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Farmers fighting to keep NZ wool alive as demand declines

It's natural, renewable, and biodegradable, and for decades New Zealand’s wool was the envy of the world.

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With the rise of synthetic materials, farmers are making a loss. Source: Sunday

But with the rise of plastics, demand for wool has plummeted. Now, farmers are losing money by shearing their sheep, and while some are contemplating a future with no wool at all, others are paving the way to see the precious fibre continue.

Andrew and Meredith Carpenter own a sprawling country station which has been in the family for three generations.

With 18,000 sheep, the Carpenter family began farming there in the 1950s.

“I can remember huge days, peeling off copious amounts of wool and loading truckload after truckload of bales,” Andrew said.

It was once the backbone of the Kiwi economy, now, the wool industry is on the brink of collapse and some farmers are ready to give up on it altogether.

“If you're not making money off it, why continue?” Andrew said.

His wife Meredith said it’s “heartbreaking” to see wool products declining as many of us turn to buy cheaper, synthetic products made from oil and chemicals, rather than wool.

Like many farmers, the Carpenters can't sell their wool for a decent price, in fact they're making a loss.

“So we're running at about a $40,000 deficit,” Meredith said.

Around the country, wool is being stockpiled by farmers hoping for a better price. The carpenters have almost two hundred bales in storage.

“It's really hard to produce good quality wool, and it's just criminal that it's sitting in our sheds not being sold now. All this blood sweat and tears has been poured into it, and nobody wants it,” Meredith said.

Farmers around the country are sharing a similar experience, many now solely rely on their meat revenue.

"It's disheartening because there are any number of older guys who have spent years and years breeding sheep to produce good wool and it's not worth anything,” farmer Campbell Feather said.

Some farmers are even buying new breeds of sheep that naturally shed their wool.

Third generation sheep farmer Tom O’Sullivan from Hawke’s Bay said some farmers are taking wool out of the picture altogether.

“We're starting to already see farmers go well I've had enough, it's costing me money, there's a lot of work in sheep, I want to cut costs, I'm going to go to a different breed where I don't have to worry about wool,” he said.

O'Sullivan reckons if sheep farmers decide to sell up or convert to forestry, some of New Zealand's best pastoral land could be lost forever.

“If nothing changes, we're seriously facing a future with no wool,” O'Sullivan said.

Businesses and entrepreneurs are at present coming up with solutions to the gloomy prospects for wool.

With growing concern about the amount of plastic in our homes, carpet manufacturer Bremworth was forced to confront its own use of synthetic materials.

Next year the company is giving up on synthetic carpet altogether, instead, only using pure wool.

And as Kiwi entrepreneurs put their minds towards innovating more ways to use wool, the Carpenters have decided to hold on to their farming lifestyle and make use of their lambs' wool by commissioning their own line of blankets.

“There's been several generations of Andrew's family that have put so much time and effort into breeding these sheep and producing this quality wool, so it would just be sacrilege to give it all up, really,” Meredith said.

For the full Sunday story, watch the video above.