Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Support our Hill Farmers!

Today on Ravelry I followed a link to this article from the Telegraph about how last spring (2008) some farmers found it more economical to burn their fleece than to sell it to the British Wool Marketing Board.
It’s a travesty! I know that we can buy a synthetic sweater on the high street for £10 – or less sometimes, heck – I’ve done it! but there is nothing to compare to a real wool sweater.

You can see here what price the British Wool Marketing Board will pay for fleeces. Note that the prices are “up to” and not actual prices. That is the most a farmer will get for their fleece.
They also claim that “The British Wool Marketing Board operates a central marketing system for UK fleece wool with the aim of achieving the best possible net returns for farmers.”
On This page you can see that the average price that the WMB are selling fleeces for is 71.39 pence per kilo. They pay farmers a maximum of 58p per kilo (Cheviot) – so on average the WMB are making at least 13p profit on each kilo of fleece.
On the information provided for hand-spinners, you can see that a whole fleece varies from 1kg (Shetland breeds*) to 4.5 kilos (Wensleydale**)
I’ve managed to find the price list on the site...
For Shetland fleece I think that the WMB is making around £1.85/kilo for handspinners***.
For Wensleydale they’re making about the same - £1.86 by my reckoning.****
I’m sure there are overheads to be met, but the idea of a farmer making less than 50p per kilo of fleece does sound a little stingy. (That means for a flock of 100 Shetland sheep he might only make £50-100 per year for fleece, or for 100 Wensleydale sheep he’d get around £175-225 as they have larger fleeces)
Many farmers in the UK breed their sheep for eating, with the fleece being a bonus. However that bonus used to be enough to pay rent for the pasture on which the sheep graze. I doubt that this is covered at 50p per kilo.
The article I linked to above states ”The cheques they received for wool used to cover their rent. Now it's almost worthless because fewer people want woollen products” - I’ll repeat that - fewer people want woollen products. This is not a good state of affairs. Synthetic fiber is usually a polymer – it’s made from oil basically. Nylon, for example. We made nylon in Organic Chemistry lessons. (In this case Organic means that it belongs to a family of hydrocarbons to which methane, ethane etc belong to, not grown without chemicals) I confess, the sweater I’m wearing today is made from 17% Nylon and 83% Viscose. To manufacture viscose you need Methane. I'm cross with me.
But woollen garments are so much nicer! They are warm, breathable and envirnmentally friendly***** So, in the words of podcaster Brenda Dayne, if you’re cold, put on a sweater. That’s what they’re for. And I’ll add, make it a woolly one, if you possibly can.

Lastly, we need to do something to get our famers a better deal on the price of fleeces – whether that’s buying fleece direct, or simply getting them a better price from the WMB? Many years ago dairy farmers started making ice-cream from milk that the Milk MB told them to pour down the drain – perhaps we can do something like that?
Come on people, support the farmers!

* Shetland yarn is quite well known, check out Jamieson’s for example where 100g of dyed Aran weight is £4.50.
** Wensleydale yarn is nice, and has a beautiful lustre – check out Wensleydale Longwool Sheep Shop (very nice people)
*** Assuming that fleece bought by WMB at 45p/kilo and that I get an average (1.5kg) fleece.
**** Again fleece bought at 45p/kilo and assuming I get a 4kg fleece this time.
***** Some might argue that they’re not environmentally friendly because of sheep-farts. Some might argue that they’re not because of the processing of wool. I’d bow to the processing argument, but I am talking about hand spinning here too. once you have the spindle or wheel there aren’t many production costs – except cups of tea in my case!

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