A Tasmanian woolgrower’s radical move to stop selling older sheep for slaughter has delivered an unexpected bonus: a New York ethical fashion retailer is paying double for her superfine wool.
Several years ago, Nan Bray decided even if she lost a third of her income, her sheep would live out their days on her farm in Tasmania’s central midlands.
“I was pretty good friends with all of them, and I just decided I didn’t want to put them on a transport truck anymore,” Ms Bray said.
Shearer Dave Acheson described the decision to no longer sell sheep off about the age of seven as a maverick move.
“It’s just expected when a sheep gets to a certain age, it’s going to get shipped off and made into sausages or mince,” he said.
“But when she mentioned she was doing this, well, if that makes you happy and those animals have given you the best of them, good luck.
“It seems to work, and they get to live and die here it’s great.”
Her flock now contains sheep as old as 15.
Ms Bray can afford to keep her sheep because of her value-adding knitting yarn business.
“What makes the difference is the yarn. I have a very good margin,” Ms Bray said.
“It allows me to farm the way I want to farm. I set the price. I sell my wool by the 100 grams. You definitely want to be selling by the 100 grams, not by the kilogram.”
A 100-gram ball of 8-ply yarn sells for $29.
At the same time Ms Bray was making her maverick move, Vanessa Barboni Hallik, New York-based founder and CEO of women’s clothing brand Another Tomorrow, was searching the world for ethically produced superfine wool.
She found just three producers who didn’t slaughter older sheep, and the most commercial operation was Nan Bray’s.
“We don’t use any fibre that requires the killing or harm of an animal in our collection,” Ms Barboni Hallik said.
“The fact that much of the wool industry does rely upon the meat industry to supplement income is something that doesn’t sit particularly well with me.”
For Ms Bray, connecting with the New Yorker was the “definition of serendipity”.
“She and I have a lot of things in common. We’re both trying to show what’s possible, we’re prepared to take risks, we’re prepared to take losses.
“And we’re prepared to stand up and say, ‘Yeah, I know that makes you uncomfortable, but guess what? It’s important, and I’m not going to back down,'” she said.
Her 600-head Saxon Merino flock produces 2,000 kilograms of the sought-after 17-micron wool a year.
Half is turned into yarn in New Zealand, and the greasy wool is sold to Another Tomorrow.
“We also utilise her yarn in our knitwear,” Ms Barboni Hallik said.
A roll-neck jumper retails at $1,116.
“It’s just not financially viable unless you have customers willing to pay a fairly significant premium, but I do believe we can treat animals as sentient beings and have robust economic outcomes,” Ms Barboni Hallik said.
“I really look at Nan as kind of the gold standard, and I think her philosophy is really inspiring a whole generation.”
‘Wool like angel dust’
The industry view is fleece quality declines as sheep age.
But Ms Bray, who describes herself as an industry outlier, credits her unusual management practices for maintaining fleece quality, including very low stocking rates, and no tail docking or mulesing.
She doesn’t spray out pasture weeds, seeing them as an important part of the flock’s diet, providing nutritional and medicinal benefits.
“I’m running probably a third of what most of my neighbours do. However, that’s offset by the fact my sheep, being healthier, grow about 40 per cent more wool,” Ms Bray said.
“I get anxious if weed levels start to drop because I know that means the diversity level is dropping, and my sheep are not going to be as healthy.”
Her methods have convinced shearer Dave Acheson.
“Her wool’s like angel dust. It’s beautiful stuff, some of the finest wool about here,” he said.
“It’s working for her. She’s making money, [and] the results show for themselves, she’s sending wool all over the world.
“She’s opened my eyes. A lot of people probably don’t agree with a lot of the stuff that she does, but she doesn’t agree with a lot of stuff that other people do.
“It’s just how the world works.”