With flock numbers at historic lows, a divisive mulesing debate raging and all manner of market forces bearing down, today’s Australian wool producers face immense challenges. But, once again, the masters of the golden fleece are drawing on the ingenuity and determination that have epitomised the wool industry for more than 160 years.

Story By Amanda Burdon

When Irishman Roderick O’Connor took up land near Avoca in Tasmania in 1830, Australia’s wool industry was in its infancy. But the native pastures of the emerald Fingal Valley were ideally suited to sheep grazing and he rapidly grew his flock to about 2000 head. The annual clip, shipped to England, commanded good prices and gave the O’Connors a sound footing in their new homeland.
Roderick’s descendent Frank O’Connor, a sixth-generation woolgrower and past president of the Australian Superfine Wool Growers’ Association, still recalls those waterborne wool shipments, but there is little else about the family’s farming operation that resembles that of his forebear. The O’Connors now run about 20,000 superfine Merinos on Roderick’s smaller holding – 18,500-hectare “Benham” – and produce sleek, award-winning 16-micron fleeces that go into some of Italy’s finest suits.
Before 60-year-old Frank retired in 2003, wool constituted three-quarters of his overall farm income and provided employment for six stockmen. Now his 30-year-old son, Robert, is single-handedly overseeing a very different farming enterprise, with wool income down to one-third. Like many of their traditional wool-growing neighbours, the O’Connors have added prime lambs, cattle and cropping (cereals, oilseeds and poppies) to the mix.
“There are still large portions of Benham that only lend themselves to wool-growing, however we needed to look at other alternatives,” Robert says. “But I still get a buzz out of sheep and wool, and delivering to those exclusive markets, and it gives us some risk management against the cropping.”
But as for whether his two-year-old son, Oliver, will become the family’s eighth-generation woolgrower, that’s another question. “Wool is still one of the most sustainable enterprises on our place but it has to perform well against our other interests,” Robert says. “While heritage is important, wool-growing today is a very specialised business.”
Strong historic ties and enduring traditions are woven through wool-growing in Australia. The story of how Spanish-bred sheep came to dominate our unforgiving terrain is celebrated in our music, art, literature, architecture and politics; sheep will forever roam the romantic landscape of our imagination. Although Australia’s economic dependence on wool has long been diminished, it was in the paddocks and sweat-stained shearing sheds that our labour movement was born and white Australia’s cultural identity took shape.

This story excerpt is from Issue #60

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2008