8 weeks in the shearing shed all comes down to this one day. In fact the entire year of farming comes down to it as well. The annual wool sale in Port Elizabeth is where we sell our wool to international buyers who come from all over the world.
It’s a nail-biting experience to say the least as there are so many influencing factors that affect the overall price that we get at the end of the day.
The main factor is obviously the quality of our wool. Which is determined a lot by the conditions during the previous year. Did we have a good season with plentiful grazing and good weather? How did the ewes come through lambing? Having twins or rearing young in challenging conditions affects the quality of the wool they all ultimately produce.
The exchange rate on the day also plays a massive part, and even a 1% dip in the market can make a huge difference to the annual turnover. How well we accurately class the wool makes a big impact as well. There’s a real knack to identifying the different grades and lengths of wool, and considering it’s all sorted by eye and hand, I think we did a really good job! Thankfully so did the wool inspector.
But before it gets to the auction room there’s a lengthily process the wool goes through to get from farm to foreign buyer. So I’ll take you on a little tour of how it all happens if you like…
The big truck that collected our wool bales earlier last month, makes the three hour drive to the coast, where the wool is delivered to the huge storage and processing plant in Port Elizabeth.
On arrival the bales are off loaded and one by one they get brought into the holding unit on a conveyor belt.
But first they have to pass through a metal detector.
Not necessarily a safety precaution, but because so many bales get delivered with foreign objects that find their way into the wool.
Just in the five minutes that we were there four bales got pulled off the production line.
And this is what got pulled out of the one bale. My boots excluded of course.
The problem is so common, that they even have a dedicated table of “artifacts” that have been recovered over the years.
Once the bales get brought through the plant and allocated to their specific lots, slits are cut open into the bag in case small samples are needed to be taken from each bale to be sent off for testing either for random quality control or if the buyers request it.
But it’s not just a quick grab and go, there’s a very fair and technical process of taking a sample of all the wool in the bale. A special machine with a mechanical arm that reaches in and takes a random “grab” from the full length of the bale to make sure an equal mix of all the contents is taken, and prevents people trying to sneak in better quality wool closer to the sides, or the centre.
The sample that is extracted is then put into a small plastic bag labelled with the producers details, and proposed class of the contents. Air is circulated in the bag to help separate the wool, and it’s then sealed up and sent off to the lab.
The samples are sent off to be tested at an independent lab so an accurate description of the quality, class and length can be determined and the information relayed to the buyers before the sale if they request it so they know for certain that the wool is of the correct class.
While the samples are being tested, the wool bales are stored in their allocated lots awaiting the day of the sale.
It really helps speed up the process if the wool is classed correctly at shearing time to begin with, and the farmers earn a reputation for well-classed wool which really helps the buyers build up a relationship with the producers knowing that they will be getting consistent quality.
A sample of each class of wool from each supplier is put out on display for the buyers to go through and inspect before the sale.
And there are literally thousands of samples on display! If there are any disputes then the buyers can request the official test results, but often they go by their own eye and experience, as well as the reputation of the suppliers themselves. So it’s all the more reason to always class correctly and produce good quality, consistent wool.
Then it’s off to the auction. Representatives of all the major wool buyers all over the world start off the bidding and when your lot number comes up you do hold your breath for an unnaturally long period!
But it all went well and gave us a great sense of achievement and that all our hard work over the past year has paid off. Now it’s back to the start as we kick off the whole process of growing wool for the coming year all over again.