There’s a saying in the industry: ‘How do you tell the difference between strong wool and merino wool? It’s where you put the decimal point in the price to farmers.’
It may not be a joke many strong wool sheep farmers in Canterbury would think is funny when the dire record-low wool prices don’t even cover the cost of shearing the sheep.
The strong wool industry has been in steady decline to sub $2.50/kg at auction over the past 25 years, whilst merino wool has bolted like a bullet train with 10-year fixed-price Icebreaker contracts in 2017 around $25/kg.
However, the tide is changing in wool’s popularity with woollen surfboards by pro surfer Kelly Slater, woollen shoes by former footballer Tim Brown, and anti-pollution face masks designed by Karen Walker, all clambering for the brands to claim that they use the world’s most ethical fibre, or as declared by Sheep Inc, ‘carbon negative’
In February 2016 with a co-investment of $22 million with the Primary Growth Partnership Fund, the rockstar of the industry, New Zealand Merino, lent a hand-out to their strong wool cousins and began the W3: Wool Unleashed programme. The goal is to help differentiate strong wool products from synthetics and develop new uses and users for strong wool.
They are utilising their two decades of knowledge that premiums come when you apply a customer-led approach to wool production and processing, and when products are developed by aligning to customer preferences. The seven-year project has seen a group of pilot strong wool farmers be upskilled to record and monitor their on-farm biodiversity, improve animal welfare with pain relief at tailing and introduce ZQ Shearing Best Practice Guidelines.
It is not only New Zealand Merino providing a consumer-led approach to move strong wool from an ingredient to a consumer value-led proposition. I discussed with Carrfields Primary Wool and NZ Yarn CEO Colin McKenzie the exciting prospects for strong wool farm-gate prices into the future.
I learnt about their complete change in philosophy to channel development towards brand partners which has enabled them to be at the expensive design table when New York penthouse apartments, private jets and corporate head offices are fitted out.
The most exciting development I discovered was Carrfields Primary Wool’s partnership with HempFarm and the demand that is coming down the line from luxury fashion houses for a hemp/wool textile blend which will be grown and processed right here in Canterbury. ‘Don’t throw a lifetime of wool genetics out the window to chase current high meat prices, but from concept to commercialisation takes time,’ warns Colin McKenzie.
Whilst many commercial companies are innovating on their own, I believe there is still work to do for consolidation at the grower group level to ensure all New Zealand wool is certified as the most sustainable, ethical, traceable, ‘carbon-negative’ fibre in the world regardless of its micron.
Sarah Perriam of Perriam Media is a broadcaster, MC/speaker and communication consultant specialising in the future of New Zealand’s food and fibre industries. Originally from Central Otago, Sarah is excited to call Canterbury home to launch her new interactive, multi-media show ‘Sarah’s Country’ in late January 2020 from Perriam Media’s studio at Blinc Innovation.
Follow Sarah on Facebook @sarahperrriam