Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sustainable Wool Farming

Or ... who'd have ever thought my career would put me in such close proximity to sheep?

A few weeks ago, I went to Australia and visited several wool farms that practice sustainable land management. I learned all about the dangers of over-grazing, how both summer and winter native grasses help sustain food supply throughout the year, breeding techniques that eliminate the need for certain chemical treatments, the benefits of combining a flock of sheep with a flock of cattle (or a few alpaca!), natural ways to reduce soil erosion and that you don't call paddocks "fields."

In contrast to one of the farms we visited, the neighboring field used conventional techniques, including chemical pesticides and infrequent paddock rotation. The differences in the two fields was staggering. One was lush, with knee-high grasses and the other had only little shrubs and very short grasses.

The visits were very interesting and I learned a lot more than I ever expected to. My visit was initially to explore animal welfare issues in the wool industry, but took a truly educational turn once I had the chance to meet with farmers who are committed to improving the land they inherited from their fathers.

Coming into the trip, I didn't realize that the farms were family-run businesses, often passed down through several generations of farmers. At each farm, we were warmly greeted by the farmer, his wife and their adorable children. Over coffee or tea, we discussed issues like sustainable farming, wool prices, yarn quality and animal welfare. Then, we'd have a chance to actually see the paddocks, the sheep and field conditions.

The people I had the fortune to meet were so welcoming and open and generous that I feel very lucky to have spent time with them. For each of the three farms I've visited, it's clearly a family affair with wives and kids contributing to the overall well-being of the farm. It's actually a very idyllic lifestyle and one that's much simpler than the faster-paced city life I'm used to.

When we discuss wool and garments at work, we really don't discuss the human element of the farmers who toil away day after day and whose entire livelihoods depend on raising high quality sheep. We also don't get the chance to see how sustainable farming techniques can help replenish a countryside that has been exploited for generations before - to see how a new way of thinking is turning the land back to a lush, grassy landscape. And we certainly cannot see how much the farmers truly care for their flock and how animal welfare is an important element of how they run their business.

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