The Southland Times - - Weekend -

He had a tex­tile back­ground and got burned in the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis. He was a farmer fight­ing at least

20 years of piti­ful cross­bred wool prices.

The sit­u­a­tion was dire and the New Zealand wool man­u­fac­tur­ing and grow­ing sec­tors were in bad shape.

To­gether, Ken Al­gie, of Dunedin, and Rick Cameron, of Lovells Flat, near Balclutha, founded a com­pany, Ag­wool New Zealand (Ag­woolnz), that has been turn­ing out qual­ity woollen jer­seys and other wool prod­ucts in a trial project, for the past two years.

Spun in New Zealand, made in China, the 1700 jer­seys sold for $184 each on Ag­match, a farm­ers’ on­line trad­ing site the pair started about 10 years ago. The site is owned by about 650 farm­ers, who pay a $500 yearly mem­ber­ship, and is sup­ported by about 2500 farm­ers and ru­ral sup­pli­ers through­out the coun­try.

About eight South Is­land farm­ers com­mit­ted 2800 kilo­grams of 31-32-mi­cron wool to fund the ini­tial Ag­woolnz pi­lot.

‘‘Farm­ers who com­mit­ted lamb and hogget wool into the jersey pro­gramme have seen their re­turns climb to be­tween $20 and $40 per kilo­gram, com­pared with the cur­rent gross com­mod­ity price of about $4.50 per kilo for sim­i­lar qual­ity lamb wool,’’ Cameron said.

It had lifted the value of an 180kg bale of greasy wool from $650 to more than $7000.

Build­ing on the Ag­match/Ag­woolnz suc­cess, a sec­ond run of jer­seys will soon be re­leased, with the yarn spun in New Zealand as be­fore but this time man­u­fac­tured in Auck­land and Hawke’s Bay.

Along­side the project, Al­gie and Cameron are in the process of test­ing a range of sam­ples with the aim of pro­duc­ing a wool car­pet from the backs of cross­bred sheep, whose fleece makes up the bulk of New Zealand’s wool pro­duc­tion.

Fi­nal sam­ples of the car­pet, to be made in Mel­bourne, were to be avail­able at the Ag­match McKe­own stand at the South­ern Field Days, at Wai­mumu, this month.

The 33-40-mi­cron car­pet will have an ini­tial run of about 150 lin­ear me­tres – enough to do about eight aver­age-sized homes.

It is ex­pected to have a re­turn of be­tween $250 and $300 a me­tre (about $13 per kilo­gram greasy for 34-39-mi­cron main shear wool).

This is a favourable com­par­i­son to the aver­age auc­tion price for full fleece wool of $2.65 per kilo­gram.

Sub­tract­ing 20 cents for bro­ker­age, $1.24 per kilo­gram for shear­ing, and adding on the cost of wool packs, trans­port and elec­tric­ity, the farmer got next to noth­ing, Cameron said.

‘‘You could say $1 per sheep net – un­sus­tain­able – and sheep are be­ing con­sid­ered by some for meat only; very sad for the peo­ple in­volved and why we all need help re­gard­ing this car­pet model, to get the re­turns when they are needed, to pay the shear­ers and wool han­dlers,’’ Cameron said.

The self-fund­ing jersey and car­pet projects gave farm­ers an op­por­tu­nity to be more in con­trol of their own des­tinies, and less at the mercy of ‘‘wool pol­i­tics’’, he said.

Cross­bred wool in dire straits

In re­cent times, the South Otago farmer had seen a de­crease from 72 per cent of farm in­come de­rived from wool, to 12 per cent, and this year neg­a­tive

10 per cent, where it was al­most bet­ter to leave the wool on the sheep than to shear it.

‘‘If it was not for meat, we would be down the road.’’

In 1973, Cameron came off a Waitaki merino sta­tion to farm cross­breds on the rolling South Otago hills around Balclutha, with his brother Peter.

In the 1980s, New Zealand had 70 mil­lion sheep. It now has 27.6 mil­lion sheep, of which 3.3 per cent are merino, which pro­duce 12 per cent of the na­tion’s wool. Of the coun­try’s 16,000 farm­ers, 700 (4 per cent) are merino farm­ers.

‘‘Cross­bred wool is not sexy like merino. We only pro­duce 12 per cent merino but it gets the most noise.’’

Deal­ing with the wool board

In the 1990s, Cameron and many oth­ers be­gan ask­ing se­ri­ous ques­tions of the New Zealand Wool Board, about the way wool was mar­keted and the value it added to wool.

Set up in 1944, the board was funded by a levy on the pro­ceeds of grow­ers’ wool sales: ‘‘A tax be­fore you made a profit,’’ Cameron said.

In 1978, the gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced sup­ple­men­tary min­i­mum prices (SMPs) that guar­an­teed farm­ers price sta­bil­ity for their prod­ucts, de­spite de­clin­ing in­ter­na­tional prices.

At the time, farm pro­duce was 70 per cent of ex­ports.

‘‘In 1981-1982, the wool board be­gan pur­chas­ing at a level be­yond the mar­ket that ef­fec­tively held our man­u­fac­tur­ing cus­tomers to ran­som. It turned these cus­tomers away from wool to syn­thetic op­tions and ef­fec­tively told farm­ers to get lost.’’

Pro­duc­ers were held in con­tempt and were pow­er­less to stop the wool board’s ‘‘con­fis­ca­tion of funds’’, to the tune of $90 mil­lion a year – $240m to­day, that went into the so-called pro­mo­tion and sale of wool, he said.

In his dis­il­lu­sion­ment, Cameron has spent much of the past 30 years pulling the wool away from peo­ple’s eyes about the in­dus­try. ‘‘The wool in­dus­try has drowned in a sea of words and bro­ken ideals,’’ Cameron said.

Cross­bred sheep on the farm of Peter, Rick and Ben Cameron at Lovells Flat near Balclutha. Cross­bred wool is be­ing used in Ag­woolnz’s pi­lot man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­gramme for woollen gar­ments and car­pet. Co-founder of Ag­match and Ag­woolnz Rick Cameron, left, and co-di­rec­tor Ken Al­gie dis­cuss de­sir­able qual­i­ties in cross­bred wool. From left, Rick Cameron and Ken Al­gie and Ben Cameron, at the fam­ily farm.

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