Sophie Allen’s career as a Melbourne event designer came to an abrupt end last year when COVID-19 restrictions temporarily shut down the events industry.
- Australia is in the midst of a shearing shortage
- It comes as wool prices recover from a slump last year
- Domestic Chinese demand is driving the rebound
With no work on the horizon, she was told by her employer the pandemic restrictions would mean she would be “long-term stood down”.
Those same restrictions inadvertently opened the door to a new career — one in regional Victoria.
When international borders shut, Australia’s wool industry quickly found itself in the grips of a shearer shortage.
“My boyfriend is a shearer and he said there was a big demand for rouseabouts,” Ms Allen said.
She moved to the small town of Balmoral, in Victoria’s western district, and hasn’t looked back.
“The income is very consistent and I like the work, so it’s become a full-time job,” she said.
Hundreds of New Zealand workers usually fly into Australia to help shear the clip and shearing crews work across the country.
This year, Ms Allen’s only overseas colleague is Glaswegian backpacker Rhona MacDonald.
Ms MacDonald arrived in Australia last year and, instead of flying home when the pandemic arrived last March, she took a role on a Northern Territory cattle property and, later, as a full-time rouseabout in Victoria.
“I decided it would be better here, living rurally, and it turns out it was better than being back in Scotland,” Ms MacDonald said.
Ms Allen and Ms MacDonald are among a team of young women cobbled together to help with a six-week shearing program at woolgrower Michael Craig’s West Wimmera farm at Harrow, about 400 kilometres north-west of Melbourne.
“We’re a very labour-intensive industry, and this year we’ve put our shed together with a collection of different people,” Mr Craig said.
“I think we’re really fortunate in our shed. There’s a multitude of different people, different backgrounds, and they all get along really well.”
Ms MacDonald has worked in sheds across Victoria. She said each shearing program had been held up by a lack of workers.
“There is a shortage and shearing has been going on a lot longer this year.
“People usually hope to have their sheep shorn at a certain time, and that’s not really been the case this year.”
Inside the woolshed where Ms Allen and Ms MacDonald will work for the next six weeks a sense of optimism hangs in the air.
Initially, the effects of the pandemic and a trade spat with China seemed like they might carry long-term damaging consequences for the wool industry.
While people around the world worked from their homes and the number of weddings and parties plummeted, so too did the price of wool.
By September last year, wool prices had sunk to levels not seen in 11 years. Then, things started to dramatically improve.
“We’ve gone from one extreme to the other, Mr Craig said.
“Combined with the effect of drought, there was a lot of fine wool on the market and we saw this massive drop in price but, 12 months on, surprisingly, we’re back to level prices before the pandemic.”
Demand for tailored woollen clothing like formal suits has almost evaporated, but one bright spot has been a sharp uptick in people wanting comfortable, sports-style woollen garments.
Australian Wool Innovation CEO Stuart McCullough said the industry’s push to incorporate wool into high-performance sporting gear and more casual styles of clothing was paying off.
“A huge amount of wool goes into tailored textiles, so we don’t expect knitwear to supplement that right at the moment,” he said.
“But it continues to grow — accessories are doing really well, hats and scarves [are too] because people are walking to work, so those things are doing very well.
“Coats are doing very well. We’re getting new levels of volume there.”
China is buying almost 90 per cent of Australia’s wool exports and consumers there are the main source of demand.
“They’re very important to us, because they not only have the sheer number of people, they’ve got the climate and they have affluence as well,” Mr McCullough said.
“At the moment, from our point of view, it’s all about China.”
Diplomatic tensions between Australia and China have dealt some bruising blows to Australian agricultural exports over the past 12 months.
But while the wool trade faced some harsh economic headwinds, it has been unaffected by the trade tensions.
From January, China opened the door to higher volumes of Australian wool.
Mr McCullough said Australia’s dominance in wool production, and China’s significant wool processing industry, meant the trade was in a stronger position than other commodities.
“From a government-to-government point of view, we have zero control,” he said.
“But from an industry-to-industry point of view, we have great relationships with the Chinese wool industry that have been built over the last 50 years.”
After watching the trade tensions play out last year, Mr Craig has some hesitation about dependency on China as a buyer.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said.
“It’s great we have a market for our product and that there’s a really dedicated processing that goes on in China — that’s fantastic.
“I hope and pray it never happens, but what if China suddenly did decide to shut the market down?”
Back in the woolshed, Sophie Allen says she has no intention of moving back to Melbourne.
Instead, she’s planning on using the money she’s making from working as a rouseabout to start her own regional events company.
“It’s definitely mentally and physically challenging, it pushes you to your physical limits,” she said.
“But if you’re willing to sweat and have a crack, it’s a very rewarding industry, too.”