Follow the wool

Follow the wool

With assistance from the wool industry, two Young Farming Champions have followed the wool supply chain overseas.

Little lambs are cute and shearing is entrenched in our culture, but in Australia the story of this remarkable fibre often ends with greasy wool at the wharves.

Gaining an understanding of the complete supply chain from the sheep’s back to yarn and wool products requires overseas experience. Dione Howard and Chloe Dutschke are two Young Farming Champions who have taken opportunities to follow the wool to China and Hong Kong.

The story of wool begins on properties across Australia, from the rich Riverina region where Dione (22) grew up, to the vast outback stations of South Australia where Chloe (23) works as a jillaroo. The first steps in the supply chain relate to animal health and production including all aspects of sheep husbandry, genetics and nutrition; and the intricate relationship this has with the land. Once grown, the fleeces are removed in shearing sheds and the greasy wool sold in auction houses to a dominantly export market. Wool then begins its journey overseas to be cleaned, spun, weaved and processed and China, in particular, is a dominant player. Once processed the yarn is made into garments and wool products, which are retailed around the world.

Chloe completed a Bachelor of Animal Science at the University of Adelaide in 2014 and chose to begin her career in wool at the very start of the supply chain. “I was offered a job as a jillaroo with Bendleby Pastoral in the Flinders Ranges and I thought I’d try it out for a year. But a year has led to 18 months and I am loving it,” she says. She has experienced mustering, lamb marking, crutching, shearing and wool handling and seen the sheep raised from lambs.

Dione is studying veterinary science at Charles Stuart University and is determined to learn all she can about wool’s supply chain. “What many people seem to forget is agriculture is integrated,” she says of her holiday job working with grains for Agfarm. “Even as vets, my peers and I have to know about plants and grains because nutrition is critical to animal production.”

Dione is also involved with the National Merino Challenge, both as a participant and as a volunteer. “It is the event for young people in the Merino world,” she says enthusiastically. “It allows not only for competition but networking and gives young people exposure to all aspects of the supply chain in Australia including wool handling and valuing, condition scoring of animals and feed budgeting.”

While Chloe and Dione had both developed a sound understanding of wool’s journey in Australia this is where their knowledge ended. So industry stepped in.

Flinders Merino is a woolgrowers group that sponsors an annual fashion award at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The award brings a student to Australia to learn about wool’s origins. In 2016 Chloe was selected by Flinders Merino to travel to Hong Kong to co-present the award and learn about the other end of the supply chain. “As well as the fashion show and presentation at the university I visited the AWI headquarters for research and development of wool products, went to Novotex where every year and every season they design wool to meet the market and spoke with one of their saleswomen for the hobby market,” she says. “They all helped my understanding of what the consumer is looking for.

“I would like to get back to Hong Kong sooner rather than later,” Chloe says as she reflects on her overseas experience. “I’ve been to the paddock and I’ve been to the shelves but I’d like to see the processing side and fill those gaps in the supply chain.”

Dione’s overseas experience was as part of an AWI pilot program called the Young Wool Grower Study Tour, which spent 10 days in China and Hong Kong watching wool go from bales to garments. 16 young people saw cleaning, weaving and dyeing of wool through to the final products on the shelves. “The fashion market is consumer driven and trends and styles change from one season to the next,” Dione says. “Animal production can’t keep up with these changes so it is important that in Australia we continue to produce a consistent, biosecure, clean and green product – and that’s where my career as a vet will be important.”

Despite the falling production of wool in Australia, Chloe is upbeat. “I think my future lies in wool,” she says. “The industry has a lot of room for growth and I feel there will be a breakthrough in consumer attitudes when they realise wool’s versatility. It can be a summer or a winter garment, can be used for sports and studies are suggesting it can even help children with eczema.”

Dione’s veterinary aspirations are to eventually specialise in sheep. “I may not be a traditional vet but rather one who gives advice to producers with healthy animals. It is a niche I would like to explore. I love the fact we don’t know all the answers but can work hard to find them out and then optimise the sheep’s growth and output to produce a quality fibre.”

Dione and Chloe are keen to share the lessons they have learnt from their industry sponsored tours and will find this expression through Art4Agriculture’s Young Farming Champions and The Archibull Prize. “The Archibull will let us tell the story of the wool supply chain to a new audience,” Dione says.

The wool industry in Australia, both at a producer level and through Australian Wool Innovation, has been instrumental in giving opportunities to young people such as Dione and Chloe so they may gain a holistic understanding of the wool supply chain. In return these future stakeholders in the industry will enhance their career prospects and, through programs such as The Merino Challenge and The Archibull Prize, will share their knowledge and experience. It is a smart investment in wool’s future.

Article first published in Leading Agriculture Issue 20 – issue20.leadingagriculture.com.au