Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A townie's thoughts on the wool industry crisis

What we need is a good old-fashioned war.

Preferably, a good old-fashioned war in a place where the winters are bitterly cold – like the Korean Peninsula.

In the early 1950s, demand for wool to clothe predominantly American troops fighting the communists in Korea led to what is known, oddly enough, as the Korean wool boom.

Wool prices tripled, triggering a spectacular burst of economic growth quite unlike anything New Zealand has experienced since.

Sheep farmers wallowed in their sudden wealth. I recall the wool boom inspiring schoolboy jokes such as: Why do cockies insist on having glass partitions behind the front seats of their Rolls-Royces? Answer: So their sheepdogs can’t lick them while they’re driving.

Alas, it didn’t last. Sheep numbers continued to multiply, encouraged by the Muldoon government’s crazy subsidies in the 1970s, but with little regard for market realities.

Synthetic fabrics began to eat into wool’s share of the all-important carpet market. Farmers took a massive hit in the 1980s when the fourth Labour government sensibly, if brutally, kicked away the subsidies that had been propping up the rural sector.

These days the wool industry that drove the economic boom of the prosperous 1950s is in a dire state. Farmers still have to get their sheep shorn, but the wool cheque barely covers the cost of hiring a shearing gang.

Synthetics have been the ruination of the wool sector. Even farmers wear them.

Now, probably to no one’s great surprise, farmers - frustrated and impatient after years of poor returns - have voted to end the levy that funded the wool component of the work done by Meat and Wool New Zealand. As the estimable Jon Morgan reports in this morning’s Dominion Post, that means more than $11 million earmarked for research, workshops, training and the gathering of breeding and production statistics will not be available.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of nails being driven into a coffin.

The vote by farmers followed weeks of intense lobbying by supporters and opponents of the levy. Now those who argued for the levy's retention are asking questions such as: “Who’s going to train the shearers of the future?”

The crisis in the wool sector coincides with continuing – you could almost say chronic – breast-beating over the apparent inability of the New Zealand meat industry to get its act together and attack overseas markets in a co-ordinated fashion. Our farmers are arguably the world’s most efficient producers of prime lamb and beef but it all starts going to pieces the moment the stock are carted off through the farm gates.

Ironically, today’s paper also carried a story about Wairarapa shearing legend Laurie Keats, who has just been named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Keats was the inspiration behind the Golden Shears competition, still going strong after 48 years, and was the driving force behind the National Shearing and Woolhandling Museum in Masterton.

That word “museum” suddenly seems sadly apposite. Future generations of parents may have to explain to their children what wool was.

One shouldn’t be flippant about serious issues, which this undoubtedly is. But I wonder if any farmer has thought about getting a few mates together and heading over to the Korean demilitarised zone, where trigger-happy North Korean troops eyeball American forces over the 38th parallel.

The cockies could fill their backpacks with choice clumps of New Zealand sheep shit, carefully compacted for ease of throwing. They could visit the demilitarised zone on the pretext of being just another group of curious tourists. Then, at a pre-arranged moment – ideally while sheltering behind heavily armed border guards – they could fling their odious missiles at the North Koreans on the other side, preferably accompanying them with vile insults in Korean which they would have learned beforehand. Then all they would have to do is duck and scurry back to their bus, dodging the flying bullets.

They would need to do this just before the onset of winter. Problem solved. They would be feted on their return as national heroes.

1 comment:

homepaddock said...

Are you sure the uniforms, blankets and what ever else wool was used for during the war in the 1950s hasn't been replaced by synthetics too?

You haven't quite convinced me that a wool boom would justify starting hostilities and it definitely wouldn't do to unleash the forces of war if all it did was boost sales of synthetics.