Hopes up as world warms to our wool ; Many farmers across the South West are enjoying perfect conditions for making silage and hay. But a harvest of... [Western Daily Press (UK)]
(Western Daily Press (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Hopes up as world warms to our wool ; Many farmers across the South West are enjoying perfect conditions for making silage and hay. But a harvest of a different kind is also taking place in the region. Athwenna Irons joined the team at the British Wool Marketing Board's South Molton depot to learn more about the wool grading and auction process.
It's not just the shearing clippers buzzing like summer flies as the weather heats up - there's a similar buzz in a warehouse in the Dartmoor foothills, where all 19 staff are busy sorting piles of fleeces ready for the buying season.
The British Wool Marketing Board's depot at South Molton processes 2.5 million kg of wool each year a streamlined process in modern surroundings. Fleeces from far and wide are handled at the South West's largest depot. Wool is delivered by local farmers in tractor and trailer alongside hauliers delivering from farmers in Gloucestershire and the Isle of Wight. An estimated 100 tonnes of wool is handled by the depot each week=.
Established in 1950, the British Wool Marketing Board is owned by sheep farmers across the United Kingdom and manages the collection, hand grading, core testing and sale by auction of fleece wool from over 60 different sheep breeds. Through patriotic British colours and the distinctive shepherd's crook symbol, the Wool Board aims to promote UK-grown wool, both at home and abroad, as a prestigious natural fibre.
The Wool Board also has a strong collaborative partnership with the Campaign for Wool. Initiated by the Prince of Wales, the global endeavour is working to raise awareness and educate consumers on the versatility and unique benefits that wool can offer.
When the fleeces arrive at the depot, they are hand graded and sorted in to various colour-coded baskets, known as 'skeps', according to the type and quality of the wool. The length and strength of the wool staple is tested by pulling the lock from each end. The graders will also look for uniformity and good colour across the fleece. Farmers delivering the fleeces themselves have the opportunity to see their wool being graded and speak with the graders, to learn how their fleeces could be improved.
The wool then progresses up to the press, where it is vacuum- packed in to green bales, the colour signifying this year's wool, and graded under the new quality control procedure implemented for the 2014 season. Each day, up to 45 of these bales are produced. Once 8,000 kilos of a particular grade is available, a sample from each bale in the lot is taken. These samples are then sent to an independent laboratory in North Wales as part of the core testing process, where they are analysed across a range of different criteria, including colour, microns, vegetable matter and yield.
This technical information is vital to prospective buyers as the wool is sold through electronic auctions, so the buyer does not see the wool. 18 auctions make up the selling season running from July to June of the following year. Wool is stored at the depot until it is sold and then collected by hauliers.
Due to demand from buyers, the Board has implemented a new quality control structure within its depots, which provides greater traceability and 'raises the bar' in terms of quality and standards.
With electronic auctions now standard practice and approximately 25% of British wool being exported to China, this cements the importance of the core testing and laboratory results - to ensure that the buyer is receiving exactly what is stated in the catalogue. South West board member Brian Dallyn, who himself keeps Blue Face Leicester's at his farm in Parracombe, near Barnstaple, said: "A lot of work goes into making the sure that the wool is of a quality that the trade requires. That's why the grading is so important to add value to each particular type of wool. "The buyers used to see the wool, but now it's all electronic they are buying wool based on the results of the laboratory tests and the high standard of our grading. We've got to make sure that the label on the tin is what's in the tin", added Mr Dallyn. As soon as the wool is weighed and graded, farmers receive their payment within ten days. Producer communications manager Gareth Jones outlined the payment system: "We've got an advance and a balance payment system - pro-ducers receive one payment which is made out of two compartments.
"The reason that we have this payment system in place is because we don't buy the wool, we sell it on behalf of the producer - we don't know the value of the wool until it has been sold. So we pay an advance payment on this year's wool and the balance from the previous year."
Mr Jones added: "We're nonprofit making and whatever the wool achieves at auction that is then fully returned back to the farmer."
With the first sale of the new season taking place next month, Mr Jones was positive about the prospects of this year's trade: "We're starting the season afresh and there's no reason why the strong demand shouldn't continue in to the new season. We anticipate that the prices are going to carry on improving - they're a third up on last year and we anticipate that there could be another 10% increase over this next selling season, so it's all very positive and encouraging."
Like many sectors of the agriculture industry, wool has been faced with its own share of challenges to overcome. Mr Dallyn spoke of the decrease in the private sales of carpet, as it is forced to compete with the likes of laminate flooring. But with export opportunities looking strong for the next few years and the Campaign for Wool raising awareness worldwide, Mr Dallyn is confident that the interest in wool will continue to grow: "We're trying to tap the American market to increase sales there as they are not very aware of wool because it is not a sheep country. We think there's a great opportunity if we can be accepted as a natural fibre over there."
Regional chairman of the National Sheep Association, Brian Griffiths, who delivers wool from his 800 Mule and Mule-cross ewes, said: "Wool has been very much at the bottom for a long time and it can only go upwards. With a growing world population and a shortage of oil, this free fibre has got to have a future."
With 48,000 producers across the UK, the British Wool Marketing Board is also focused on encouraging the next generation of entrants in to the industry. 25-year-old wool grading apprentice Aaron Chilcott, who works full-time at the South Molton depot, said: "I've been working here since I was seventeen, so I learnt most of the jobs around the store and this just seemed like a natural progression up through the chain of working at the depot.
Mr Chilcott, who is in the third year of his five year apprenticeship, added: "My grandfather and father used to be a sheep farmers and shearers, so from a very young age I was always out helping them shear and picking up the wool. I've always had an interest in wool so working here is a good fit for me."
The Wool Board also sponsors young farmers training, with a number of shearers out spreading the message and educating consumers. Mr Dallyn stressed the importance of getting young British people back shearing British sheep: "It helps the young farmers in the industry if they've got a skill to do, rather than going off and doing something else. In some areas now there are not a lot of young people coming back on the farm, so if they can learn a skill and earn good money through contract shearing that keeps them interested in agriculture."
Bales of wool produced each day at the BWMB depot in Devon 45
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