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Nuffield Scholar Tours Down Under: A report by Jen Hunter

This article was produced by Jen Hunter for Network News, the Australian Wool Network Client Newsletter. You can view the publication by clicking here. 

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Jen Hunter is a Nuffield Scholarship recipient from the United Kingdom. Her scholarship brought her to Australia and subsequent meetings with AWN wool specialists Rod Miller (SA) and Brent Squires (VIC).

Jen and her partner (a champion blade shearer) run a sheep and wool production business, and a farm stay tourism business in the UK. Rod Miller said there were a number of key matters discussed with Jen including industry marketing arrangements and structures, and in particular brand marketing that brought producers and consumers together.

Since she returned to the UK, Jen has been “flat out with lambing” and other farm and business demands but was able to provide us with some insights from her tour down under.

I sometimes think “what have I gotten myself into now” in the grand scheme of things running a farming and  events business  back in the UK - life is busy already. But in my book there always seems to be a ‘but’. Perhaps because I’m an Aries, perhaps because Andy can inspire passion for the woolly sheep in the most unlikely crowds ... but probably because the shear brilliance of wool left on the boards, its vast array of uses and our personal need for warmth, creativity and cash incentives means I applied to the Nuffield farming scholarship trust to explore wool processing with a modern twist.... and that is how I came to Australia on the first leg of my Nuffield journey.

We started in London as UK 2014 scholars, arrived in Sydney and became part of a 60 strong team of  international scholars from five continents and who set about understanding the political, social and media mechanics of global agricultural. We joined the ABARES conference in Canberra, visited fish and flower markets, biodynamic, livestock and quarrying businesses along the way. After 12 days we all emerged from the Nuffield Contemporary Scholars Conference (CSC) directionally inspired crusaders for the passionate business of agriculture.

A farmer is not a farmer anymore – probably a food producer, businessman, accountant, promotion and marketing manager, along with custodian of the land, environmentalist, health and welfare, health and safety expert and naturally a family man. Who are these amazing super heroes and where can we find them for the future was the big question?

The whole conference naturally had a strong emphasis on food production and processing, but I was a little disappointed that there was no reference to the textile industry. We do, after all in every nation require clothes and fabrics for survival too and they have to manufactured somewhere in the world using many of our depleting resources.

That was my Nuffield CSC and after enjoying all this stimulation I was very ready to kick off my business clothes and head out into the countryside with my local chauffer Paddy the blacksmith, who we had provided a home for on our farm the previous summer whilst he built compost toilets for the masses.

Our first stop was with John and Robyn Ive, super fine merino stud farm near Yass, NSW. They have spent the best part of their lives transforming a saline damaged farm into a production unit for beef and sheep. John is the master of research and I defiantly took away this message “you have to measure it to monitor it” whether it’s the weather, wool or wethers for wool.

As a highlight to my trip we had a surprise meeting with their neighbours, Draphyd Stud running 500 coloured merino’s from a property with a stunning 360 view to the valleys below. Great to discover those who appreciate that naturally coloured wool still has a place in this modern white society and as I write this I’m on route to the 8th Congress of Coloured Wool in Paris.

Victoria next, just a few inches on the map... no worries mate and after meeting David Tester from the Sheep CRC to highlight the research involved with the next to skin concept and the comfort and handle meter measuring machines, we arrived in Melbourne to stop by the Australian Wool Testing Authority (AWTA) and the wool store.

During my initial research in the UK I had made enquiries into testing some of our fleeces so I knew what I was dealing with.

Testing is not the norm for a UK sheep farmer. After a morning with the AWTA to see the scale of testing operations, precision and performance data available, I began to understand that the exact same test is available globally for every single wool sample tested. This was a fantastic introduction to the complex world of textiles.... I was getting to the heart of one of my research parameters.

I was very fortunate to meet up with Sarah Moran during my time in Melbourne, a wool handler, and am very much looking forward to seeing her compete in the world championships Golden Shears Wool Handling competition in Gorey, Ireland.

