Hope offered at meeting for wool farmers

Kalimera farmer Tim Anderson, from North Canterbury’s Conway Flats, helped organise a wool...
Kalimera farmer Tim Anderson, from North Canterbury’s Conway Flats, helped organise a wool meeting at Cheviot. He says farmers probably have a bit more hope after learning about some of the work going on among wool bodies. PHOTO: TIM CRONSHAW
Disgruntled sheep farmers have come out of a Cheviot meeting with a little more hope the wool industry can dig its way out of a big hole.

Nearly 50 farmers questioned leaders of Wools of New Zealand (Wonz) and Wool Research Organisation of New Zealand (Wronz) chairman Andy Fox about where wool funds were being spent to turn around low farmgate prices.

Farmers continue to be puzzled how wool — with its many natural and other attributes — remains in a slump, and has not made up for lost ground from synthetic materials.

Instead of going backwards they want to at least be covering their costs in a difficult farming environment compounded by low lamb prices.

The meeting was brought together by Conway Flat farmer David Handyside and chaired by his son Peter.

A strong turnout of Wonz representatives included Hamish De Latour and chief executive John McWhirter.

Co-organiser Tim Anderson said there was quite a bit of anger among farmers, and it took some ringing around to get them at the meeting because of their discouragement.

They wanted a meeting with wool bodies because they were unaware of a lot of activity in the wool industry, such as Wronz projects, from $30 million of farmer funds.

They also wanted to know that the likes of Wonz, Wronz, Wool Impact and the Campaign for Wool and wool brokers were doing all they could to lift prices and promote wool, he said.

"There were about three generations of wool growers there, some who remembered the days when we used to ride round the hills with a sack tied to our saddles picking wool off fences and plucking dead sheep. Then there was the generation from 20 years ago who remembered reasonable prices and the new wool farmers who have experienced nothing but gloom, really."

Mr Anderson said the farmers probably left the meeting with more hope after learning that Wonz needed more wool throughput, was working closely with Wronz and wanted to do more at the consumer end of the market.

"That was music to my ears, because I thought they were running their own little empires, but there seems to be a wee bit of unity in the business now so that was probably the most comforting thing. ...

"Wonz has some exciting new developments that they were very cagey about and I think we will hear more about it soon. It was a bit of a boost to morale."

Only a few farmers were negative, with others saying it was the best meeting they had attended. Most strong wool farmers would be making losses, he said.

"When they talk about doubling the price from $3/kg to $6/kg it’s only just starting to cover our costs, but it would be enough to keep people inspired, as there is wool-less sheep and forestry and things like that. Then there is the decline in sheep numbers and people looking at other options like deer and especially cattle, so when you get the lamb prices dropping the relevance of a low wool price suddenly becomes very apparent to us.

"It’s only been masked by higher lamb prices the last two or three years until now."

The Mt Guardian Perendale Stud co-owner spent $30,000 to shear their flock and received $20,000 for their wool clip.

Andy Fox
Andy Fox
A couple of ram breeders he knew had been put on notice by buyers they would not be coming back if prices failed to improve over the next year.

Mr Fox said Wronz had become more public lately about its research programme after hearing farmers wanted to know more about projects funded by old wool board reserves.

He said the meeting had probably given a little bit of hope to farmers who were going backwards at the moment, to the point where they were paying shearing costs to produce meat.

"It’s just a pity that this really fantastic natural fibre can’t return better, which is why we are trying really hard to make it work.

"We’ve got to focus on what we are trying to do and do our best job at creating demand for strong crossbred wool."

Wronz scientists were working to get innovative products to the commercial stage, based around breaking wool’s keratin down either chemically, mechanically or with enzymes, or a combination of the three.

"Basically it’s wool, but not as we know it, and it’s keratin with a number of different uses for that. This is not in competition with traditional uses for floor covering and textiles."

Among them are Wool Source Cortex — spindle-shaped white powder particles with a large surface area which can remove pollutants, metals and dyestuffs, and be made into absorption and filtration products.

The filters, which could include face masks, were biodegradable, unlike other filter replacements.

Other "high-value and high-volume" projects are powders and pigments, and particles for personal care and industrial products.

Mr Fox said promising projects included a small trial plant wet-spinning wool and combining it with other fibres such as harakeke flax, which had the potential to be a unique New Zealand fibre.

"That would be a really nice story, and perhaps there could be cheaper forms of cellulose out there, and a lot of the wet-spinning done today from [a] bio-base is tree pulp, so that’s something we are looking into and that has large volume promise."

He said the organisation was highly selective in its research.

"We have a yardstick — if a project went commercial, is it still an economic proposition if the business had to pay $10/kg to farmers for the raw material? If it [isn’t], we don’t pursue that research and if it [is] that's something we push further along."

He said that did not mean the entire wool clip would rise to this price in five to 10 years, but was only a benchmark if the research would be continued.

Research work had to be scaled up before it could go to the next stage and eventually be commercialised, he said.

Mr Anderson said he liked the sound of Wronz’s ambitious sights of only doing research yielding $10/kg as a strategy, and concentrating on high value projects likely to "bear fruit".

"From a grassroot wool grower, people walked out of there generally confident that things were happening, and the money Wronz had got from the wool board was being used reasonably well."

Mr Fox said wool had a future, but its recovery was taking much longer than thought.

"Quite rightly farmers are skeptical as the wool industry is littered over the last three decades with over-promising and under-delivering. I am one of those skeptics wearing my farming hat, but on the other side we are putting in a lot of effort so this moves to scale, so we can move the dial on the wool price."



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