Retiring stalwart holds hope wool industry will come right

Stuart Catto has closed the doors of his Oamaru business, Catto Wool. PHOTO: SALLY RAE
Stuart Catto has closed the doors of his Oamaru business, Catto Wool. PHOTO: SALLY RAE
Stuart Catto is a dyed-in-the-wool wool man — literally.

On Friday, Mr Catto (67) accepted the last wool at his Oamaru wool business, Catto Wool, and shut the doors for good, after a lifetime in the industry.

While he had no regrets about his chosen career, he did have a small regret that he had not managed to get a buyer to take over the business, he said.

But retirement was beckoning and he was looking forward to spending more time with his wife, trout fishing and whitebaiting, hunting pigs, deer, wallabies and goats, and driving down some back roads that he has never traversed before.

Brought up on a farm near Gore, Mr Catto started rousieing for local shearers from when he was about 12 until he left school at 17. He went to Lincoln for two years, studying wool.

After Lincoln, he had a selection of jobs offered and he chose to work for Mair Wool in Christchurch, a business which was essentially an auction appraiser.

Then, in 1986, he bought an existing wool-buying business in Oamaru and moved south.

He had spent two years driving heavy machinery in Twizel, with the hydro development, in the late 1970s and had got to know some North Otago folk, so it was not entirely unfamiliar.

At that stage, the business was based in Tyne St but it later needed more space and Catto Wool moved into Harbour St, in the heart of the town’s historic precinct, in 1991.

But back then, it was not the bustling attraction that it later became — "no-one cared about it back then" — and he initially took half the building, then three-quarters and then the entire space.

Later, more space was required and premises in Tyne St were also leased.

The last six or seven years had been particularly tough and, while Mr Catto said he always tried to have a glass-half-full approach rather than a negative one, it was getting very difficult to do that.

But he remained hopeful that the industry would come right.

"I’m always looking for hope at the other end. Surely there’s light at the end of the horizon now."

Known for his own woollen attire, Mr Catto said one of his pet beefs was farmers who did not believe in their own industry, whether that was wearing synthetic — or plastic — clothing, or laying synthetic carpets in their homes.

Wool judge Stuart Catto inspects a half breed hogget fleece North Otago A&P Show in 2018. PHOTO:...
Wool judge Stuart Catto inspects a half breed hogget fleece North Otago A&P Show in 2018. PHOTO: ALLIED PRESS FILES
"When that starts happening, you may as well throw in the towel. You have to believe in your own products," he said.

Mr Catto’s work covered a large area, from the top of the Styx to Waikouaiti, the Lindis Pass, Twizel, the top of the Hakataramea Valley and Waimate.

During the heyday, it was not unusual to do 14-hour days and he had the same routines; breakfast used to be a mutton pie at McGregors tearooms in Palmerston, latterly it had been at Vanessa’s Cottage Cafe in Hampden.


The Ministry for Primary Industries latest Situation and Outlook for Primary Industries report showed wool export revenue was forecast to increase 5% to $420 million in the year to June 30, 2022, partially recovering but remaining below 2018-19 levels.

Export revenue growth was due to an improvement in the price received for all micron categories. Higher export prices were expected to more than offset an 11% drop in volumes, reflecting the start of the sector’s recovery to pre-pandemic levels.

The pandemic and wider freight issues continued to weigh on prices, driven by lower global consumer sentiment and lockdowns in China disrupting manufacturing.

In the nine months to March 31, 2022, the proportion of wool exports to China fell (from 37% to 28% of total export volume), with India, Italy, the UK, Germany and Australia increasing their imports of New Zealand wool.

The recent Covid-19 resurgence in China presented downside to that forecast and raised the level of uncertainty in the forecast.

Like other exports, wool volumes and prices have been impacted by freight issues, including shipping delays and a related fall in demand.

In the 2021/22 season, Beef + Lamb New Zealand estimates that shearing expenses will account for 99% of wool revenue for the average farmer compared with 36% in the 2016/17 season (before the downturn in strong wool demand and prices).

While wool revenue has been generally declining, shearing costs have been increasing (shearing expenses are estimated to increase by 6 percent in the 2021/22 season).

In addition to rising shearing costs, many farmers had trouble booking shearers this season due to fewer shearers being available. In some cases, the inability to have sheep shorn at the right time has decreased wool quality (increased vegetable matter in wool and wool colouring).

Although fine wool is performing well, strong wool (31.4 microns or greater), which constitutes 75% of New Zealand’s wool exports, continues to struggle. Research and trials into alternative uses for strong wool present upside to this forecast. New higher-value uses, shifting consumer demand for natural fibres and New Zealand’s new national standard for wool have the potential to lift the performance of the strong wool industry to more-sustainable levels, it said.

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