Offcuts #5: Five things I learnt from my first year in wool

Wool bales at "Murong", east of Burra, South Australia. Photo: Simon Seppelt.

I don’t think I could have got any luckier in terms of my first year spent working in the wool industry.

Twelve months ago I didn’t even know what AWEX was, now I log into the website on sale days and marvel at the surging EMI and how healthy it is compared to this time last year.

I’ve been assured by older, wiser heads around the ‘Q’ that a buoyant wool market like this year’s certainly hasn’t been the norm in recent times, which only makes me realise even more how fortunate I’ve been to pop up right in the middle of this boom period.

Whether researching for my next blog or just in my day-to-day role at Quality, I’ve managed to absorb a lot of information in the past twelve months, so here’s five things I learnt from my first year working in the wool industry.

Australian wool growers are resilient

To all the growers who stuck it out through times of drought and economic hardship but are now reaping the rewards, I tip my cap to you and say well-deserved.

It’s brought a smile to my face reading any one of the numerous feel good wool stories this year about growers who rode out the hard times and are now cashing in.

For example, an ABC Rural article on the wool renaissance from November 3rd titled ‘Wool renaissance sees strong demand and record prices‘ (http://ab.co/2h095rJ) which told the story of 94 year-old NSW farmer Fred Whitby who had lived through a boom in the 1950s, a slump in the 1990s and had now gone full-circle again with a recent return to prosperity.

That’s commitment!

Sure this upswing won’t last forever, like with any commodity, but you have to enjoy the good times and smell the roses on occasion right?

Wool is cool

One of the most interesting aspects for me has been looking at the opposite end of the food chain to the grower and learning about the many uses for Australian wool both domestically and overseas.

Be it providing the fabric for China’s hottest new fashion item (fake fur coats), shoes that have become the footwear of choice for Silicon Valley CEOs or hand-knitted baby blankets, Australian wool is a prestige item on the world stage and our growers should be extremely proud of that.

Add to that the fact that wool is fast becoming the item of choice for the ever-growing numbers of entrepreneurs to build their new business ventures or “start-ups” around.

Whether or not the end result of the process is something sheep farmers and shearers think about as they slave away, only they can answer, but they are producing a blue-chip product that is in high demand.

Embracing technology

Farming might be a pursuit as old as time itself, but from what I’ve learnt farmers have also been quick to embrace new technology.

Whether it be the ShearEzy system which provides the shearer with a comfortable stand-up working environment (and also eliminates the need to grab and drag sheep from pens) or AWEX’s new E-Bale tracking technology which will be trialled next year, the wool industry seems to be quick to adapt to new ideas in the pursuit of increased efficiency and profitibility.

In fact, Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) even teamed up with the University of Adelaide in 2017 to launch the Australian eChallenge Wool Innovation program, based around the development of prototypes of technical innovations for the wool industry.

Participants in the 12-week program pitch their product to panels of potential investors from the local business community, with a $40,000 prize going to the winner with the most outstanding innovation.

Wool’s deep links

Until you’re in the inner sanctum, you don’t realise how deep the links are between the wool industry and many of Australia’s iconic moments, institutions and pastimes.

For example when Australia celebrated its Bicentenary year in 1988, the anniversary was celebrated with a Bicentennial Wool Collection fashion extravaganza at the Sydney Opera House to showcase the nation’s famous ultrafine Merino wool.

Attended by Prince Charles and Princess Diana as guests of honour, the event was described by the Chicago Sun Times at the time as the ‘the fashion world’s most exciting event in 200 Years’.

Continuing the royal theme, when Princess Charlotte was born in 2015, the Australian Government presented the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (Prince William and Kate Middleton) with a Merino wool blanket as a congratulatory gift.

Add to that the fact that Australia’s athletes produced a record medal tally at the 2000 Sydney Olympics wearing ‘Sportswool’ (a bi-layer fabric made from wool and polyester designed to keep them cool during exercise but warm before and after) and also that the Baggy Green caps and vests worn by our cricketers contain Merino wool, and you can see how deeply ingrained the industry is in Australian life and culture.

The gift of giving

I’ve learnt there’s many people and organisations within wool doing a lot of good for others, which is remarkable given the industry itself has suffered through some lean times and you could forgive it for worrying about itself only.

Here at Quality, we’re extremely proud of our commitment to the Ronald McDonald House Westmead, where we’ve raised over $225,000 for seriously-ill children and their families in the past five years through charity wool auctions.

And elsewhere, there’s other wool entities doing the same for organisations such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service and Diabetes Australia.

A large multi-national bank or corporate conglomerate donating to charity is one thing.

But an industry where some have done it tough in recent times, and is sometimes at the mercy of uncontrollable factors such as weather and climate, digging into their pockets to help others is quite another.

That’s a wrap for 2017!

Thanks to everyone for reading, and I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year – see you in 2018.

Kane McKay

KMcKay@qualitywool.com