The head of the UK’s biggest wool co-operative has set out his intention to at least double the price paid to sheep farmers as he presses ahead with plans to raise the profile of a fabric that once drove the region’s economy.
On average a single fleece is fetching just £1.50 which Joe Farren, the chief executive of Bradford-based British Wool, admits barely covers shearing costs.
The wool boss is adamant however that the changes he and his management team have made since his appointment two years ago and a subsequent staff reshuffle are starting to pay off.
“Over the last 12 months prices have been flat but we have been selling on a par with New Zealand wool for the first time and since the end of March this year prices are up by 7.5 per cent, so we are going into the new wool season on a rising trend,” Mr Farren said.
“There are a number of reasons for that,” he explained. “One of them is that the way we market our wool through our auction system has changed over the last year.
“We’ve become more tactical about what we offer, what our reserve and target prices are. We look at the bidding patterns of our buyers, which types of wool were the big risers and fallers in recent auctions, what our own stock position is, what do we need to move - it’s been a more thoughtful approach.”
This month, Mr Farren, who has a 400-acre arable farm at Kirby Grindalythe near Malton, met wool producers in Richmond where farmers wanted to know how he would deliver a price lift.
He said: “On average last year our producers got 25 to 30 per cent more compared to what the competition pays. But the bigger picture is that no-one is particularly happy that they are getting £1.50 a fleece which just about covers the cost of shearing.”
Prior to the advent of synthetic fibres in the 1960s, wool was the dominant global fibre. Today, it represents just three per cent of all fibres used globally. The majority of British wool is used in carpets, other home furnishings and knitwear or hand knitting.
But Mr Farren believes that by working more closely with retailers and by developing its “direct digital marketing”, British Wool can trigger new demand for wool from shoppers.
“For the first time we now have a new team marketing British Wool as a quality fibre to consumers through retailers.
“We have a multi-strand strategy which is very cost effective and good for reaching consumers directly, starting in carpet with 16 local retailers in Yorkshire. It should start to be visible now in local retailers.
“The product and market development we are doing is also going to be key to raising prices.”
Exports are a vital trade outlet. Around a quarter of British wool goes to China and 15 per cent to mainland Europe. China is the world’s largest processor and consumer of wool and is “a fantastic market” for British exports, Mr Farren said. But the future of British wool’s European market is less certain, he admitted.
“We don’t know how Brexit will impact agriculture. All we can do is be as fit, agile and competitive as we can be as a business and plan when we have more detail.
“For us, it’s about creating new demand for wool from consumers. My long-run aim is to double or even triple the price paid to producers. That could take three, four or five years, but I do hope there will be a positive impact this year.”