When Pattie O’Boyle sent a photo of her son shearing to family members late last year, she nearly cried at a response from her sibling.
“Let’s hope they are not the last generation of family shearers,” one of Pattie’s sisters commented.
O’Boyle, a Wairarapa sheep and beef farmer, says producing wool has been part of her family since her ancestors arrived in New Zealand in the 1800s.
“All three of our kids have worked with our sheep, their progeny, and the wool that grows on their backs. Our youngest son is shearing now.
“Wool used to be a highly sought-after commodity. On a farm like ours, 70% of its income came from wool in its heyday, but now it’s a cost to our business.”
She says a combination of factors are to blame, including “the world getting swindled by the quick quick boys (and girls!) of synthetic nylon fibre” and the failure of the New Zealand wool industry to respond to the threat.
Pattie and husband Tony bought their farm in Tinui, near Castlepoint, about 15 years ago, and she says most of the neighbouring land is now carpeted in pines.
“There’s not much grass left in this little valley – it’s gone into trees very quickly.”
And while shearing as a sport is enjoying something of a renaissance, with multiple records broken in recent months, the nation’s flock is depleting, she says.
“At the current rate of attrition, our country’s flock could be completely gone by 2050.”
Federated Farmers national meat and wool chair Toby Williams says the future of wool and shearing in New Zealand is “teetering on a knife-edge”.
“Is this the last generation of Kiwi shearers? If we don’t make some serious changes over the next few years, it very well could be.
“The price of wool is completely buggered, and if we can’t solve the problem soon there won’t be too many sheep that need shearing.”
He thinks there’ll always be some sheep in New Zealand, but there is a real risk of shearing becoming little more than a cottage industry.
“Here in Gisborne, the number of shearing gangs has reduced, and a lot of sheep country has gone into pine trees. Nationally, there are more and more farmers turning to self-shedding breeds.
“When I was at high school we had 60 million sheep, and 30 years later we’re down to 20 million – a third of the size. Fewer sheep naturally means fewer shearers.”
Williams has hope that rock-bottom wool prices could bounce back, and he points to rising demand for Kiwi wool in countries like the US, but says a radical shift in innovation and marketing is needed.
“We lost the Wool Board in 2003 because the leadership hadn’t been performing for quite some time.
“And when you look at the leaders in our wool industry now, they’re the same people who’ve been there for the past 20 years. I’m not saying they’re not experienced, but we need some fresh thinking.”
The industry has become siloed, with too many people working on their own solutions to resurrect the value of wool, Williams says.
“There’s plenty of money being spent on developing products, and on overseas travel, but we’re just not seeing any returns from that.
“What we really need is a breakthrough like the iPhone. The world didn’t know it needed a touchscreen mobile phone until Steve Jobs stood on that stage in 2007. Now, everyone’s got one in their pocket.”
Insulation, pillow stuffings and carpets help create value, but they’re not the answer to our wool price woes, he says.
O’Boyle agrees with Williams that the industry needs to become united, with one strong body.
“There are so many people and groups doing different things. Since the wool levy was voted down, wool has struggled without a single organisation.
“We need to come together and work to find solutions.”
Both O’Boyle and Williams feel positively about Wool Impact’s new ‘wool impact navigator’, role, created as a central point to enable more innovation.
“I think that sounds like a good idea – someone we can call up and say what we’re thinking. It’s a person with a name and a face, who I would feel comfortable speaking with as a farmer,” O’Boyle says.
Williams says the innovations are out there, but whether we’ll find them is dependent on the industry acting together – and fast.
“If we can’t do that, then this really could be our last generation of shearers.”
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 | 2 February
Bryan talks with Dr John Caradus, chief executive of Grasslanz, about the growing calls to revisit our laws around genetic modification and editing. The European Union recently passed a major upgrade to its laws and Caradus says we’re now the only nation in the world working under such a strict regime.
Federated Farmers president Wayne Langford also discusses his plan to bring the various farming voices together as Team Ag.
And, senior reporter Richard Rennie discusses some new research that could bring good news to mānuka hone producers and also takes a look at how Hawke’s Bay fruit growers are faring.