Monday, 9 August 2021

From farm to furniture: adding value to strong wool


At the small windswept costal settlement of Ākitio, south-east of Dannevirke, a generational farming family is embracing a new direction for their crossbred wool by supplying New Zealand-owned manufacturer Big Save Furniture. Ravensdown visited the Ramsden family on the iconic Moanaroa Station to find out how their wool is transitioning from farm to furniture. 

Moanaroa is a place of long-held traditions, etched deep into the fabric of the small coastal hamlet of Ākitio. It’s beautiful, but by the same token a wild and isolated place to farm. Ravensdown shareholders Dan and Barbara Ramsden came to the coast 50 years ago when they purchased 1215ha (effective) inland property Ware Ware Station from members of Barbara’s family. Dan began supervising Moanaroa in 1980 and in 1999 the couple took over the 1450ha (effective) property Moanaroa, also owned by family members.  

Dan and Barbara live in the homestead at Moanaroa, and son Hugh now manages the property. Daughter Fiona runs Ware Ware Station 15km inland from the coast, and the whole operation is rounded out with a 400ha finishing property near Pongaroa. The latter property gives them flexibility in dry conditions, which Hugh says are as often as three out of every five years these days.  

The coastal environment can be harsh, so animals are bred for the conditions. Moanaroa runs 60% Romney sheep and 40% Angus cattle across steep hill country balanced by 10% flat. Moanaroa’s Angus stud (1908) is the second oldest in New Zealand, while the sheep flock has been based off Ware Ware’s small Romney stud.  

Wool has always been a big focus on the property, and despite the price being in the doldrums, Fiona says they’ve worked hard to maintain a quality product. “We’ve always put an emphasis on the quality of our wool and we’ve bred for weight and yield,” she says. “We are careful around quality control and at auction everyone knows our brand, so we’ve been able to command a premium on it.”  

Dan has focussed on bringing the quality of the wool up during his time running the station. “Colour in wool is the big thing,” he says. “Once you get into January, the heat and the moisture quickly colour the wool.” For that reason, they are one of the first in the district to shear in November.  

Fiona has a background in interior and fashion design and a love of textiles. She completed a diploma in wool classing at Lincoln University and now classes all the wool on the stations. “Dealing with the wool is quite a big passion of mine and working with Big Save has been a really good thing,” she says.  

On farm, the supply opportunity has led to a change in the Ramsden’s shearing policy.  Hugh has always done the second shear but at Ware Ware, Fiona has maintained part second-shear, part full-wool to maintain flexibility across the operation. However, with Big Save Furniture coming on board, they have changed the whole policy to second shear, allowing for the 3-4cm length across more bales. "It’s good for animal health and keeping the wool clean too,” Fiona says.  

The micron taken off at Moanaroa’s shearing in May is up to 40. Fiona classes the hogget wool, which is full length, into two lines of 33 micron and up to 35. On Ware Ware, Fiona is concentrating on taking the wool finer to get a better price. “We’ve got into Headwaters rams for the finer edge as well as the meat side of it. We’ll put one or two seasons over them, then go back into a Romney.”  

The family has a management plan in place to ensure quality is kept high. They spray for thistles every year, and there is no gorse on the property to reduce vegetable matter (VM) in the clip.  “Anything that’s a potential quality factor in our wool we keep it to a minimum. We even separate the crutching wool from the dags … not many people do that,” says Fiona. “We are quite fussy with our wool.”  

Carving a different path  

Big Save Furniture, owned by the McKimm family, approached the Ramsdens to supply wool directly. Fresh off a successful endeavour to make beds from recyclable plastic fished from the ocean, Big Save saw the potential that wool offered, as a sustainable, biodegradable fibre with a low carbon footprint.  “It was casual conversation about how the wool prices were so low, and Big Save said, ‘why don’t we do something about it?’” says Fiona. “That casual conversation has escalated into something pretty special.”  

National buyer for Big Save, Daniel Norman, says they were shocked to learn of the wool industry’s plight. “When you start turning these rocks over and begin talking to people who have wool and can't sell it, who are thinking of reducing stock or changing breeds to something that is self-shedding … you realise there's this Pandora's box.”  

Covid-19's disruption to overseas travel and trade-show viewings meant Big Save had to adapt too, turning to in-house product development as a key process for new products. Daniel says the success of the upcycled plastic bed – their initial stock ran out due to demand, and it’s since become one of their best-selling queen beds – led them to consider more sustainability-focused options. “When we started digging it became evident that consumers were actively choosing this option because of the positive impact it was having in the world. People are making these product decisions based on sustainability and material issues, and we thought, where can we go with that?”  

A meeting with Napier woolscourers Woolworks and some Australian guests the company was hosting led to discussions around the issues faced by the coarse wool industry. Daniel says it was this meeting, coupled with the chat the McKimm family had with Hugh about the strong wool direction, that spurred them to take action. “There's all these great ideas within the wool industry, but they seem to only get part of the way along, suddenly losing momentum. It was almost as if they needed another entity to pull the ideas whilst the wool industry pushed.”  

Big Save Furniture are looking at how they can use wool in both textile and stuffing form across their product range in volume. That has included sofas, beds, beanbags, internal wool layers, seat cushions and back cushion fill.  Daniel says the benefits of wool, including fire retardancy, lower carbon footprint and the fact that it was a natural, renewable fibre made sense, and they could see how the story of wool could work in  

the marketplace. “There were a lot of things that wool used to be used for, and then plastic and all the materials that were easy to manufacture at volume came along, so everyone just started using those. With wool we just started ticking all these boxes and as a group we were really impressed by the positive impacts on a product when we incorporated wool into it."  

