Farming for Fashion - New Zealand Cashmere

Renaissance is a French word meaning “rebirth” and that is just what Southern Otago farmers David and Robyn Shaw are setting out to achieve with New Zealand Cashmere, a new premium enterprise focused on opening up new opportunities for New Zealand farmers.   Cashmere’s mystique, exquisite softness and incredible warmth for weight, positions it in a category of its own for luxury fashion garments. 

New Zealand Cashmere was officially formed about 12 months ago to establish a better identity and provide a fulcrum, or focal point, to grow the industry on.  Our “Farming for Fashion” project is now taking Cashmere to farmers. 

New Zealand Cashmere recently announced a partnership with Christchurch-based lifestyle fashion brand, Untouched World and Wellington-based yarn engineering firm, Woolyarns. Together they have developed a strategy to commercialise New Zealand grown cashmere fibre.  Research has also demonstrated strong international interest in New Zealand’s potential to produce “world-class” cashmere. 

Through the 80’s goat farming boomed then crashed.  The 1987 meltdown took out the international fibre contracts, “Queen Street farmers” and centralised warehouse structure.  The Labour government changed the livestock tax rules that fuelled crazy animal prices and the balloon popped.  But the allure of cashmere in the elite fashion streets of Milan, London and Tokyo never changed.

30 years on and cashmere in New Zealand had mostly been forgotten about.  David was first introduced to goats at university and was attracted to this new industry at a time when 1 in 6 farmers had goats.  As farmers bailed out that created an opportunity and David picked up several leading flocks.  He had always liked the animal and the fibre, so persisted over the years, encouraged by rapid genetic improvement and the way the goats integrated into his sheep and beef farming operation. 

“Our fibre testing shows we are producing “exceptional” fibre as fine as 12 micron.   Hoggets are producing 14 micron and does in the 16s.  Research has found it longer, whiter and brighter than cashmere sourced from leading producers in Mongolia and China.  14 micron fibre represents the top 2% of Chinese fibre so we are producing something pretty special.”

That is interesting, because existing supply chains are facing headwinds and challenges brought about by overstocking, climate change and crossbreeding causing a decline in quality.  Integrity of yarn components and now growing awareness of plastics and synthetics in clothing further expand the possibilities.

 “The decision to persist was an easy one and it has taken us on an interesting journey. What hasn’t changed is the demand, positioning and value of cashmere. In the prestigious and in luxury fashion world, it reigns supreme.  New Zealand is uniquely positioned.  We all see the success of Merino but they have a limited dry climatic range.  We now have the opportunity to combine cashmere built on 150 years of feral resilience developed from wetter regions.  Goats naturally roam many North Island farms, so why not manage them as some farmers do with great success. We also don’t have the Angora confusion of the 80’s, put the right type of goat on the right country.”

“Thirty years ago we started with a few multicoloured `ferals’. Today our goats are not only producing amazing fibre, they are integrated into our intensive beef and sheep finishing operation, improving its performance. They have developed as a productive, resilient, low-input and complementary farm animal.  No dagging, crutching, flystrike, cast, tailing, facial eczema, TB or Nait.

 “Goats can play a key role in converting weeds which become valuable forage without the use of chemicals.  Natural nitrogen-fixing white clover increases because goats prefer to leave it for other stock.  It all just adds to the natural, sustainable and regenerative New Zealand story.  Robyn and I believe this is the direction we need to take to make farming future-proof,” he said.

After years of breeding and selection, the modern cashmere goat surpassed what they imagined was possible, Mr Shaw said.  Today there are now several decades of research and farming experience to grow off.

It is difficult to accurately establish goat numbers in New Zealand but killing figures were consistently about 120,000 every year.  Goat meat sells for similar FOB prices per ton as lamb and in many markets – Hispanic, Latin American, Mediterranean, Philippines and Malaysia, and the Middle East is it preferred.

Their first target is 25,000 goats producing the fibre which is a very modest target.  The growing interest puts them part way there already.   This would provide between about five and 10 tonnes of fibre “coming through the system” which can then be simply scaled.

Goats are a low risk opportunity for farmers by replacing some of their poorer producing stock or being complementary and utilising parts of pasture other livestock don’t eat.   800 cashmere goats currently represent about 10% of David’s stock numbers but mostly utilize pasture components otherwise wasted by cattle and sheep.  

Lessons had been learned from the industry’s earlier implosion, including how to farm goats extremely well and integrate them into farming operations, particularly in beef systems and in the hill country.  Many environmental issues can be helped by adding goats – they stay out of waterways, can substitute other livestock in sensitive catchments where there were issues around nutrient and sediment run-off, control briar, blackberry, gorse and wilding pines.

What was missing in the 1990s was a market for the fibre. They have been building relationships and much research had gone into who to partner with. The value chain is now back together.  Fibre value to farmers will exceed $100 / kg

Untouched World, founded by Christchurch businesswoman Peri Drysdale, had been using cashmere for some of its lines but it was all of Asian origin.  It made sense for its storyline to use fibre with New Zealand provenance and all the attributes that brought to their story, Mr Shaw said.

Obviously, goats are “not for everybody” but we do not need everybody doing it, Mr Shaw said.  New Zealand Cashmere was offering the opportunity for like-minded farmers to work with them to develop the national flock into a “resurgent, premium export industry”.

What’s needed now…is more fibre which translates into 25,000 goats required immediately to accelerate the “Farming for Fashion” project.

Look out for them on “Country Calendar” 24th Feb  or at  www.nzcashmere.com

Katie BrowningComment