New vision for wool sector gives struggling industry hope

The Government on Friday released its highly anticipated plan to revitalise the wool sector.

The country's wool industry has been in sharp decline in recent years, with wool prices currently at a record low.

The price farmers get from selling wool is so low, it fails to meet the cost of shearing it, with farmers calling the situation "disheartening".

Last year the Government set up the Wool Industry Project Action Group to take a deeper look at the issue and see what could be done to help it.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor on Friday described the group's findings as "grim, but accurate".

"The sector had been in a long-term decline over recent decades, which was made worse by the global trade disruption caused by COVID-19," O'Connor said.

"There’s no single idea or government policy to solve the wool sector’s problems. For this work to have real impact, greater participation and ownership by the wool sector is needed. Our challenge now is to bring the people who are really going to shift the dial together and connect them with the support they need to succeed."

Key recommendations

The report - Vision and Action for New Zealand's Wool Sector - made three recommendations to help the strong wool sector grow.

  • Develop a market-focused investment case and strategic roadmap for the strong wool sector
  • Establish the capability necessary to get the sector match fit and ready for the opportunities ahead
  • Establish a governance and coordination capability

The first recommendation urged the industry to partner with global experts to identify new opportunities for the sector and then develop an investment case for producers in New Zealand to take advantage of those opportunities.

"By putting consumers and end users at the heart of what we do and understanding their needs, we will be able to position New Zealand strong wool as the high-value natural fibre of choice," the report stated. "This will increase demand for strong wool and lift profitability for all parts of the sector."

The second recommendation focused on helping the sector "rebuild its capability" to allow it to stay agile and responsive to new opportunities. 

The report recommended the appointment of an executive officer and for the sector to undertake "immediate action" in the following areas:

  • Skills training and capability development 
  • Research and development 
  • Accreditation and standards 
  • Sector data and statistics 
  • Sector connection and coordination

The report's third recommendation was to establish a strong leadership group to represent the sector and bring together "strong market perspectives with Government".

The group would be charged with overseeing development of the industry's investment case and restoring the sector's core capabilities, among other things.

'The start of a new chapter'

Pressure has been building for some time now for the Government to do more to help the fledgling industry.

Last month Otago Farmer Amy Blaikie launched a petition demanding action on the issue, calling for New Zealand wool products to be used in public-funded buildings and KiwiBuild homes.

Others in the industry have also accused the Government of "greenwashing" - publicly lauding its commitment to the environment and yet failing to take concrete measures like order the use of sustainable Kiwi wool in public buildings.

Blaikie's petition has received more than 7000 signatures so far and O'Connor said he was "fully supportive" of using wool in public buildings when asked about the petition last week, though the report gave no suggestions the Government would issue a mandate to use wool.

Craig Smith, chair of the National Council of New Zealand Wool Interests, told Newshub he remains optimistic about the future of wool but says the report "was never going to be the golden goose that laid the golden egg".

"It's a snapshot of where the wool industry is and it's in a bad place," Smith said. "So we need to focus on that and figure out how to get out of that instead of worrying about what the report says or doesn't say."

He said although the report highlighted some positive steps forward, he was still after more from the Government.

"You've just had a report come out  - Fit For a Better World - saying we've got the best primary industries in the world, we want to be carbon zero, we want to look after our people right from the farmers all the way through to the consumer and you won't even entertain the idea of mandating a law around putting wool carpet and wool insulation in your Government buildings, schools and state housing. I think the Government really needs to stand up and take accountability for that."

The report was welcomed by Federated Farmers.

William Beetham, Federated Farmers meat and wool industry group chairman, stressed that it was never meant to outline any concrete proposals but rather create a vision for the industry to recover.

"The report that's been pulled together is about creating a vision and identifying a potential path and I think they've achieved that," Bertham told Newshub.

"It's commendable that the Government's pushed this process and has had a strong commitment to addressing the issues in the industry and has identified that."

In releasing the report O'Connor said it was "the start of a new chapter for the strong wool sector".

"While the Project Action Group’s report paints a grim, but accurate, picture of a sustained lack of investment and breakdown of wool industry structures, it outlines a vision for the sector and a way forward," he said.