The Prince of Wales has often been ridiculed for his supposedly 'wooly thinking' on the environment, spiritual meaning, and holistic medicine. But his support for actual wool is unquestioned and, far from being sheepish about the royal endorsement, the industry is loving it, says Owen Poland.
Launched by Prince Charles in 2010, the Campaign for Wool (CFW) was conceived after tenants on the Prince's estate bemoaned the poor returns for their fleece.
"The sad truth," observed the Prince, "is that around the world, farmers are leaving sheep production because the price they get for their wool is below the cost of actually shearing it." It's an all too familiar story for Kiwi farmers.
CFW New Zealand chair Stephen Fookes says market research has shown that "the message about wool has been lost" ¬– due largely to the dismantling of producer boards in Commonwealth countries. By raising awareness - especially among younger generations – the hope is that someone who wants to buy a textile product will "think of wool as first priority".
Federated Farmers Meat & Fibre chairperson, Jeanette Maxwell, says the role of Prince Charles is critically important. "There wouldn't be another figurehead I could think of that could reach across nations like that and bring unity."
So, can the Campaign for Wool help wool rediscover its mojo?
After starting out as a solely British – then Commonwealth – initiative, participation has snowballed. Twenty-two countries now contribute financially, and this year have organised promotions ranging from sheep grazing in New York's Bryant Park, to a 'Wool Modern' exhibition in Shanghai and 'yarn bombing' in Madrid. "It's about as global as you can get," says Stephen.
Increased wool prices since the campaign's launch have also fuelled growing confidence about the industry's future. Tails were certainly wagging in this part of the world when export returns surged to a 21-year high of $6,288 per tonne in 2010/11. The 16 percent gain in 2011/12 was icing on the cake.
Federated Farmers says it's convinced that wool is "on the cusp of a renaissance," but the new season has brought more sobering statistics. A slump in European demand for fine wool and a more subdued Chinese market has seen new season prices retreat to 2010 levels, with predictions of a 27 per cent drop in strong wool prices this season.
Indeed, some question whether wool can ever make a comeback given that it now generates less than two per cent of New Zealand's total exports and sheep numbers have declined so dramatically – from their peak of 70 million in 1982 to just 31 million now.
In many respects wool growers have been their own worst enemies. "We don't tell our stories; we're shocking," says Jeanette. What's clear to her is that "the status quo has failed us farmers." With no integrated supply chain, farmers have been selling to brokers without knowing whether they're selling the right product, on time, to meet market needs.
After spending years on the back foot, Jeanette says it's time to get on the front foot and remind consumers that wool is a safe and sustainable fibre that should, for instance, be widely used in the Christchurch rebuild to insulate, carpet and furnish homes and offices. However she concedes that "there's a lot of work to be done to make retailers aware of that."
At the heart of the Campaign for Wool is a collaborative approach between farmers, retailers, designers, manufacturers – and consumers – something that's been sadly lacking in recent times. CFW Global Chair John Thorley says there's an "absolute need" for a strong unified approach to promotion and marketing "if we are to regain some of the serious loss of market share which has been experienced over the last thirty years or more."
To that end, Wools of New Zealand (WNZ) has launched yet another campaign to establish a centralised promotional body that connects growers to customers.
Instead of the ambitious $65m fund-raiser which brought the Wool Partners Co-Operative unstuck two years ago - WNZ's mid-December capital-raising set a modest goal of just $5m to launch a new marketing strategy that's focused on the high value end of the market.
"This is about the sheep industry, not just the wool industry. It's about stabilising the industry and returning it to profitability," says WNZ Chairman Mark Shadbolt.
The biggest obstacle is the huge amount of confusion and apathy resulting from a downturn in prices that's driven more and more disillusioned growers out of the industry. The recent decision by Methven's historic Mt Somers Station to put on 900 cows is a case in point. Nevertheless, Mark says there are still thousands of motivated growers who believe that there is a future for wool. "We know there's a demand for it."
While he accepts that "unity is key," and the industry is "damn lucky" to have someone like the Prince leading from the front, Mark is keen to differentiate his commercial and targeted strategy from the generic Campaign for Wool.
Interestingly, Stephen Fookes claims that the CFW has created unity despite initial resistance to its generic nature. "Ninety-nine per cent of the industry is now unified behind the Campaign for Wool" he says, adding that the WNZ proposal will "live or die on its merits."
And while the future of the industry may be uncertain, Jeanette says Wools of New Zealand is an opportunity for farmers to invest in the industry beyond the farm gate. "Sometimes you've just got to be brave," she says.
This story originally appeared in Primary magazine. Click here to subscribe.