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The export ‘scandal’ you are not hearing about

The export ‘scandal’ you are not hearing about

Bruce Wills is the President of Federated Farmers

“The New Zealand wool industry is currently weak and fragmented to the point of being dysfunctional,” writes Sandra Faulkner in her just released Nuffield Farming Scholarship report. These words could come from the lips of many a strong wool grower.

Wool was once New Zealand’s most valuable and visible export. It was up until recently what dairying has become today. How things have changed with it down to less than two percent of all exports. If this implosion was a deficient payroll system Campbell Live would be all over it like a rash. If it was ‘asset sales,’ then I imagine Morning Report and shows like 60-Minutes, Q+A, Sunday and The Nation, let alone the newspapers, would provide scrutiny.

The absence of any national discussion about meat, but especially wool, speaks volumes about what our media chooses to cover and what drives our economy.

With job creation so vital why is sheep meat and strong wool the proverbial C- student, the one with all the potential ‘but must try harder.’ I am not talking about Merino and Mohair where there is growing organisation and collegiality similar to the dairy industry. The problem child of New Zealand farming is sheep meat but more precisely strong wool; what consumers mostly know as carpet among other products.

You may have the impression that the ‘Decline and Fall of Wool’ has been glacial but its rapid unwinding is stunningly recent. As late as October 2004, exports of meat, hides and wool still outpointed dairy and casein. In percentages back then, meat generated 93 percent of dairy’s export value with wool being 12.5 percent. Step forward to October 2012 and the relativity of meat to dairy was 45 percent with wool down to 5.8 percent. Exports of meat, hides and wool now generate just over half of dairying’s $12.5 billion in exports.

It is perhaps the biggest missed opportunity for ‘NZ Inc’ you have never heard about.

Today, New Zealand would be $6.8 billion better off if meat and wool had somehow maintained 2004 relativities to dairy. Admittedly, I have put land-use intensification to one side but this sum is greater than the combined exports of crude oil, mechanical items, electrical exports, aluminium and even, iron and steel.

Can anyone tell me how this has escaped wide media or political attention?

To be fair, Labour and National Ministers for the Primary Industries have tried but this violent unwinding of meat and wool has not been an issue much outside the industry and the rural media.

It is why I am astonished the Wools of New Zealand proposal has received so little national news coverage or analysis. On Monday 25 February 2013, their offer to wool growers will close in what is a farmer version of ‘Dragons Den.’ Wools of New Zealand aims to raise $10 million from strong wool growers to pursue international marketing and sales opportunities. While $5 million may be enough to get it over the line, farmers in return will get a slice of the company and exposure to value-added wool ‘beyond the farm gate’.

In looking forward strong wool farmers like me have a big choice; without a wool levy we can either leave it to chance or take the ram by the horns.

As a ‘farmer’ I have put my money where my mouth is and shared up. As a ‘farmer’ I challenge my colleagues to call 0800 687 9665 or go to and make a decision. Speaking as the President of Federated Farmers, this is an individual decision in a desperately tough season financially and climatically.

It is not the only company seeking farmer involvement beyond the farm gate as there is also the farmer owned cooperative; Elders Primary Wool. My point is that we need to stand united and take our industry back. That means involvement beyond our farm gate because wools incremental losses will only keep mounting if we do nothing.

For wool growers and indeed our economy this issue is serious when so many young are out of work. This is why it was a genuine pleasure to write the foreword to Sandra Faulkner’s report. It is provocative and well researched. It rightly looks forward and not backwards because we all know that wool is a fabulous ‘green’ product.

We know wool is natural, renewable and nowadays, recyclable. We also know wool has excellent fire protection and health properties. What homeowners, architects and construction companies don’t seem to know is that it is a product which keeps sheep on farms and Kiwis in the type of jobs lost recently in Oamaru.

With ‘green’ wool going backwards, it has me seriously asking if green consumerism is real or marketing hyperbole. As the Christchurch rebuild will need two million square metres of floorcoverings by 2016, what is being done to promote ‘green’ woollen carpets and wool insulation?

Federated Farmers is asking these questions with sheep numbers halving over the past thirty years. Without reasonable returns from wool or meat who can blame farmers for choosing more viable land uses. I also endorse what Sandra Faulkner has shown me in her report; the need for collective grower investment, the need to support the ‘Campaign for Wool’, the need for government to do its bit too.

And most importantly, the need for us growers to take ownership.


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