Hawke's Bay is set to play a major role in the revival of the New Zealand wool industry kick-started by wool-buying moves taken by Napier-based furnishing manufacturer and retailer Big Save Furniture.
Moving away from synthetics as much as possible, the company is paying farmers $4.50kg for strong wool in which Hawke's Bay is the biggest regional producer in the World - more than double recent market lows which have seen farmers paying more for the shearing than they're getting for the wool.
The property arm of the McMinn family operation has also bought four farms in Southern Hawke's Bay in the last 12 months, about 3000 hectares of sheep and beef farming, under the Big Rural brand.
The crisis is highlighted by Campaign for Wool NZ Trust chairman Tom O'Sullivan, from Havelock North, the fourth generation of a Central Hawke's Bay sheep-farming family, one of several people from Hawke's Bay at the centre of moves to get the industry, and who says that at the height of the industry in the 1950s the farm could have been bought from "the one wool-cheque".
Among others leading the charge are National Council of New Zealand Wool Interests chairman Craig Smith, originally from Waipawa, all expecting a shift back to wool amid the synthetics domination of the fibre industry.
O'Sullivan, and Federated Farmers Hawke's Bay president Jim Galloway, express some astonishment at the lack of recognition of the qualities and benefits of wool – that it is fire resistant and biodegradable.
"Why would someone worry about getting a single plastic bag from a supermarket when the (synthetic) carpet in the average comes from the equivalent of 22,000 plastic bags," O'Sullivan said.
He said it's an "indictment" of the wool industry over many years that many of the general public remain unaware of the "the story" of wool.
O'Sullivan said the Campaign for Wool Trust, the New Zealand arm of the global Campaign for Wool, and active interest of Prince Charles, who is Patron, had been working with Big Save for more than eight months on their moving into natural wool fibre.
"We are extremely excited at the progress they are making and are keen to support them in any way we can.," he said.
Part of the story was told last month in a link with the International Wool Technology Organisation, O'Sullivan, Smith and Big Save spokesman Dan Norman all in on the webinar – seated on a Big Save sofa.
Norman told Hawke's Bay Today the response to the company's move was "fantastic", and added" "We're quite humbled actually.
A statement from Big Save, founded in 1973, says the company explored different ways of using wool and is committed to "making a difference with our impact on our environment".
It wanted to be "industry leaders," says managing director Tom McKimm, and it is now paying farmers more than double the recent market lows of under $2.
"We committed to buying wool for a fair price of $4.40kg, committed to a consistent supply agreement, and were then able to show the local wool farmers the end result – a beautiful sofa."
"With all this wool research this is only the start of using this incredible renewable fibre," he says.
The company says part of the farm-purchase decision making process was that it believes in learning and being involved in any business units from the ground up.
"There is no point in us telling farmers what to do or what we need if we are coming from an uneducated position," it said. "We believe with the right use of technology and the right mix of traditional farming methods the strong wool industry will prosper and wool will return to being a high yielding income stream for farms."
"The growth of our Big Rural Business with the purchase of our own farms show that we are totally committed to what we are doing with NZ strong wool," the company says.
Strong wool is about 85 per cent of the production from a national flock of about 27 million, but lags well behind the fine wool of the mainly South Island merino, attracting more than $20kg.