More Jobs Lost From Struggling Sheep Industry

When I last attended a Federated Farmers meeting a farmer, when hearing I was a Green Party spokesperson, asked me aggressively when I had last set foot on a farm. I had to agree that it had been a few months and I don't pretend to be a farming expert. I spent my childhood in a farming community and for a number of years taught in country schools. I was even the vice president and newsletter editor of a Young Farmers Club. I talk a lot to farmers and am genuinely interested in what they do and the difficulties they have. Despite all of this there is still much that I don't fully understand, especially the slow demise of our sheep industry.

New Zealand was once best known as the land of the sheep and Aussies had a name for us related to this. When I was younger and lived at Bluff there were a number of thriving freezing works in Southland, including the local one, Ocean Beach. The impressive "meat loaders" at the Port of Bluff enabled thousands of meat carcasses to be loaded onto ships and employment in this industry was so strong that many people shifted down here for jobs.

In the 60s and 70s homes covered their floors with an Axminster or a Bremworth, all with that wonderful wool symbol on the corner. Kids went to school in Winter with knitted jerseys made by their mum or grandma. Our paddocks will full of Romneys or Border Leicesters, with Merino's wandering our hill country and Sunday dinner was always a mutton roast. What we farmed, ate, walked on and wore was dominated by the sheep.

Recently we looked at buying a new carpet and were shown the range available in one shop. It has been sometime since I have bought a carpet so I naively wanted confirmation that all we had looked at were made of wool. It turned out none of them were and although they had some woollen carpets most were synthetic. You rarely see kids wearing wool at school now and many are shivering in cheap Chinese sweatshirts on frosty Winter days. It is now cheaper to buy such garments than knit something. The Sunday roast is probably a forgotten and largely historical part of our social history (I can hear the Vegans cheering in the background).

The Ocean Beach Freezing Works (1891-1991) has long closed and others are in the process of downsizing and we have recently lost a number of woollen mills in Christchurch, Milton and Oamaru. Hundreds of jobs are being lost and smaller communities are losing their largest employers.

I have an idea why this has happened but farmers have told me that the old Wool Board has struggled to be as effective as Fonterra has been for the milk industry. The Wool Board and its marketing arm Wools of New Zealand no longer dominate and lead the New Zealand wool industry as we now have New Zealand Wool Services International as our largest wool exporter but is 75% owned by the Melbourne based company Lempriere. Most of the wool clip leaves New Zealand in a greasy, scoured or slipe form, only 10% is fully processed in New Zealand or made into yarn (and now probably even less with the closure of the mills).

Our lamb and mutton exports have also suffered since their heyday in the 60s when we exported around 150,000 tonnes (170,000 tons) of lamb a year compared to the 2011-12 year when less than 10,000 tonnes were exported. I do understand that we lost a major market when Britain joined the Common Market, but it is incredible how little is now exported.

What I have difficulty understanding is how our Government has stood aside and watched what was a core industry slowly die because of haphazard marketing and international branding, loss of local control and a high dollar (which is largely behind the mill closures). Green party Co-Leader Metira Turei chastised the Government for the loss of the jobs because of  a "...devotion to a failed monetary policy and its unwillingness to change with the times."

The advantages and potential of wool as clothing, carpets and for furnishing are compelling and the likes of Icebreaker and Swanndri have proven a demand for good woollen products, even if they have outsourced their manufacture. It appalls me that the Government is pulling out all stops to support dairy expansion with new irrigation schemes and enthusiastically promoting coal mining while our traditional industries languish through lack of support rather than lack of potential.

When Dr Ganesh Nana presented BERLs Report on potential growth areas for Southland's economy, dairying didn't feature. When questioned about this Dr Nana suggested putting all of our energy into only one agricultural industry didn't make economic sense. "How many dairy farms are enough?" he asked. There is economic strength and resilience in diversity.

Obviously much blame can be laid at the feet of the wool and meat industries themselves but I do wonder why so little has come from the Government, especially when thousands of jobs will be lost. Its reliance on milk rather than supporting a diverse and innovative agricultural economy is dangerous, as was recently shown with the DCD scare. If our milk exports fall over because of international perceptions of a health risk, no matter how false, it would be the death nell for our already struggling, under developed economy.


Robina Rickard said…
Diversification is the Key for Southland YES. Society is reactive to changes and few innovators lead the way forward with Sheep in reality. Costs have risen high for our sector with little revenue. We're sheep & beef, as it compliments our land and farming operation. Like to see more accountability in Agriculture Industry. We're shareholders with two of the main meat works. Management styles worry me, with now very agressive competition with each other being very distracting and failing farmers. Ugly corporate behaviour by A particular Co. needs a whole new board, get rid of OLD style antics and boys club attitudes. We don't wish to amalgamate with guys currently at the helm, I'd rather jump ship altogether. Watching A particular Company dog it's workers in so many ways has been appalling. Some 30% of redundancy and the shares is another story. Disappointing to be A shareholder.

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