We’ve all heard the saying coined in the 1950s that Australia “rode on the sheep’s back”. Many in the industry now argue the economic ride is over. The answer, they say, is to take back control of the wool handling process from fleece to fabric.
Currently, more than 80 per cent of the nation’s greasy wool is exported to China for processing. Now, slowdowns at mills overseas due to COVID may have opened the door to a more local approach. Queensland Wool Processors or QWool seek to transform the industry with an end-to-end processing plant in Blackall.
QWool Chairman, John Abbott and his friend, fourth generation wool grower and local Mayor Andrew Martin have come up with a slogan that encapsulates their mission – Make Australia Make Again. It sure has struck a chord among people.
A bold plan
“The world has changed a lot since wool processing went offshore in the early ’90s. Labour and transport logistics in China used to be cheap. Both of those things have changed.
“If you look at the current flow of wool, it goes from the farm, to the shearing shed, to a market, to a port, to a ship mostly to Shanghai. From Shanghai it goes by rail to Wuhan of all places. From Wuhan, it then gets scoured. It then goes to plants around China.
“Then, it goes on road or rail again to fabric making plants either in China or elsewhere in southeast Asia. We are proposing to remove all those logistic steps with a fully integrated, modern manufacturing plant out here in Australia,” explains John.
Obviously, there are local producers who are very excited and have put money in. But we’ve had chemists from Newcastle, retirees from Canberra and so on.”
It’s a bold plan. The biggest hurdle is going to be raising the money. A project of this scale will cost about $200 million but Australians from all walks of life have already offered to invest what they can.
“We’ve been really quite surprised by the variety of people investing in what we’re proposing. Obviously, there are local producers who are very excited and have put money in. But we’ve had chemists from Newcastle, retirees from Canberra and so on,” John explains.
The timing couldn’t be more perfect when there’s momentum from consumers to know where their clothes were made and who made them. People are also investing more in natural fibres like cotton and wool as opposed to synthetics. QWool would be able to implement Fibre Trace technology.
100% Aussie wool
“There is some concern that some of the wool being produced elsewhere is actually adulterated and not pure Australian merino wool. By having control of the manufacturing, they will know they have 100% Australian merino wool,” says John.
It’s the most unbelievable renewable natural fibre on the planet. It can keep you warm in winter and cool in summer.”
Feedback from the community so far has been so positive, there are even plans to build a second plant, most likely in NSW.
The man who sparked this idea is Blackall-Tambo Mayor Andrew Martin who is also a fourth generation wool grower.
“My dad was a bit of a visionary. I used to hear some pretty amazing patter and I guess the dominant conversation always centred around the fact that we were at the mercy of the rest of the world because all our raw wool was put on a boat and sent overseas.
“We were always bemoaning the fact that we weren’t in control of our own destiny. Why would you not take it from my shed, 100 kilometres up the road to Blackall?” questions Andrew.
Transforming regional towns
The benefits to farmers are obvious but this project could also be transformative for regional towns.
“It’s a well-known fact that every dollar a wool grower makes, creates another seven out in the community,” explains Andrew.
The proposed mill in Blackall will produce 270 jobs. Some will be filled locally but it’s hoped dozens of people will move there for the work and bolster the population of the small town.
Water used at the plant will be recycled into cropping and there’s also interest from cotton growers who are looking into doing some wool blends domestically.
“You know, a beautiful wool suit that you can put in the washing machine. Man, if I’d thought of that when I was a schoolboy I’d be a multi-gazillionaire by now. But you can do it! It’s the most unbelievable renewable natural fibre on the planet. It can keep you warm in winter and cool in summer,” exclaims Andrew.
We were always bemoaning the fact that we weren’t in control of our own destiny. Why would you not take it from my shed, 100 kilometres up the road to Blackall?”
“It keeps me up a bit at night. I used to have a beautiful head of hair before all this. No I didn’t! I lost it a long time ago but god I wish my dad was alive,” reminisces Andrew. “If it doesn’t work now, I guess it’ll never work. So, here we go.”
Here we go indeed.