A Banks Peninsula farmer once dedicated to improvements in the classroom now does the same on the land.
Molly Gardner’s path to working in the primary sector is unique.
“It’s been a massive change for me,” the 45-year-old says from her Le Bons Bay property.
“If you’d said to me 15 years ago that I’d end up farming I most definitely wouldn’t have believed you.”
Molly grew up in Saint Heliers, a seaside suburb of Auckland.
“Although, I should add, I was never truly a city slicker,” she says.
“I was lucky enough to grow up in an old state house with a small orchard where my family grew everything from plums to apples and oranges.
“Plus, we owned some horses that we kept on a friend’s farm and we’d visit them often.”
In her younger years, Molly studied for a parks and recreation degree at Lincoln University. But not long after graduating she found herself turned off her career prospects. She started teaching children with learning difficulties at Wainui School.
“Since then I’ve basically never left the area. I’ve been here for almost 25 years and I love it.”
Nowadays, half her family lives in Canterbury.
“We initially bought a lifestyle block and soon after added four alpacas for grazing.
“But over the years that number has grown – farming alpacas is a bit like a heroin addiction. It’s certainly addictive.”
Molly got bitten by the bug and found herself with a growing interest in the animals.
Molly Gardner hopes more farmers will breed alpacas to give scale to the industry.
Meanwhile, as for mating, that is done by hand.
“It means I’m selecting a particular male for a female to balance the traits they have. And it means I know who is or isn’t pregnant.”
The operation requires the removal of low-performing animals to keep improving the quality.
“The harsh reality is that if you want to continue to have high quality and have a proper fibre industry then you need to take out the low-quality animals from your breeding programme,” she says.
But the numbers are minimal. Last season, only four females were culled while four younger alpacas were added to the herd.
“Yes, we’re a small operation but we’ve chosen that.
“A lot of the NZ market has been the exporting of alpacas overseas but in the last few years there have been issues around exporting due to the importing of alpacas from other countries,” she says.
“At one point imports and exports of alpacas were suspended and this is still not ironed out. This has hit us all in the pocket.
“With the importation of alpacas from other countries the Ministry of Primary Industries realised some of these alpacas are vaccinated for diseases in the countries they come from. This was incongruent with the regulations governing our exports.
“Foregoing our agreed responsibilities could affect all NZ exports, which is why MPI did the right thing by stopping the exports until it was sorted. Unfortunately, fixing international protocols is a slow business.
“Alpacas were just a small fry in the saga but it’s meant we cannot import genetics from the United States or Australia.”
The state of the NZ fibre industry added to the debacle.
“Everything here is set up for wool and mainly coarse wool. When you’ve got a rare fibre, like Suri, you don’t tend to have enough volume to get it processed easily.”
The Chinese market, for instance, wants fine micron fibre in tonnes, which we just don’t have yet, she says.
“It makes things really difficult when you’re starting out.
“To fix that we really need more alpaca breeders. In particular, we need more breeders who will breed for fibre. We need to grow the numbers.”
There are about 40,000 registered alpacas in NZ. The Suri breed make up just 10% of that figure.
Wool still dominates local fibre sales but possum, alpaca and mohair offer higher returns for those prepared to step outside the mainstream and Suri alpaca have the potential to end up challenging cashmere.
In 2010 Thistledown Station in partnership with AgResearch was involved in the first-ever trial to see whether 100% Suri fleece can be processed.
“We found through the testing that Suri fleece can, in fact, be processed. It exceeded pilling tests and had the ability to be turned into fabric.”
Molly quickly put theory into practice.
Seventy metres of the trial Suri cloth, which was made at the AgResearch textile facility at Lincoln, was sewn by Laurie Foon from Starfish.
She showed it off at the opening of NZ Fashion Week in 2010.
“Suri have a very distinctive fleece which creates a lustrous, draping fabric without the need for chemicals to enhance this or blending with other fibres.
“The alpaca fibre is suitable for a wide-range of fabrics from soft pashmina-style through to suiting so it’s very versatile.”
But there was and still is one major issue – the garments cannot be commercially made in NZ.
“Our country has had such a long focus on just primary production that we’ve forgotten about value-adding. I think that’s a big mistake,” Molly says.
“I really wanted NZ to get the benefit of manufacturing our fibre. But that hasn’t turned out to be the case.
“We’re now in the process of taking some yarn to Britain to have it woven because no one here can weave it. And it’s the same for the Merino industry, no one wants to spin it here.
“Our only choice is to go overseas, to places like the United Kingdom or Italy, where they like fine fibres and are happy to spin it slowly and sell it for really high prices. The United Kingdom has only one fabric weaving mill left that is capable of weaving low-tex yarns.”
She admits the alpaca market is niche.
“But that comes with great opportunity, recognising that rarity has its advantages in the exclusive market.
“We need to move alpaca farming to a commercial scale and we need people to realise the value of fibre.
“We’re not only losing expertise in this area, we’re also losing the machinery for production.”
But among Molly’s concerns for the sector there is optimism.
She points out a neighbouring Huacaya alpaca farmer who is turning her yarn into high-end products that celebrate their uniqueness and rarity.
Peruvians have been wearing knits made of alpaca fibre for centuries.
But will the silky-soft secret spread to high-end designers so they begin flocking to use the fleece of the shaggy South American native?
Molly hopes so.