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Beyond the Bale : Feb - Mar 08 Supplement
10 BEYOND THE BALE ECO-TRENDS SUPPLEMENT By Melissa Branagh Outback ueensland woolgrower Stuart Mackenzie is no stranger to tough times. A decade ago, erratic wool prices and a struggling market prompted the third-generation woolgrower to explore ways of differentiating his product from other wool. At that time, the organic wool industry was virtually nonexistent, but "the signs were there". Stuart and Robyn Mackenzie got in early. They became fully certified with the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA) in 2000, and the family's Plevna Downs Pastoral Company has since assumed a lead role in the sector's development. 'Plevna Downs', a 112,000-hectare property, 90 kilometres from Eromanga, is the last sheep station heading west into cattle country. It carries up to 19,000 pure Mumblebone bloodline Merino ewes and wethers, and produces one of Australia's largest organic wool clips. "We primarily moved into organics to add value to the business," Mr Mackenzie says. "We could see the direction the global market was taking and we wanted to remove ourselves from the auction system. I was also opposed to using chemicals -- I have an idealistic leaning towards organic processes." The Mackenzies would not have considered a shift into organic wool production unless their landscape qualified -- wisdom they willingly share with others contemplating conversion. "Far south-west ueensland is the hub of the Australian outback and has proven to be an ideal environment for producing quality organic wool," Mr Mackenzie says. "As a producer, you are regulated by environmental conditions. It's easier to grow organic wool in dry pastoral regions where there are fewer fly waves, lice and worms, than in high-rainfall zones, which are suitable for conventional superfine Merino production. "Our advice to other woolgrowers is to concentrate on what you do best by working in with your environment and, most importantly, to research and determine what market you are chasing. The market will dictate the type of certification you should pursue." He says growers must also honour prescribed practices if they adopt production protocols such as quality assurance schemes, management systems, or product label certifications including Certified Organic and EU Ecolabel. "If you expect consumers to pay a premium you have to deliver a premium product," he says. "Certification is a guarantee of integrity." Mr Mackenzie describes the report Sustainability and related certification options for wool growers, developed by AWI and the ueensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries for the ueensland Leading Sheep grower network, as an invaluable resource, and is confident it will help growers to comply with regulatory requirements that will improve their on-farm operations and competitive position in higher value markets. The report is available at www.leadingsheep.com.au. "The report will help woolgrowers to make informed decisions and to match both their production environment and target market with the most appropriate certification option," he says. "It will also facilitate collective marketing, which is a major advantage. By encouraging certified producers in specific geographic areas to collaborate, the industry will have the capacity to serve major retail clients who require a continuous supply of quality fibre." For the Mackenzies, the major benefits of regulation through NASAA have been two-fold. "We no longer use chemicals, so we have improved GOING ORGANIC IS EASIER IN THE OUTBACK A deliberate decision to differentiate his wool by gaining organic cer tification is paying dividends for this Queensland woolgrower environmental sustainability and reduced our expenses," Mr Mackenzie says. "And organic labelling has allowed us to bypass the fluctuating auction system and to establish an assured recurrent market for our wool through direct marketing." The annual 'Plevna Downs' clip (about 100 tonnes of greasy wool) is sold directly to the Vermont Organic Fiber Company in the US, where it ultimately appears as fashion garments and activewear sold in Bloomingdales, Timberland and Patagonia, among other stores. "This approach has guaranteed us a premium of between 15 and 20 per cent -- which is about the average for private organic wool contracts," Mr Mackenzie says. "The organic auditing process ensures supply chain quality control and the ORGANIC Vermont Organic Fiber Company founder and president Matthew Mole (left) with organic wool producer Stuart Mackenzie at 'Plevna Downs'. biggest buzz for me is selling our wool directly to someone who is interested in knowing where it comes from." Mr Mackenzie recommends that woolgrowers interested in certification should "put some of the practices into play beforehand," for example, reducing chemical residues, removing soil from contaminated yards, replacing infrastructure and gaining access to a secure supply of organic feed. "Gradual uptake of sustainable and ethical practices will make the pathway to conversion easier and, at the very least, it will make wool more attractive to mainstream commodity markets." ú More information: www.plevnadowns.com.au; www.leadingsheep.com.au; www.nasaa.com.au
Dec - Jan 08
Feb - Mar 08