"Being the best whale hunters in the world didn't protect the whaling fleets."
That comment from Climate Commission chair Rod Carr about New Zealand's low-emission beef and dairy production, has Manawatu farmer Pete Fitz-Herbert thinking about the future of the wool industry:
In the future - will farmers be seen as whalers are now?
How long, before the last whale was harpooned off the coast, was the writing on the wall that it wasn't the career choice that it once was?
Strange thought for a sheep farmer to have; but it followed a realisation that the most expensive way to diagnose sea sickness in young children is to take them whale watching.
So there I was, looking at a whale, holding a paper bag of vomit, comforting a child and questioning my career and holiday choices. It was also now clear to me that dolphins are my favourite marine mammals.
We look back now at whaling and I'm not sure what your average New Zealander thinks, but we are vocal about the Japanese whaling programmes.
We created The Marine Mammals protection act in 1978 and now have an entire industry off the coast for tourism.
But did the market for products from whales disappear first?
I have a feeling whaling had stopped before we conveniently banned it.
That it was economic signals - not feel good vibes about sentient beings - that signalled the end to an industry.
But back to my question, is sheep farming on the way to joining whaling in the future?
Or more specifically, is the back of the sheep that carried and developed New Zealand about to become extinct?
Wool - the dual purpose component of the sheep and the former jewel of the export industry - may be about to disappear.
(Not that I wish to dig a hole and get side-tracked discussing farting and burping ruminants that every vegan and climate change bandwagon jumper would love to ban ahead of the market signals).
But here I was on holiday, in the small window of opportunity between lamb drafts, after school finished, and before I had to start shearing.
(Someone has since pointed out that this was actually what most people call a long weekend not a holiday).
Being off the farm gives me perspective, and left me wondering why I was rushing back to remove a product - wool - that is lacking the value that it should demand.
But what are the other options?
We have spent 8000 years of human history breeding woolly sheep. Is it going to be 30 years without intervention until they are only meat producers?
I have had conversations about changing to genetics that eventually result in sheep without wool - but I don't think I can do it just yet.
Why? Good question.
In the first instance, I am risk averse to chasing a trend and there is nothing trendier than Wiltshire ewe lambs that shed their fleece right now - like A2 milk shares last year.
Now I know I started with whaling as my example, but imagine if we were whalers that had the support of our government, like Japan continues to support their industry.
Not a super-palatable thought for most people.
Most think of whales as creatures being described by David Attenborough, but up close they look more like a large lump of playdough that can hold its breath.
Ok, maybe not worth arguing along those lines - but the example I have been using is champagne. It's not just bubbly grape juice.
It's a story, its product produced to the exact rules defined in its appellation (google that word I just discovered it), it's protected by countries, treaties and world trade rules.
Every time the subject of moving away from wool on a sheep's back comes up, I ask people this:
If a vineyard in the region of Champagne was about to rip out the vines because of any number of economic challenges, would people, or the government, step in?
In the same way these small islands in the South Pacific are the best growers of wool in the world.
A product that has everything going for it in a world of mega trends that it can fit into.
Here, I will say it, the mighty Manawatu should be known as the Champagne of the strong wool world.
But instead, our premium carbon harvesting facilities, or woolsheds, are being transformed into novelty wedding venues and derelict structures - similar to the old whaling station along the coast.
Now we are in a position where the wool cheque, combined with positive thoughts and a participation medal, won't pay for the shearing. It's leaving a hole in farmers' budgets too big to dump the dags in.
The wool industry is endangered because we stopped talking to our consumers, or maybe they stopped listening, over the last couple of decades.
Wool has a story in every fibre, from the weather to the genetics of the sheep that grew it on its back - they are imperfect, but unique.
For too long consumers have chosen the perfectly extruded man-made products dosed in flame retardant over our natural alternatives.
But for how long will the option exist? At the moment, it looks like I will be working though a few more public holidays.
- Pete Fitz-Herbert is a Manawatu farmer and former finalist in the FMG Young Farmer of the year contest.