Can wool unravel its tangled history?
OPINION: Strong wool income for the year just ended doesn’t make for pleasant reading.
For an average 8000-stock-unit sheep and beef business it is just over half that of the previous year, taking about $60,000 out of the bottom line.
Predictions for the year ahead aren’t any better at about $2-$2.50 a kg – although how anyone can reliably predict such a volatile industry beats me.
Exporters say they have 5 per cent of the annual clip in their stores and it is unknown how much wool farmers and merchants are storing.
There’s no easy answer wool’s woes.
And it’s no use blaming the farmers who voted against a wool levy some years back.
Their protest at what they understandably saw as years of to incompetency was inevitable.
And, anyway, the levy money was for research and industry training, not for market development.
Another move, a few years earlier than this, was more significant.
It was the decision, when reform of the Meat and Wool Boards got underway, to exclude promotion of wool as one of the key tasks of the new Meat and Wool New Zealand.
This extraordinary antipathy to promoting one of our staple exports stemmed from years of declining sales under the aegis of the Wool Board.
A figure of $250 million has been put on the amount of wasted farmers’ money.
Wiser people than me have cast blame at the Wool Board of the late 80s, which, carried away by Australian hype, used its huge reserves to intervene in markets to keep prices artificially high.
This gave farmers good returns for a few years but when intervention ended in the 90s and prices collapsed, the board discovered it had alienated many of its customers.
They went to synthetics and, despite the valiant efforts of people like Prince Charles and the Campaign for Wool, have never returned.
If you want to look even further back, it is now plain to see – it seems to me – that farmers missed their best chance to save their industry in the early 70s.
That was when the Great Wool Debate raged, over whether to acquire the entire wool clip and take over its marketing.
In the end, farmers chose not to. Wool’s demise wasn’t so obvious then but in retrospect it can be seen this was the last real opportunity they had to collaborate and form a Fonterra-type cooperative.
Attempts to muster growers and regain a stronger market presence have been made several times this century but have failed to attract the numbers needed to pull this off.
It would be great to see farmers taking back control of this unique product.
It would mean committing money they can barely spare to a cause that might take generations to bear fruit.
But the timing could be right in these days of environmental awareness wool has a ready-made promotional advantage.
It seems older farmers have become disillusioned and the younger don’t think of wool as a genuine source of income, more of a nuisance.
This is a gross generalisation and I could be wrong. I hope so.
Where there’s a wool there’s a way.