Wairarapa farmers determined to win over Kiwis with love of wool

The Tosswill family on their farm in Wairarapa.
The Tosswill family on their farm in Wairarapa. Photo credit: Supplied

Auckland-born Kate Tosswill never imagined she'd end up living on a farm in the Wairarapa.

Now, not only is she loving the rural life, but she's determined to prove she can overcome the odds and help Kiwis fall in love with wool again.

Tosswill, who lives with her husband and two young children on the Bagshot Farm 20 minutes from Masterton, is on a mission to breathe life back into the classic fibre that was once so important to the country's economy.

The wool industry here has faced a steady decline in recent years. With more and more people opting to buy cheaper synthetic alternatives, prices for the fibre have plummeted, leading to many farmers wondering whether it's even worthwhile producing.

"The industry as such, every time you think it can't get any worse it does," Miles Anderson, chairperson of Federated Farmers Meat & Wool Industry Group, told Newshub last month.

"It's at a stage now where the prices received don't go anywhere near matching the cost of harvesting the wool from the animals."

Prices are so low, in fact, that Anderson says many farmers might eventually be forced out of the industry.

While that situation would be enough to see many farmers turn their focus elsewhere, Tosswill views it more as a challenge to overcome.

"We have an absolute belief in the potential of wool as a fibre and if we can as an industry harness some of that potential then the future is pretty bright," Tosswill told Newshub.

"You can only complain about wool prices for so long before you start doing something about it yourself. And so that led to Hipi."

Tosswill and her husband Michael, a third-generation Wairarapa farmer, started Hipi in February this year. The company produces high-quality knitwear based on the philosophy that each step of the process - from the shearing of the sheep to the design and manufacturing of the final product - is kept local and done with passion.

Just like the farm-to table movement in the food world, Tosswill says Hipi focuses on a "slow-living approach", where a connection to the farm during the process of production is just as important as the final product.

The couple work with around 15 family-owned businesses to produce a range of woollen knitwear, says Tosswill.

Though the couple have high ambitions for Hipi, the company remains just a small part of the farm's overall business. Around 95 percent of their sheep's wool is still sold for export and the farm - which has around 6500 sheep and 250 cattle - primarily raises animals for meat.

"We're red meat producers and as part of that we produce wool, which as you well know is a loss-making product.

"But once you recognise that you need to shear your sheep for animal welfare and health and wellbeing, then it is what it is and then everything after that is an opportunity."

'A slow-living approach'

Tosswill says the reaction so far - from both the farming community and those buying the products - has been "fantastic", although she admits that at times they themselves wonder "if we've got rocks in our heads".

"From the farming side people have been stoked to see something positive happening with wool and adding value and telling that farming story in a different way, and then consumers have been surprised by the softness of the products and the weight and have really enjoyed the connection to the farm, us as farmers, the way we farm, and that whole concept of more of a simple life and slow-living approach."

Kate Tosswill says she was inspired to give the concept a go after being encouraged by fellow wool lovers at a knitting conference.
Kate Tosswill says she was inspired to give the concept a go after being encouraged by fellow wool lovers at a knitting conference. Photo credit: Suppplied

A passionate knitter herself, Tosswill says she was inspired to give the concept a go after being encouraged by fellow wool lovers at a knitting conference she attended in Napier.

And while for her the benefits of wool over synthetic materials are obvious - it's biodegradable, sustainable, warmer and needs less washing - the challenge now is to convince other Kiwis to fall in love with it too.

Craig Smith, chairman of the National Council of New Zealand Wool Interests, says it's "fantastic to see" what Hipi is doing.

Smith says with cheaper options on the markets, consumers often overlook the benefits of wool. He believes with more education, people will eventually come back to buying the classic material.

"What they're doing is getting wool back into the public eye, which is fantastic," he told Newshub.

"When we talk about products now we talk about how they're environmentally friendly and sustainable and healthy...wool covers all of that."

Although convincing Kiwis of the benefits of wool might not happen overnight, Tosswill hopes her passion and dedication will go some way to making a change - even if that means farm life remains as busy as ever.

"A fate worse than death is sitting and twiddling your thumbs, so there's certainly more than enough to get us out of bed in the morning."