranch in the mountains fifty miles south of Douglas, Wyoming, Prager had sheep for 4H and FFA projects, and tagged along with his older sister who was going to 4H wool judging contests.
“She was quite a bit older, but in those days, where one person in the family went, we all went,” he said. “I was judging wool before I was ten years old.”
Rural and remote aptly describe Prager’s childhood. He attended the Prager School through eighth grade before going to Douglas for high school.
“The Prager School was my grandma’s homestead cabin, which stood in our yard,” he said. “Our neighbor lady was our teacher. She came over every day to teach school; it was about like being homeschooled.”
Larry’s great-grandparents were early day Wyoming pioneers.
“You had to be an adventurer to live in that environment,” he said.
His grandmother, Ellen Amanda McFarlane Prager, grew up near present day Wheatland, Wyoming, and married Frank Prager, Jr. in 1910. She received her land patent in 1915. When Larry was a boy she still lived in the house she had shared with her husband and raised her family in, about five miles from her homestead site.
“They built that house around 1920,” Larry said. “Grandma was a true Scotch lady, she grew up in a rural environment, in hard times, and in a part of the country where you made do with what you had. Very seldom did they make a shopping trip to town. She lived a very rich life. You learn to enjoy the things you have, and appreciate people more than possessions. The Scotch heritage is what made the difference; I think it is one of the major reasons they survived the depression years and all that has come since. They either did without or found a way to do what they needed to without leveraging the ranch or borrowing money.”
The ranch started by Frank and Amanda Prager is still in the family, and is still an active ranching unit.
“We were past the end of the road where the snowplows went,” Larry said. “At 8000 feet elevation, we were snowed in from somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas until about Easter. We didn’t know any different. We had a pretty good time. We had snow to play in, and had sheep and cattle and a few horses to take care of.”
When Larry was very young they still fed with a team and bobsled, pitching loose hay onto the hay rack to feed the stock. Later they fed with a little snow cat, but still often times pulled the same bobsled they had used with the team. Although the family primarily raised cattle, Larry said that his father, Lawrence really liked sheep.
“Between my dad and our county agent, Orville Nichols, my interest was sparked,” he said. “Orville was truly a key person in my life. He definitely influenced me, between 4H and later FFA, and my further education in high school. My dad and Orville encouraged me to attend a shearing school when I was fourteen, and I started shearing a few sheep after that.”
Prager sheared sheep through high school and while he attended the University of Wyoming, earning a degree in animal science. He sheared full time for three years after college.
“Those were tough years in the cow business, and cattle were the lifeblood of the ranch I was part of,” he said.
As a young husband with a family to support, Prager took the opportunity when he found out that a wool warehouse in Belle Fourche was looking for help. At the time it seemed like a temporary solution to the tough times on the ranch, but he’s been working there for forty-five years. From his first job in the warehouse handling and core testing wool to a field position that took him to shearing pens across the region to his current position as CEO of Center of the Nation Wool, he has built relationships with sheep growers and wool buyers, weaving connections between the shortgrass prairies and the ever changing textile industry.
Larry has helped COTN weather some major changes in the wool business, including a decline in sheep numbers in the region, the shift of the textile industry from the US to overseas, fluctuating and volatile markets, and covid related export issues. Through the years he has helped ranch families learn about industry innovation and kept growers up to date on changing trends and standards within the industry, all with the goal of helping to increase the marketability and value of their wool.
He has worked with some of these families for three generations, and believes that the best wool in the nation is grown in our region.
“We take the quality for granted,” Prager said. “We have dense soils that help keep the wool clean. We have rangelands that are especially well suited to sheep operations. Sheep run on native prairies are cleaner, and their wools are higher yielding. I’ve had the opportunity to market the best wools in the US.”
Prager markets approximately twenty percent of all wool produced in the US annually. COTN handles 4.5-5 million pounds of wool each year, and the US Military is by far their biggest customer.
“We provide over half of the wool used each year to make uniforms and other military gear,” he said. “In this region, we have the genetics and environment to produce the right type of wool for their needs. We’re fortunate to have the fineness and staple length to meet the requirements for the type of wool it takes to make that cloth.”
Larry Prager has been a leader in the wool industry, keeping the pioneer spirit of his ancestors alive as he has navigated the challenges of the changing landscape of the wool market. From helping with wool judgings and shearing schools and contests across the region to dealing with international customers, he has been committed to serving the people who make up the sheep and wool industry. Other leadership roles include serving as past president of the US Wool Marketing Association and the UW Alumni Association.
Larry and his wife Karen have been married forty-nine years and have three grown children and several grandchildren.