Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Can the last shearer out please turn off the lights?

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Each farmer will make their own decisions about what’s right for them, but on my own farm we’ve reached a real turning point this season, writes Toby Williams.
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As a sheep farmer, I’m sick and tired of hearing how amazing wool is as a product. Not because I don’t believe it, but because it sure doesn’t feel that way right now.  

Any time this topic rears its head, there will undoubtedly be somebody on hand to remind you what a great product we have and how the world just doesn’t appreciate it like it used to. 

They’ll tell you wool could solve all the environmental problems synthetic fibres are creating or how we’re on the cusp of a breakthrough that will send demand, and prices, soaring.

The issue is that I already know all of this and believe it to be true. I don’t need another sales pitch on the virtues of wool – what I really need more than anything is a return to profitability. 

For the better part of a decade, almost half of my sheep farming career, I’ve weathered loss after loss on wool. 

Most years, the income my wool brings in doesn’t even cover the cost of shearing the sheep. In all honesty, the only reason I’ve continued to shear is for the welfare of my animals. 

I’ve been able to absorb those losses because of strong meat prices and relatively low costs, but those days are quickly coming to an end – if they’re not gone already. 

Lamb prices have fallen off a cliff in recent years and inflation has continued to push up my costs of production, quietly eroding any last semblance of a profit I was making. 

When you adjust for inflation, it’s forecast that the average farm profit will be at a 15-year low this season, with no signs of green shoots or recovery in the near future. The outlook is grim. 

I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, because I’m actually a pretty optimistic kind of guy, but one does have to wonder: how long do we keep flogging a dead sheep? 

Each farmer will make their own decisions about what’s right for their own family, business and community, but on my own farm we’ve reached a real turning point this season. 

What’s become abundantly clear to us is that wool needs to start paying its own way very soon or it just won’t be able to stay as part of my farming system. 

As a proud sheep farmer, with a long family history in the wool industry, that’s an extremely hard thing for me to say, but it’s a telling sign of the times. 

We can’t be the only family sitting around our dining room table having these difficult conversations as we try to make things work. In fact, I know we’re not. 

Federated Farmers national meat and wool chair Toby Williams says if NZ continues on this path the country will be left with “little more than a cottage industry supplying niche markets”.

Just last month I was in Wellington meeting with some of New Zealand’s top farming leaders. As you’d expect, the future of wool came up for discussion. 

It’s safe to say I was disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that over half the room thought the days of wool being considered an income stream were dead and gone. 

Some in the room were looking to Wiltshires as a potential solution, while others were focused on diversifying their income and exploring alternative uses for their land that could prove more profitable. 

Nobody in the room was happy about the situation, but they can no longer turn a blind eye to the pressures they’re facing. What choice do they really have?

Those pressures are the same ones that have seen more than 200,000 hectares of productive farmland converted to pine trees in the last five years alone. That land will probably never be farmed again. 

If we continue down the path we’re currently on, we risk waking up one morning to find we’re left with little more than a cottage industry supplying niche markets.

That would be a tragic ending for an industry, and a product, that has given so much to the economic and social fabric of New Zealand. 

So that begs the question: what are sheep farmers going to do about it? 

Are we content to sit back and watch the future of wool slowly fade to black? Or are we going to stand up and fight for its survival?

Federated Farmers, New Zealand’s leading independent rural advocacy organisation, has established a news and insights partnership with AgriHQ, the country’s leading rural publisher, to give the farmers of New Zealand a more informed, united and stronger voice. Feds news and commentary appears each week in its own section of the Farmers Weekly print edition and online.

In Focus Podcast: Full Show | 15 March

Bryan hands over the microphone for this week’s feature interview to senior reporter Richard Rennie, who is in Australia right now.

Richard catches up with farmer Neils Olsen whose Soilkee Renovator provides a solution to farmers looking to plant diverse pasture species with minimal tilling.

He also chats with Hamish Hunt, a Central Victorian who is farming on land not typically suited to dairying. He’s used the Renovator to improve soil health, and to enable planting of multiple species for his regenerative farming system.

Then Federated Farmers president Wayne Langford unpacks the latest rural confidence survey that shows sentiment is improving slightly, although farmers are still doing it tough.

And senior reporter Neal Wallace tells Bryan that drought conditions are now being felt in South and North Canterbury and Wairarapa as well as Marlborough. He also discusses a new satellite that’s been launched that will map methane emissions across the globe.

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