Time ‘Wool’ Tell for Sheep Farmers

It's a tough time for the wool industry. It costs more to shear most sheep than the wool is worth, and some farmers are giving up. Others are fighting to bring wool back, as there is a promising future for the environmentally friendly super-fibre.

Tom O'Sullivan said there was a time when his grandfather could pay his whole farm off with one year's wool cheque. That was in 1953, during the Korean War.

O'Sullivan, a farmer in Hawke's Bay with 5000 Perendale ewes, said that would be like winning the lotto today.

Since 2019, the cost to shear most sheep is less than farmers can get for their wool. O'Sullivan's farm suffered a $6000 loss that year; last year, the shortfall blew out to nearly $30,000.

Over the past five years, the return has declined to a record low of just over $1 per kilogram for strong wool, which is approximately 85 percent of national clippings.

O'Sullivan said this price is unsustainable for farmers, and wool would need to be $2.50-$3kg to break even.

The Campaign for Wool

O'Sullivan is the NZ chairman of the Campaign for Wool, an advocacy group launched by the Prince of 2008 and established here in 2011. He is also a member of the Strong Wool Action Group (SWAG), which aims to rejuvenate the New Zealand wool industry.

O'Sullivan said the two key issues behind the wool's lack of value is petrochemical companies glorifying synthetic and plastic products and strong wool failing to diversify its applications.

He wanted to shift people's conceptions of wool and believed there was potential for more widespread use of what he described as an environmentally friendly super-fibre.

However, Woolkin founder Blythe Rees-Jones said it's the industry's responsibility to make wool relevant to consumers again. Consumers buy products, not ingredients, said Rees-Jones. He said the ingredient needs to be made into a well-thought-out product supported by a business programme that speaks to Kiwi's values.

Other sheep farmers are getting innovative with their wool, like Papanui Estate's reusable wool bags and Big Wool's furniture products.

The wave of environmentally conscious consumers is creating a massive focus on sustainability, which could help the wool industry create sought after high-value products.