In this year’s Land Champions edition, we celebrate domestic and imported people in agriculture, from the Italian clan that owns a slice of North Otago wool production to the teacher rebooting ag education in the hort heartland if western Bay of Plenty.
It was logical for a fabric manufacturing company wanting to increase its use of Merino wool to own a farm that produces it, even if it was halfway around the world.
Thirty years ago the Botto Poala family, owners of Italian fabric company Reda – seeking insight into the production challenges of the wool – bought Otamatapaio Station with noted Central Otago Merino farmer John Perriam and Australian wool industry leader Michael Lempriere.
The 6000 hectare property is between Otematata and Omarama in North Otago’s Upper Waitaki Valley. The station runs 6000 ewes with an average 16.8 micron fleece.
Reda chair Francesco Botto Poala says they wanted to understand the process of growing wool and the challenges faced by farmers that can impact the end product.
“We were buying wool and would go to auctions and wool growers would talk about the problems they face.
“We needed to understand the implications for the quality of wool.”
The purchase also reflected their love of New Zealand and New Zealanders and an alignment of values between two nations despite the distance between them.
“From opposites sides of the world you find the same ethical values about the way you run a business. Those things give you confidence to make an investment from so far away,” he says.
Reda later bought out its partners and Otamatapaio became the family’s NZ home.
Fabrizio, Ercole, Francesco and Guglielmo Botto Poala at Otamatapaio Station.
Company managers and technicians visit during shearing to assess wool quality and learn about the challenges growers faced during the season.
“Your work for one year can be made or destroyed by a break in the fibre,” Francesco says.
Before it owned Otamatapaio, Reda primarily bought unclassed blended oddments, but when the family saw the harvesting and classing process, they started buying fleece wool from which they tailor fabrics to suit the fibre’s character.
“We bought 75% to 80% pieces. Now we buy 95% fleece, which has given us performance during production we would not have achieved otherwise.”
Reda was established in 1865 and Francesco and his cousins are the fourth generation to run the fabric business. The fifth generation will start working in the family business shortly.
The company’s first woollen mill was established in Valle Mosso in the Piedmont region of Italy by Carlo Reda. He had links to the Botto Poala brothers, who were descended from a renowned textiles family.
In 1919, the Botto Poala family bought the historic mill.
Today’s business is now run by chief executive Ercole Botto Poala, along with his cousins, Francesco, Fabrizio and Guglielmo Botto Poala.
Each year the company manufactures between 6 and 6.5 million metres of fabric from Merino wool at its Crocemosso mill in Italy’s Biella province.
Their fabric goes into high-end formal clothing, but in the past decade Reda has expanded into material for sports and outdoor clothing, footwear and online made-to-measure suits.
It also works with outside brands to produce wool fabrics suitable to their needs.
“Our DNA is fine Merino wool. It’s all our knowledge,” Francesco says.
Their affection for Merino wool stems from it being natural and encompassing multiple attributes.
“Artificial fibres have one of those properties each time, but wool has all the characteristics,” says Francesco.
Reda subsequently bought two further fine wool properties – Rugged Ridges, a 9000ha property between Otematata and Kurow, in 1996; and, in 2002, Glenrock, a 14,000ha station near Tekapo.
Rugged Ridges runs 5500 wethers, average 16.5 microns, and Glenrock 7500 Merino and halfbred ewes.
Francesco says the decision to buy two further properties made Reda one of the few fabric companies in the world to have interests from the raw material to the end product.
“In terms of our … knowledge of wool, it gives us an advantage in marketing. It’s our story.”
Luca Brushi, Reda head of sustainability, left, with Francesco Botto Poala and Merino sheep at Otamatapaio Station.
It was also a strategic move to increase their wool clip in NZ, where the climatic conditions are less severe than in Australia, providing a consistent, stable clip.
NZ farms are also of a size where they can be self-sufficient, being able to grow their own winter feed and contain stock on farm.
Each station sells its wool clip through whichever channel offers the best return.
“If someone will pay more for the wool, then we are happy to sell it at a higher price,” says Francesco.
Reda has wool supply relationships with over 100 farmers through the New Zealand Merino Company’s ZQRX programme, an extension of its ZQ initiative, which focuses on standards for animal health, environmental and social issues to encourage best farm practice.
The ZQRX programme is another level, encouraging growers and brands to focus on initiatives and actions that challenge the status quo and a commitment to leave the planet in a better state.
Francesco says consumers, especially younger generations, are demanding to know the back-story of garments and have expectations that they are sustainably produced.
Senior Reda officials visit NZ up to three times a year to ensure their goals of land ownership are being met.
Those goals include being custodians of the land, reinvesting all profits back into the properties, that farms are run commercially and sustainably, and that staff are happy.
“The world is changing faster and faster, and we must be the custodians of values such as family, animals and the land, passing them on from generation to generation” he says.
NZM chief executive Angus Street says the rest of the world is discovering what the Merino wool industry has known for a long time, that consumers want a connection to the source of the products they are buying.
“Reda has shown that growers can be a huge part of the sustainability story. Being there on farm, listening to growers and working things out together has allowed for massive steps toward better outcomes for our planet and its people,” says Angus.
Having worked with Reda for 20 years, Dave Maslen, NZ Merino (NZM) chief partnerships and sustainability officer, finds them innovative and unafraid to ask difficult questions.
Owning farms allows Reda to identify consumer attributes and translate that into fabrics.
John Brakenridge, who was NZM chief executive for 27 years before retiring, says the relationship has helped strengthen relationships between grower and users.
“They have brought a richness, brought out their humble, measured side to the NZ Merino community. They helped anchor it and let it flower.
“There is two-way respect. Farmers respect what Reda has done here and Reda has given that respect back and as a consequence we are a more vibrant community.”