Recent videos circulated online by animal rights campaigners depicting abuse to sheep stunned and saddened Federated Farmers. While the images have been rightly condemned, it's also unfortunate timing as one of New Zealand's iconic industries contemplates the re-introduction of a wool levy. John Donnachie reports on why sheep farmers should vote and how the levy could counter such attacks.
Wool and its products are synonymous with all things New Zealand and globally renowned for quality and finesse. Back in the day when the nation was conceived, wool was our principal export and this period was undoubtedly the industry's greatest hour.
Nowadays, the wool sector is no longer so dominant, accounting for less than 3 per cent of our total exports though that figure can be misleading when one considers the value of wool exports to be $700 million annually.
We also remain the world's second-largest wool exporter at 20 per cent of total volume, with the average value of our raw wool exports climbing markedly by 38 per cent since 2010.
The industry however, like others associated with the primary industries, faces challenges to unite and innovate to remain competitive and to protect itself from unwarranted abuse and conjecture.
This was the case, with a recent campaign by the US based PETA: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, where explicit videos were sent overseas of shearers apparently abusing sheep while advising retailers not to sell wool products. This has alarmed and angered sheep growers here.
In Australia where the footage originated, the RSPCA has joined others in condemning PETA's filming in shearing sheds and claims of widespread abuse, given they failed to immediately report it to the farmer, the shearing contractor or the proper authorities including the RSPCA.
The Australian Ministry for Agriculture has also questioned why PETA spent two years compiling the footage but at no stage presented their findings to the relevant authorities, leaving no basis for a prosecution.
It appears PETA's goal "is to portray the exceptional as the generality to discredit the whole industry," said a Ministry spokesman.
Federated Farmers views PETA's actions and their extreme vitriol as vindictive as it demonises the entire wool industry.
The Federation's meat and fibre chairperson, Rick Powdrell, is livid and considers PETA's campaign as an outrageous attack on a globally renowned Kiwi institution.
"You've got a group that is trying to say that a natural, renewable and sustainable fibre is akin to animal abuse. We shear because it's good for animal welfare. If we didn't our sheep would suffer horribly from heat or fly-strike.
"PETA reckon they are all about ethics but they are using soft porn and scantily clad women to promote and sell their agenda.
"This is nothing but tacky, unlike New Zealand wool which is a genuine global brand recognised for having standards," he said.
New Zealand Merino expressed their regret at the images but also dismay at the vile sentiment voiced by PETA.
This scenario was a "timely reminder" for the wool industry on how swiftly "the rate and distance of threats to our reputation can travel."
It also illustrated to the sector "the need for validation of best practice and anticipation of what might be coming over the horizon."
The Merino industry had introduced the ZQ accreditation programme to protect growers and brand partners. They had also instigated random third-party audits in sheds this season.
They strongly believed in having a "market-linked model" where wool growers, stakeholders and brand partners worked together to protect reputations.
Unwarranted negative publicity aside, the wool industry is in need of transformation, something to lift its intrinsic value which has been understated and left to fluctuate in a competitive global market. Even in New Zealand, wool products and its benefits are often overlooked. A major retirement village operator demonstrated this recently when it chose to carpet its homes with nylon rather than wool.
And while we remain the world's second-largest wool exporter, supplying 45 per cent of the planet's wool, the industry has no industry groups compared to other primary sector groups.
There is no industry good body pushing the wool industry's cause and the sector is not helped by limited market access and promotion options.
This needs to be addressed soon -- with the Trans-Pacific Partnership evolving, there stands a unique opportunity for wool growers.
Federated Farmers' supports the philosophy behind regenerating one of our most iconic industries and is championing the wool industry cause by playing a significant role in devising the upcoming wool levy referendum.
The Federation's Sandra Faulkner is the wool levy group chair, and is calling on all 13,000 eligible sheep farmers to vote: "Wool should be our first choice, it is the fibre of the future and this referendum is the industry's chance to make a difference to its future.