Big Save started working closely with Woolworks, researching how wool worked with the look and feel of the products. “Now we are asking ourselves how wool can be used in other areas where volume is key, putting those great natural benefits to use – that’s our next step,” Daniel says(continued page 10 

Going direct  

Big Save Furniture analysed the supply chain and were surprised to learn how many cuts were being taken out along the way. By going directly to the Ramsden family as suppliers they could offer them a better price (currently $4.50/kg) for their wool – a win-win for both parties. “The thing about Big Save is they buy direct, they get great value and they pass that on,” says Daniel.  Fiona says, “Now it’s going through five people rather than 18 or 19, keeping the costs down, and the traceability is simpler as well.”  

Daniel says offering a sustainable price for the wool was important. “We want to make sure that in three years’ time this is still a viable project, because otherwise this was all for nothing. So that's where we set the $4.50 purchase price. We can sell it for 'x' amount of retail and it still works.  

“For us, we will always pay this much for wool used in furniture. It's always going to be $4.50 at the very least, if not going up in price at some point."  

Big Save and the Ramsden family are positive for the future of wool and excited about the bigger implications for the industry. “While I think we are a couple of years from it taking off, there’s been more positive talk about wool in the last 12 months than there has been in the last 10 years,” says Hugh. “There are so many different applications for wool … it’s [about] getting people to think wool first.”  

“With wool being eco-friendly, biodegradable and carbon efficient, surely it goes hand in hand with what‘s trying to be achieved [nationally],” says Fiona, “so hopefully the government and other industries can get behind it.”  

Maintaining productivity on Moanaroa 

Soil testing for trend data is normally undertaken every two years on Moanaroa Station, but last year this was upset by drought and COVID-19. Ravensdown Agri Manager Ainsley Harte handles the fertiliser recommendations and has also supported the Ramsdens in using HawkEye to record their on-farm data. 

“We look at the soil tests and work out the best bang for buck,” 

Ainsley says. “This year it was soil pH, but because it is such a big farm it will be expensive, so it’s important to think about what will be economically viable as well. Maintenance phosphorus (P) levels are also a big driver, as is the use of strategic N on the calving paddocks, primarily because of the [dry] seasons they've been having.” 

The finishing farm has also been soil tested this year. “It has really good fertility and good contours too, so it’s ideal for finishing,” Ainsley says. 

Inland station Ware Ware is due for soil testing in September. “We have been doing a liming programme there because the pH was the limiting factor. The Olsen Ps came back really good, so the pH was the big thing … and hopefully we’ve improved overall fertility.” 

Hugh Ramsden and Ainsley have been using HawkEye to draw in the waterways and exclusion zones on Moanaroa. “We’ve actually cut down on the hectares getting fertilised quite a bit, just because we’ve taken out exclusion zones and waterways,” says Ainsley. “Waterways are a big one and it’s a waste of money putting fertiliser there.” 

Moanaroa is linked up with TracMap integration, so all the GPS files following the spreading job completion are saved in HawkEye. 

“It’s all in one place for everyone,” says Ainsley. “It makes it easy for me, Hugh, or the top-dressing pilot because everyone is looking at the same map.” 

“And having proof of placement is key too,” says Hugh. “If the technology is there – why not?” 


Ākitio – a pioneering landscape 

Moanaroa, which translates to ‘long seacoast’, was established in 1908. It was once part of 14,800ha neighbouring property 

Marainanga (‘many whitebait’) and runs 16km between the Ākitio and Aohunga rivers. The hills of Moanaroa stretch sharply above the coastal settlement of Ākitio, and from the windy tops take in an unencumbered view of coastline curving towards Cape Turnagain and back down to Castlepoint in the Wairarapa. 

The climate is wild, with a tale of man and horse being blown across a fence by coastal winds. The land has a rich cultural heritage for Māori, having served as part of a coastal highway.  

Preferred station access was by boat into the mouth of the Ākitio river. Three historic landing sheds at the settlement held thousands of wool bales supplied by local sheep stations, also serving as drop-off points for farm provisions and other manufactured goods. Wool was shipped from the station up until mid-1940. In his writing Ākitio: A country school and its community, James K Baxter provides a glimpse into the pioneering life, documented in 1957. “Bullock wagons were used to bring wool to the coastal steamer until 1944. The bullock driver stood waist high in the surf, cracking his long whip, while the bullocks plunged out and pulled the wagons alongside the lighters. A wagon still rusts on the sand above the ruined beach jetty, of which the broken supports remain and one horizontal slab of timber pointing like a gun seaward. Until a bridge was built in 1914, draught horses brought the baled wool by dray from Ākitio homestead to the river, where it was ferried across in a boat. This boat now rots in a pine plantation below the bridge, orange-coloured needles raining down upon it, mossy but solid still, with square-headed copper nails in its thwarts and small saplings growing through its hull.” 

Rich in paua, crayfish and game fish, Ākitio remains a popular recreational spot for fishers and surfers alike, although in recent years Ākitio’s permanent population has dwindled and the school has now closed. Several ships have been lost in the Ākitio bay, including the Pleiades in 1899, parts of which can still be found at low tide or scattered around local historic landmarks.