About 40 WA woolgrowers attended an Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) meeting in Darkan last week, having the opportunity to connect and converse with some of the faces overseeing the organisation.
The meeting was a part of AWI's 'Wool Trip West', where the AWI team travelled from Sydney to WA to visit Katanning, and the Rylington Park Institute for Agricultural Training and Research, sharing information and offering demonstrations, and to meet with growers onfarm.
The evening session was a chance for the shareholders to ask questions about the projects and issues their levies go towards.
QUESTION: Where are we at with on-shore wool processing?
ANSWER: AWI chief executive officer John Roberts said Australia had become reliant on China for raw wool processing.
"We've been very lucky to have China service us as customers for as long as they have," Mr Roberts said.
"China is not as cheap as it used to be, there are other markets that are evolving."
Mr Roberts mentioned a feasibility study supported by the Federal government, worth more than $500,000 and supported by AWI, which was currently underway.
The study looked at the potential of new market opportunities for both onshore and offshore wool processing.
Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam appeared to show potential for inexpensive wool processing.
AWI chairman Jock Laurie added there was a global lack of viable machinery which could be used to process wool.
"If you want to shift into another market elsewhere, you need machinery," Mr Laurie said.
"Because there's a lack of viable machinery, you've got to buy it, which is a huge investment.
"You've then got to be competitive labour-wise, energy-wise.
"We can develop something in Australia, first we need someone to invest to buy the machinery, then they've got to go out into the market and buy wool, or you've got to have woolgrowers who are committed to supply wool to them at a price where they can drive an outcome.
"It's a really complex beast, the free market seems to determine where things end up."
Mr Laurie said if the technology to operate a sustainable mill in Australia existed, then it would appear in the report of the feasibility study, however it would still require backing from investors.
He also referenced national and international politics and markets, issues around the cost and availability of labour and environmental standards all added risk to investments.
"We have to reach into our own pockets," Mr Laurie said.
Outgoing AWI WA board director David Webster said even if Australia did process its own wool, it would likely be met with tariffs at export borders.
Q: Do we really have quality control over our products?
A: An attendee stated the quality of products labelled as using Australian wool can be lost during off-shore processing, where it could be mixed with other fibres of lower quality.
She said she was concerned this would affect the reputation of Australian wool - and when these products come at a premium price, this reputation and level of integrity needed to be maintained.
Mr Roberts said the Woolmark logo added some reassurance to consumers, which carries high standards which must be met.
He said it was the onus of the individual brand to risk their reputation by producing and selling a low quality product
Q: Are we as clean and green as we say we are?
A: "Let's tell them how green we think we are," Mr Roberts said.
"What are the things you do everyday that you're proud of?
"If we don't start tendering our case, we're going to be told what clean and green means."
Mr Roberts warned if growers didn't highlight their current sustainability practice, the standards would get taken out of the hands of farmers and into those who aren't sympathetic towards agriculture.
"I think everyone is sort of grappling with what this (sustainability) means, and they set themselves targets but they actually don't actually have a version of it yet," he said.
"I think there's an opportunity to tell them our version of sustainability."
Mr Laurie said, "one of the things we have not been good at as an industry is selling ourselves and showing what we've done".
Q: Where does AWI stand on the mulesing debate?
A: The AWI panel expressed several times throughout the forum that the organisation could have no involvement when it comes to policy or legislation.
"Woolgrowers representative groups need to deal with policy around mulesing," Mr Laurie said.
"We will provide you with all the tools that you need to go from a mules to a non-mules if you want to.
"We will provide you with everything we possibly can around management.
"You make up your own mind."
Mr Laurie said AWI was able to provide information on market signals.
He said there were currently some markets which either demand or prefer wool with non-mulesing practices, for example in the United States, however in north east Asian markets, this hasn't been a focus.
China, for example, tends to prioritise sustainability over animal welfare practices.
There is a demand for both mules and non-mules wool, as well as regular and premium prices for both products.
Mr Laurie said it was up to the individual grower to factor international market signals into their business practices, and for them to decide if it was going to be worthwhile to continue or switch practices.
Q: Is there enough funding to put wool education into city schools?
A: One attendee said her daughter, who is a student at a Perth boarding school, has had to "constantly defend herself and the family business" from other students and teachers with strong views on animal welfare.
The attendee also raised that agricultural colleges were oversubscribed, and said she felt schools didn't focus enough on agricultural based trades, such as shearing.
Mr Roberts referenced the 'Wool4School' program, which is run by The Woolmark Company.
The program involves a fashion design competition aimed at school aged students, to encourage budding fashion designers to think about how wool can be used in the fashion industry.
Mr Roberts said the funding towards school-based education only focused on the basics of wool, and not information such as the sustainable attributes of wool.
"The vehicle to do that education is there, maybe we need to enrich it a bit more," he said.
Elders wool representative and WA Wool Tag committee member Sarah Buscumb said she was happy with the level of shearer and shed hand training currently on offer in the State.
She said that the WA Wool Tag Group, who oversees industry training and employment, were actively looking to expand into Perth metropolitan schools.
"To me, that's the grassroots level of getting in and understanding what the sheep and wool industry is," Ms Buscumb said.
"If you want to stay in farming, you need shearers and shed hands, and they need to understand what your industry is.
"AWI has invested heavily into training, the training is probably in the best position I have seen for shearer and shed hand training, and they're trying to bring that into schools.
"It's working, we're seeing evidence of that now, we're seeing 14 and 15 year-olds working in their holidays, they're being trained by AWI trainers.
"They're out there, and it's a pretty positive vibe at the moment."
Mr Laurie said in terms of adding agricultural subjects into the school curriculums, the Primary Industry Education Foundation Australia was formed in 2008 to try and address this very problem.
"I can tell you this from experience, it's been extremely difficult when talking to Federal and State education dept to get them to change their curriculum to incorporate an agricultural component," Mr Laurie said.
"That work is ongoing."
Q: Where are we at with bio-harvesting wool?
A: AWI has been working with the University of Adelaide for two and a half years on bio-harvesting wool.
A particular type of protein extracted from legumes can be put into food, injected or used in a drench, creating a break in the wool.
"With the old biotech, you'd have to stick a net on it (the sheep) to keep the wool on, but with this stuff you don't - the wool stays in place," Mr Laurie said.
The research is looking at the best methods of delivering the protein to the sheep, as well as collecting data to gain various approvals.
Research into mechanical removal of the wool will also be underway shortly.
"It will be another four or five years to get those approvals and the technology ready to go," Mr Laurie said.
"At this stage it's looking very promising.
"This is not going to turn around and shear all the sheep around Australia, but what it will do is provide people with another option.
"We are committed to investing in it, and it will be registered and right to use if we get into a situation where we have a shortage of shearers again in the future, we will have a shelf ready product ready to pick up and go."
Mr Roberts said the fact that bio-harvesting of wool was expected to be less labour intensive, meant it would keep older farmers harvesting wool for longer and provide a level of reassurance during an ageing labour market.
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