In recent days, sheep farmers, wool traders and anyone interested in the wool industry will have welcomed the news of the launch of an all-island Irish Grown Wool Council. With incredibly low prices for wool, for many farmers the price paid will not even be able to cover the cost of shearing but it is hoped that this new wool council will revitalise the often forgotten product and create more value for wool. Agri Insider spoke with council members Kevin Comiskey, Chair of the Irish Farmers’ Association National Sheep Committee and Lorna McCormack, Director of Wool in School about what the council hopes to achieve.
The low price for wool has been a headache for sheep farmers for a long time. In June 2022, Kevin Comiskey quoted that the sheep sector was losing €10.8 million annually with regard to the value of wool compared to back in 1988. Some farmers faced prices of just 20c/kg. The low value of Irish wool prompted stakeholders in the industry to set up a Wool Feasibility Study which was published in July of last year.
One of the main recommendations of the report was the establishment of an industry-led Wool Council which would develop and promote Irish wool domestically and internationally, bringing together multiple stakeholders to foster collaboration, innovation and scaling activities. Today’s council includes a mix of primary producer farmers and stakeholders/supporters, including commercial enterprises who are willing to fund research and promotions and to advise on scaling of micro businesses involved in the wool sector.
Speaking of the immediate priorities for the council, Kevin Comiskey said: ““The main point that I would be insisting on as a member of the group and as an IFA representative is to get value, to get an added value at farm gate level. It will initially be set up for six months until we have our first AGM and we’ll be electing chairs and different officers.
“In the meantime we’re looking at market research, the Wool Hub is there with us, there are a few different entities. There’s good markets there at the lower end of the market from pelleting, fertiliser, insulation, clothing and up as far as carpets at the higher end of the market. There’s potential for a lot of markets there.”
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Pippa Hackett, commissioned the original report and secured €30,000 to fund the establishment of the new council.
She said: “The formation of the Irish Grown Wool Council is a hugely significant milestone for the development of the Irish wool industry and for the creation of a strong Irish grown wool brand, and I would like to congratulate everyone involved.”
As recommended in the DAFM report, a wool research and innovation hub called the Wool Hub
has also been created. Initially it is being facilitated by Circular Bioeconomy Cluster Southwest at Munster Technological University, MTU Tralee. The Irish Grown Wool Council will direct and support the hub. The Wool Hub will provide research, development and innovation support to farmers, sole traders, enterprises and those wishing to make best use of this natural Irish grown resource.
Speaking about support payments for the wool sector, Kevin said: “I’ll be meeting with the Minister of Agriculture today on supports for the sheep sector and will be impressing on him that there is a need for a payment for the wool at farm gate level. An interim payment that can be given to farmers for a couple of years until the whole thing is sorted out. The Wool Council has a massive job of work to do but I’m confident that it will do that.”
One of the key challenges for the council moving forward is to grow awareness around Irish wool and its distinct advantages over other products. According to the IGWC, wool is one of the natural and renewable resources widely used in a range of applications including horticulture, packaging,insulation, textiles, cosmetics, filled products and composites.
It is to this end that Lorna McCormack, Director of Wool in School, a wool inspired education company, is committed to increasing the awareness of wool, its production and sustainable qualities. She stated: “I feel that education and advocacy is very important as part of the value chain and is an important element of the Council. It’s going to play a very important role in all areas, not just for the farmers, but for the consumers and children because this is about bringing that conversation to people why Irish wool is important.
“There’s a lot of time to catch up, but I think on a personal note that this is a good time now because obviously we have technology to support new ideas and research. There’s a lot of scope there, a lot of work done in other countries so we just need to look at our Irish wool, our own brand.”
There is overwhelming positivity surrounding the new council and while there is a long way to go, the council hopes to ‘create additional value in the total wool value chain and ensure that a fair proportion of that value makes its way to the primary producer.’ It is this vision that will determine the success of the new council.