Low financial returns have pitched the New Zealand crossbred wool industry into a crisis, a leading grower says.
Sales of merino wool were doing fine, but these represented less than 15 per cent of our national wool clip, with most of the country not high and dry enough to run merino sheep.
In contrast, returns from coarser crossbred wool were so low, many farmers found it barely worth taking their quadbikes out of the shed.
Campaign for Wool NZ Trust chairperson Renata Apatu, in particular, paints a grim picture.
Apatu, whose family has farmed sheep at Ngamatea Station in the Central North Island for generations, produces a clip of 1000 bales of crossbred greasy wool.
Part of this clip is processed into bespoke monogrammed rugs for Learjets and super-yachts, but overall the farm is feeling the effects of the low commodity price for wool in China.
"Crossbred wool returns are in a kamikaze dive — we've seen returns plummet from wool making to about 70 per cent of our income to under 10 per cent at present," he says.
"We've had a good year with manuka honey, which we will actually make more money out of than wool this year.
"As a wool producer, a certified classer and somebody passionate about the fibre, I find all this difficult to grapple with. I fear is the effect of the balance being tipped any further against production, for wool production a relatively difficult and specialised form of farming, demanding training, experience and investment to do well."
Apatu is encouraged many wise heads and innovators are getting behind New Zealand wool.
He hopes for new era of manufacturing, reliant on sophisticated robotic production methods, which could supply a wide range niche woollen goods to a world hungry for sustainable products.
"But even so, let's be clear that matters have reached a critical point; the race is now on to reconnect with consumers, using wool in products that maximises its incredible properties," he says.
"Farmers will either receive the support required from consumers and Central Government, in order to continue this unique Kiwi form of farming — and the wonderful product it produces — or they'll face a very dim future indeed."
The national sheep flock has already plummeted from a peak of more than 70 million during the 1980s, to less than 27 million.
Federated Farmers meat & fibre industry group chairperson Miles Anderson said meat had been carrying the sheep industry for years, with many farmers regarding annual shearing more of an animal welfare responsibility than a money earner.
"Yet our crossbred wool is a wonder product — every single kilogram of wool retires the equivalent of 1.8kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere," he says.
"Wool is renowned as a fire retardant; it breathes in moisture from damp air, releasing it again when temperatures rise; it is easy to clean; superbly warm and — for most of us — non-allergenic.
"Modern weaving techniques can make crossbreds comfortable to wear against your skin, and the range of garments they go into is amazing."
Anderson said the fire which destroyed Grenfell Tower, claiming 71 lives, would likely have spread less rapidly had the building been fitted with woollen carpets and insulation.
But in contrast to wool, Anderson said petroleum-based synthetics shed micro-fibres into earth, air and sea.
"These can enter the food chain, with consequences to health not fully grasped. When wool decomposes it adds no pollution to earth at all — only a useful organic fertiliser."
He admitted a mistake was made years ago when farmers scrapped a levy toward research and development and marketing of wool.
Without the previous government-backed NZ Wool Board and lacking marketing might behind the likes of farmer-funded Zespri and Fonterra, crossbred wools were not promoted on the international stage.
But low profitability had also stymied the private sector's ability to promote wool adequately in other countries, he said.
"For example, the oil industry spends US$120 million into lobbying politicians in the United States annually, I'm told the budget available for wool growers to do the same is measured in the hundreds of thousands."
Yet Anderson said the environment would be worse off with less sheep farming.
As well as being carbon sinks, sheep chew through thousands of tonnes of weeds each year. These exotic plants would soon over-run hill country were sheep to be removed, he said.
"As smaller, lighter animals than cattle, sheep put less pressure on soils, causing less erosion. Cows are attracted to streams but as poor swimmers sheep tend to avoid them and the waste from sheep adds vastly lower levels of nutrients to waterways."
He said sheep will always be farmed for meat but, without a viable wool industry much of what is now sheep country would likely be used to run finish cattle, which demand far less care from farmers.
"Also, if wool were to effectively collapse, we could also expect hillier pasture to be retired for pine plantations.
"On the large scale, this kind of monoculture can spell disaster for small rural communities. The employment of a few tree planters, pruners and timber harvesters will never offset the quantities of pastoral farmers and contractors required to raise sheep," Anderson said.