Wool farmers see potential salvation in new products for builders, architects
The strong wool sector is setting its hopes on the development of new products that could be used in building and manufacturing to increase income for farmers.
While the merino wool market continued to perform, the strong wool sector was in crisis due to competition from synthetic fibres, said The Campaign for Wool New Zealand chairman Tom O’Sullivan.
The price of strong wool was about $2.50 a kilogram. The cost of shearing sheep was now higher than the value of the wool, O’Sullivan said.
But his hope was that the price of strong wool could eventually be on par with merino, which sold for between $15 and $20 a kilogram. At the very least farmers needed to break even, he said.
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“We know farmers have been grappling with the cost of shearing sheep for years, and that many are considering a shift to shedding breeds such as Wiltshire, or moving away from sheep farming altogether and selling to forestry.
“Our message is to hold on, because we can see the light at the end of this tunnel,” O’Sullivan.
The latest initiative was a marketing campaign, The Campaign for Wool, aimed at raising awareness among consumers about the sustainability credentials of wool compared to synthetic fibres, to capitalise on the increasing demand for environmentally friendly products.
The Campaign for Wool is a global initiative and has the support of The Prince of Wales. The New Zealand arm is funded by New Zealand Wool Growers.
The New Zealand strategy was to work directly with architects, interior designers and government buyers to ensure wool products were considered when making decisions during building and renovation projects. For example as insulation, carpet, curtains and interior design elements, O’Sullivan said.
Construction and consumer products were where the attributes of strong wool, such as thermal properties, flame resistance, humidity control and even as padding for sound control, were best suited, he said.
Developing a suite of strong wool uses in those industries was an important part of the growth strategy, O'Sullivan.
That “will ultimately lead to higher wool prices at the farm gate, as the demand for wool products increases”, O’Sullivan said.
Examples of how wool was already being used to replace synthetics were Big Save Furniture and Woolchemy.
Big Save Furniture recently announced it was paying farmers double the market price for strong wool to use as filler, lining and covering in its beds and sofas, offering $4.50 a kilogram.
The company also bought four sheep and beef farms, totalling 3000 hectares, to ensure a steady supply of the natural fibre for its couches and beds.
Woolchemy, a company that creates sustainable non-woven materials from wool, was trialling a patented process to re-engineer wool for use in hygiene and medical products, including nappies.
Kiwi carpet-maker Cavalier last year committed to phasing out synthetics in favour of wool and natural fibres, and Wools of New Zealand had put in place a new strategy to become more consumer goods focussed, under new leadership.
O’Sullivan said farmers would begin to see the effects of the strategy in six months. There was a high-end market for wool products among discerning consumers.
Initially the focus was on the domestic market but would turn to the export market after about six months.
“Next, we’ll look to the coming decade, and beyond. We’ve already created the basis of a long-term strategy and have been actively presenting it across the wool sector.
“Although these two strategies are inextricably linked, we need government support to implement some of our wider goals,” O’Sullivan said.