NZ had the best wool harvesting training programme in the world. It was the Wool Board’s aim to give every sheep farmer the opportunity to learn to shear, but farmers decided shearer training was the wool harvesting sector’s responsibility.
With coarse wool prices above NZ$7/kg, sheep farmers believed the market would sustain itself. Their past investment in funding wool research, product development and brand programmes meant little to them. They were told the Wool Board was a road block between them and the textile industry. In fact the Wool Board worked across the wool and textile industries nationally and globally; farmers, brokers, merchants, exporters, shearing contractors, researchers, universities and businesses throughout the wool supply pipeline as well as woollen textile manufacturers, designers, architects and retailers.
Competition between wool exporters for securing business was also blamed for driving international wool prices down.
The NZ Merino Company and Wools of NZ have taken over and continue to develop the Wool Board’s established fine and coarse wool brand marketing programmes that link NZ farmers to the world’s woollen textile industry.
The main difference between these companies and the Wool Board is that they are owned by farmer shareholders and trade wool on their behalf.
Wool brokers, private merchants and wool exporters continue to provide logistical and warehousing services for storage, sampling, weighing, testing, buying, aggregating, scouring, financing and shipping. The wool exporters are the trading businesses that link NZ wool to spinners and woollen textile manufacturers.
In the restructuring and disestablishment phase, sheep farmer and Government politicians and farmer lobbyists oversaw the squandering of the Wool Board’s reserves ($450m) on consultants, legal advisers, meetings, travel and junkets around the world. They also spent millions setting up a raft of new companies.
All of this was done with the promise that the commercial ventures would deliver increased wool prices.
During the disestablishment phase there was no accountability or transparency from elected farmer politicians and professional appointees. They were able to hide behind confidentiality agreements claiming their dealings were commercially sensitive.
At least 30 wool companies were established and a group of 35-40 farmer and professional directors discreetly moved between the companies as they failed and ran out of funds. Coarse wool sheep farmers lost faith in the integrity of their elected representatives and voted to get rid of wool levies.
It’s hardly surprising that 20 years on NZ coarse wool prices are abysmally low and farmers are whinging that the cost of shearing and wool-handling is more than they receive for their wool.
Consumers are price-sensitive when it comes to buying interior textile products such as carpets, rugs and bedding, meaning farmers shouldn’t rely solely on a consumer backlash against synthetic fibres for a revival in coarse wool prices.
• Robert Pattison is a former carpet mill assistant manager , Wool Board regional officer and consultant.