My partner Andy Wear will again be competing in the Golden Shears Blade Shearing Competition so I have good idea of the skill, athletic determination and pressure that goes into representing your country and I wish Sarah the very best in her travels and competitions.

Sarah and her Dad were terrific guides around the wool lines and this was my first introduction to the various wool buying agents that exist in Australia and are definitely not present in the UK - but are they missing?

Next stop was to discover the Polwarth breed. Many thanks to Wendy, Dennis at Tarnwardcourt, which could almost be twinned with our Fernhill Farm – heritage house and buildings restored, emerging events business with weddings, family gatherings, farm food and accommodation, an endless supply of visitors and then there is

the passion for wool. In a slightly different life order, Wendy and I have mirrored lifestyles and we could surely talk for an entirety.

I also wanted to understand the numbers game on these larger commercial operations and enjoyed a practical visit to South Park Stud Farm conducting artificial insemination (AI) and embryo transfer (ET) on Kangaroo Island.

Both stud farms were connected to Nuffield farming with a view to making the genetic progress quicker and more widely available to commercial farms. I had not seen this level of intervention since my Harper Adams university days and I have ultimate respect for farmers who are driven by these possible super hero powers.

Kangaroo Island proved to be an interesting case study for my report and it’s with great enthusiasm that I write this article to help promote all the KI products. For those who wish to know more about Kangaroo Island Wool visit www.kangarooislandwool.com as these messages are sound reflections of the political voices echoing from around the globe - locally resourced, regionally recognised, environmental sustainability, co-operative power and family business. All these messages ring true to our life living on our small island commonly known as the UK, next door to the massive European mainland - we are different and need to celebrate this!

British Wool is a by-product of the meat industry to the vast majority of UK farmers and it was very rewarding to witness the adoration for wool even with my brief introduction to the Australian wool industry. The humble sheep is so adaptable to the changes in climate and terrain. This became very real when I got my hands on Australian merino wool for the very first time at shearing.

It is beautiful, pure white and has uniform quality throughout the whole fleece, very little lanolin and clearly a real commodity manufactured to be perfect. Seeing the care involved with clip presentation is a key element of my research so I was only too glad to find time to throw the fleece, skirt and sort to the best of my limited knowledge.

This is something I must learn more about was the next message to myself. Merino is a fibre never to be forgotten but ... again, my personal opinion is that our sheep have a fantastic quality of life here in the UK and we should honour their ability to produce +175% lambing, shear ~ 2.2kg wool annually and survive in this temperate environment.

With over 60 native breeds still occurring all around the UK and as many crossbred types the work of the wool grader here is a lifetime occupation. A UK wool grader takes over five years to achieve full status and it’s a rare breed of person who can, with just one touch of the wool determine the breed characteristics, fleece quality and sort each fleece into 150+ specific lines that determine price and the future of every lot that pass through the British Wool Marketing Board (BWMB) depots.

With only one marketing board still alive in the UK, the role of the BWMB is a traditional and complex business and a topical subject around many tables.

I also believe that the diverse range of wool from the UK runs parallel with their owners and appreciating the wool clip from the side of the mountains, across the moors, up on the downs, down in valleys, along the levels and at salt marsh level.

British Wool has developed unique personalities that present true characters, like the regionally renowned accents. Made in Britain has always been a brand to trust and many entrepreneurs are harbouring these wool qualities, manufacturing sustainable new and old styles of everything that wool has to offer and we hope along with all of this, creating a great future for regional product development.

“Wool is like wine” and to be a wool connoisseur is a mighty fine way to explore the world for one of its oldest and most traditionally valued gifts... wool from the sheep.

I write this with many thanks to my sponsor The Company of Merchants for the Staple of England, Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust, Rod Miller from Australian Wool Network, all those who gave their time in Australia, and forever to Andy, Kyle and Seth and all at Fernhill Farm.

Jen Hunter

“Wool is like wine, and to be a wool connoisseur is a mighty fine way to explore the world”