By Belinda Willis
When sheep and grain farmer Christine Berry walked into a Japanese clothing store and saw suits tagged with ‘made from Kangaroo Island wool’, she couldn’t resist buying a jacket to take home to Australia.
“When we walked into United Arrows, it’s like Myer in Japan, and saw a suit presented so beautifully and with the Kangaroo Island label it was wonderful, it was so powerful,” the chair of Kangaroo Island Wool says.
It’s been a dramatic change in approach for the collaborative group of 22 shareholders and producers who joined forces in 2012 to create a new way to market and sell their wool.
Before Kangaroo Island Wool was jointly started with veterinarians Greg Johnsson and Deb Lehmann, local producers would sell their produce with little idea of its end destination.
“Traditionally, our wool would take us 12 months to grow on the island, we’d shear and the bales would go to Adelaide and then be sold in Melbourne, we’d have no idea where it would go,” Christine says.
Now they can trace where their wool lands in a global market and they are paid a premium for the high quality product.
This year, they’ve even managed to take it to the next level in selling their own range of wool jumpers, beanies and scarves online and at seven Kangaroo Island stores.
“For me personally, I’ve always wanted to wear a garment made from wool from our farm,” Christine says.
“I do now, I wear a jumper every day made from our wool, it makes me feel proud, I love what we do on Kangaroo Island.”
There’s a strong emphasis on sustainability and animal welfare for the producers who mainly sell through their biggest customer, Australian Wool Network.
The network combines Kangaroo Island wool with New Zealand possum fur to make luxury knitwear for MerinoSnug, and is now also helping to produce products for the group’s own brand.
In fact, it was Kangaroo Island that was the first region in the nation to help launch the Australian Wool Network’s unique Direct Network Advantage (DNA) wool supply program in 2015.
The DNA scheme enables consumers to follow the wool’s journey from bale to garment – when they buy a MerinoSnug product it comes with a QR code to scan and links to a video showing how the wool was produced.
Christine says the group is committed to a code of practice ensuring farmers focus on sheep health and welfare, social good and environmental care.
And, as a result, the company has a reputation for producing high-end fibre, consistently producing wool finer than the national average.
“As professional woolgrowers our simple philosophy is that looking after our sheep will ensure they look after us,” according to the group.
As demand for the group’s new range grows, it has employed Lucy McNaught as sales and marketing officer and plans are afoot to design a 100% Kangaroo Island wool rug with a local artist.
“On the island we have beautiful food and we have beautiful wine and honey, we know people love that but they are all consumables and we thought there was space for a tangible product for people to buy and take home to remember Kangaroo Island,” Christine says.
At her own farm Deep Dene, she cares for more than 5000 merino sheep with her husband Lloyd and daughter Caitlin.
Lloyd’s parents arrived as Soldier Settlers in 1955 and when Caitlin returned to the island in 2015 after studying animal husbandry in Adelaide, she became the third generation to be farming the land.
They also crop 600ha with GM-free canola, broad beans and wheat, and “we can trace where everything we produce ends up,” Christine says.
Much of the wheat is sold to South Australian company Laucke Flour Mills at Strathalbyn for bread flour and Arnott’s for biscuits.
The family is part of a proud history for the island that began farming sheep in 1836 and, at its peak, was home to 1.24 million of them.
Others among the Kangaroo Island Wool ranks are third generation farmer Simon Wheaton, whose family has been working land across the water from Kingscote at Redbanks for 100 years.
While Mitch Wilson is a fifth generation farmer whose ancestors arrived from England in the early 1860s, buying land at Willson River in 1867.
He and his wife, Ros, now shear about 12,000 sheep a year.
“Wool is a natural, renewable fibre, and Kangaroo Island Wool is dedicated to the long-term development of an industry that is socially and environmentally responsible,” the Wilsons add.
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