For a century, the wool industry gave Australia one of the highest living standards in the world. The economy rode high on wealth from primary exports. By the 1950s, wool was synonymous with the Australian way of life. By the 1990s, the gap between city and country people was ever widening. What does the future hold for a nation that once rode the sheep’s back to prosperity?
ARCHIBALD Fisken selected the property in the late 1840s. Fisken, a hard-working Scot with dreams of a new life in a new land, decided to join his uncle on the slopes of the Great Dividing Range, just south of Ballarat.
He built the stables and the original homestead in the bush in 1858 and spent many hours tending cattle on the property. Fisken was a skilled horseman and he would drive his fat cattle the 20 kilometres to the Ballarat markets, where they would be snapped up to feed hungry miners on the booming goldfields.
Fisken couldn’t have known it then, but he was paving the way for a wool-growing dynasty on his farm, known as “Lal Lal Estate”.
The farm was eventually taken over by his son, Archibald James Fisken, then by his grandson, Archibald Clyde Fisken, and then by his great-grandson, Archibald John Fisken. Today it is owned and run by his great-great-grandson, Geoff Fisken, who bought out his own brother, Archibald, a couple of years ago. Four generations of Fiskens followed in Archibald senior’s footsteps by farming Lal Lal Estate, but they diverged significantly in one respect.
While Archibald senior raised cattle, his descendants became woolgrowers, very good ones.
The Fiskens learned quickly that the region was prime woolgrowing country. Good rainfall delivered a higher wool yield; being on a plateau atop the Great Dividing Range meant a shorter dry period over summer, less dust and a longer green period during the year that ensured pasture for the sheep and more even nutrition.
The rainfall and location combined meant the Fiskens could grow cleaner wool, less affected by seed and dust.
The Fiskens have developed a rich woolgrowing heritage in the paddocks of Lal Lal. Like his forebears, Geoff Fisken has shorn, crutched and mustered probably tens of thousands of merinos on the Yendon property.
Geoff Fisken says family history and a love of shepherding are key reasons why he became a woolgrower.
In many of Lal Lal’s paddocks, where he grazes about 12,500 merinos, the 50-year-old farmer is continuing the family’s proud woolgrowing tradition. But in other paddocks, he is breaking from it.
While wool and sheep typically produced about 90 per cent of his income up until about 20 years ago, today they deliver only about half.
Hit by a fall in the wool market in the early 1990s and then by drought, the Fiskens reduced their flock and diversified into grain and canola production, and cattle.
“We just wanted to spread our risk, I suppose,” Fisken says. “It was a way of risk management. Hopefully, if one enterprise wasn’t doing so well the other ones would, that was the theory behind it, anyway.”
The Fisken story is one that has been repeated over the past 20 years on countless woolgrowing properties. Families that have for generations made a healthy living from wool are increasingly reducing their merino flocks and turning to prime lamb meat production or to crops, or both. In some cases, they’re selling up or ditching the merino altogether.
It’s why woolgrowing in Australia is a shrinking industry. Statistics can be used to sell all kinds of different arguments, but many of the key figures pertaining to wool in recent years have all pointed in one direction down.
This financial year, the national wool clip is tipped to be 370,000 tonnes. This compares with 960,000 tonnes in the boom year of 1989-90. Since then, the clip has followed a steady downward path, dropping almost every year.
Less wool equals fewer sheep and the national flock has plummeted since numbers hit 173.8 million in 1989-90.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates the national flock at the end of 2007-08 was 79.2 million, the lowest in 88 years. It is tipped to fall to 75.8 million this year. Wool still earns the nation billions of export dollars each year, but nowadays it only just earns billions. The best export year of the past decade was 2000-01, when exports hit $3.9 billion.
According to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, wool exports in 2007-08 earned $2.8 billion. But in 2008-09 they are tipped to fall significantly to $2.22 billion. In 1988-89 they earned a whopping $6 billion.
While these figures are sobering, others can reassure people proud of Australia’s wool industry that Australia is still the dominant force in the world wool market. Australia accounted for 68.4 per cent of all raw wool exports worldwide in 2007-08.
The new chairman of the industry group Australian Wool Innovation, Wally Merriman, proudly says 85 per cent of the world’s apparel wool is produced here.
In the golden years of the wool industry it was said that Australia rode on the sheep’s back. The onset of the Korean War in the 1950s gave rise to another wool industry saying albeit one less well-known today “a pound a pound”. The war made demand for Australian wool surge as soldiers needed woollen coats to survive the freezing winters. The expression meant that woolgrowers earned a pound (in currency) for a pound (in weight) of wool grown. It was a lucrative return that today’s growers can only dream about.