"We need a collective voice to educate, innovate and invest in our industry's future. This way we can also protect our livelihoods from crude and malicious organisations like PETA."
The wool levy referendum takes place on October 10, and asks wool producers to back a new industry good body that will be funded by a levy on each kilogram of wool, at the first point of sale.
Waikato meat and fibre chairperson Chris Irons said it is important farmers get informed and vote. The previous levy in 2009 ended, but times were different and the opportunities greater.
"This levy is focused on providing an overview and industry investment in research and development, leveraging off government industry funding. It provides a shared vision for the sector, being a point of initial contact for pan-industry information, providing a sounding board for governing bodies as well as corporations and institutions."
Mr Irons said it would also assist with trade policy and negotiation: "We will gain market access with reduced barriers to entry, helping us meet our international obligations to global industry good activity alongside other wool producing nations."
The levy referendum was long overdue and potential levy cost would be less than what was advocated five years ago: "We want to inspire and invigorate the new generations of wool growers who are not currently engaging or influencing the direction of the wool industry.
"With 154,000 tonnes of wool produced in New Zealand each year, we are looking at a potential $4.6 million, based on three cents per kilogram levy."
The market pull and international demand for wool is still evident ,with the likes of Italian fashion heavyweights Dolce & Gabbana placing orders directly with New Zealand wool producers, while our own top-end designers chose the product over synthetics.
Federated Farmers meat and fibre policy advisor, Sarah Crofoot, said it was time for the industry to show some backbone, and the levy referendum was a perfect forum.
Miss Crofoot said the wool industry had been hamstrung since it elected to drop the levy in 2009. As a consequence, the industry lost vital research and funding, with the Government withdrawing millions of dollars of support.
She said: "If you don't support yourself why would you expect anyone else to invest in you?
UNDER PRESSURE: The wool industry faces challenges to unite and innovate to remain competitive globally.
"It's like investing in repairs, maintenance or insurance. You don't necessarily get higher returns for that outlay but, in five years' time you might wish you had made the investment, as the industry could be worse off."
This was not a commercial initiative, it was about funding an industry body which could look after the interests of farmers by pooling resources together- something individual farmers are unlikely to achieve.
Miss Crofoot also sees merit in getting an ever growing urban population, largely detached from farming, back on board with education initiatives.
"We really need to revisit the attributes of wool. There is a generation out there who have no understanding and have never been exposed to sheep and where wool comes from. This might come as a surprise to farmers but there are actually people who believe you have to kill sheep to get the wool!"
The New Zealand Shearing Association is backing the levy referendum. President Jamie McConachie said "From our point of view it is a positive thing. Lots of farmers are mindful about the costs and what it is about but, quite frankly, this is fantastic."
The referendum and the opportunity to establish an industry good body "couldn't come quick enough". Sheep farmers were by nature positive and dynamic and it promises to be a healthy turnout to vote.
It was the time for sheep farmers to seize back control of their industry, so "sitting back and not voting" was not the smart option, said Mr McConachie.
Wairarapa-based Golden Shears gives the referendum and the prospect of a levy the thumbs-up. A spokesman revealed that members had not been canvassed but he said "It should go ahead and most farmers will fully support it."
Federated Farmers' Marlborough president, Greg Harris, said a wool levy would potentially secure the industry's future.
"Our industry should be managed efficiently by an over-arching body to ensure the collective good for wool. It takes good custodianship and stockmanship along with supporting science and technological advancements to remain efficient and competitive wool producers.
"We must have a strong mandate from wool-growing producers, along with a vision and constitution that embodies transparency and accountability, to prevent the antagonisms that have plagued the industry.
"Our industry is in a different place today, what we need is activities based around communication, education and innovation, and this levy is about providing that," he said.
Mrs Faulkner said: "Voting is the expression of commitment to ourselves and our industry, no matter which box you tick, farmers need to ensure they are informed this October, and use their right to vote."