Today, wool’s golden era is long gone and of the woolgrowers remaining it could be said that many are now riding on lamb chops and cutlets, wheat harvesters and tractors just as much as on the sheep’s back.
Changes in the wool industry are reflected in the make-up of farm types in Fisken’s central highlands area. While 20 years ago wool was dominant, now it’s “very line-ball” between prime lambs for meat, wool and crops, he says.
“Now we’ve got cropping country,” Fisken says. “Some of that has evolved through climate change, too, because we’ve dried out. We couldn’t grow crops before, we now can grow crops. Climate change I don’t think is a good thing, but in our case it has helped us do something that we couldn’t do quite as well before.”
He identifies another factor that he says is retarding the industry: “We are failing to attract the youth and woolgrowers are ageing. In agriculture it’s not seen as sexy, woolgrowing. Cropping uses big tractors, GPS, auto steer and all this sort of stuff and that attracts a young person.
“Woolgrowing is a little bit more physical and you’ve got to have a bit more physical strength and so forth. You’re not just sitting in an air-conditioned cab all day.”
But if woolgrowing can be physically demanding, Fisken offers another insight that perhaps could be better sold to young farmers.
“The beauty about wool is that I can go to the beach and it still grows, I can go fishing for a week and it still grows. It doesn’t take a lot of rainfall to grow wool, (but) it takes a fair bit of rainfall to grow crops. But sheep are amazing, especially the merino, it adapts very well to Australia’s arid conditions,” he says during a break from harvesting his wheat crop.
While Fisken has a lunch break sitting inside his ute, 170 kilometres to the south-west Gary Leersen sits down to lunch outside a Yuulong shearing shed. Today he’s surely working in one of the best offices in the country, a shed perched high above the picturesque Otway coast with sweeping views to the east and west. He will be paid $2.36 a sheep shorn.
Like Fisken, the 39-year-old shearer is a long-time industry participant. A shearer for 22 years, it’s both a gag and a fact when he says of the industry: “I see it from each end.”
When he’s not sweating in Western District shearing sheds, he can be found in a shop he owns with his wife in Colac, Ramrods Cool Wool.
If it’s made from wool and it can be worn, the Leersens sell it everything from boots, hats and scarves, to jumpers, underwear and socks.
Asked to assess the health of the industry, a tone of disappointment is evident in his voice. “I don’t think it’s probably very healthy, actually. I don’t know why, there’s a lot of goodwill out there and it’s a good product, but wool is down at the moment and so farmers are just moving more into crossbreds. In terms of the meat industry, mutton and lamb, they’re getting good money for lamb and not so good for the wool.
“The way I see it, the farmers are getting (paid) crap for their wool. Knitters and spinners are driving around in Porsches and farmers in old Holden utes. But I don’t know how to change it.”
A doctor of agricultural economics, Caroline Gunning-Trant, speaks with commonsense, a Canadian accent and an encyclopedic knowledge of the economics of the wool industry. She is the wool analyst at ABARE and sees an industry in transformation.
She says wool production has declined because of the decline in flock size, reduced wool prices, severe drought and woolgrowers increasingly turning to other types of farming.
Gunning-Trant believes the number of alternative fibres to wool and the type of disposable culture we live in mean the industry won’t return to the boom times. But she believes that the fall in production and exports can be turned around. “Of course it can,” she says.
“What you need are the incentives. You need stronger prices, you need an industry with confidence in its markets and with its future, and that relies on strong demand by international buyers. I think there can be a resurgence, but the form it will take and the size the industry will be when wool has established itself again is unknown.
“There are many people out there who feel wool is dead. I’m not one of them. Maybe I’m an optimist, maybe I’m ignorant, maybe I haven’t been in this country long enough. But there will always be a demand for wool, and Australia is the leading producer of fine wool so buyers will come here.”
Former banker Mike Guerin has a similarly optimistic view about wool’s ability to rebound, but he says there are challenges.
Guerin, almost one year into the job as the managing director of Elders Rural Services, has a banking and wool background, having been raised on a wool property in New Zealand.
Wool is a key component of Elders’ operations, the company acting as a wool broker, marketer, buyer, exporter and processor.
It has been involved in wool for 169 years.
Despite that long-term connection, Guerin says that the industry and his company have not always got things right.
“In the history of wool, we have never started with the customer and worked back,” he says.
“If there’s one thing I would say to woolgrowers, and it’s just my opinion, it is that we have singularly failed as an industry, ever, to start with a clear view of the needs of the customer and the properties of the product and worked back and produced that. We have always been a production-oriented business. And that’s served us well for many years, but that’s simply not the way of the world these days.”
To modernise and help meet customer wishes, Elders last year introduced the first online auction system that sold non-mulesed wool.
Guerin says it achieved about a 5 per cent premium for the grower.