Building a brand around your wool, while being recognised for best farming practices, attracted Tasmanian wool growers James and Jess Downie to embrace the world’s leading ethical wool program ZQ.
Built on the foundations of ZQ, New Zealand Merino’s (NZM) ZQRX program provides a mechanism to recognise the work growers do that goes above and beyond and its outcomes reflect the natural ecosystems, resources and values of each individual grower and their property as they work to improve outcomes over time.
James and Jess are sixth generation farmers operating Dungrove Station, an expansive mixed sheep and cattle operation, in conjunction with James’ sisters Bec Downie and Emma Boon. Dungrove Station is situated near the historic township of Bothwell in central Tasmania, home to the fertile farmlands in the Clyde River Valley. It is much more than a large sheep and cattle enterprise as you are about to find out.
The innovative couple are excited to be involved with ZQRX. James said it acknowledges what their enterprise is already doing around animal health and management, ecological management, people and business and biodiversity and carbon.
“It encapsulates all of this and allows you to build a brand around your wool. Our goal with our wool is to have the story carried through to the consumer and it is really good to know consumers and brands have confidence in the wool industry,’’ he said.
Jess agrees saying ZQRX is a natural progression for their business. “We are already doing a lot of what is involved, so this program is just taking it to the next level,’’ she said.
ZQ is the wool of choice for some of the world’s most well-known apparel brands. It is only available to brands via its forward contract model and direct spot contracts which protect brands from volatility in the commodity market and give growers confidence in the market and its requirements.
James’ grandfather introduced the Cormo sheep breed in the 1960s, by crossing a Saxon ewe with a Corriedale, and the family continues with that bloodline today.
James said they had selected and introduced new genetics however the 20.5 micron sheep, which had evolved with the landscape, was low maintenance and hardy and had stood the test of time. “It also has highly sought wool characteristics being very high yielding with a very soft staple,’’ he said.
“We like to market our wool this way as the program gives a good indication of where the consumer demand is. It sets parameters of what consumers expect and it is always good to navigate towards that.
“I like that the program is developed from the consumers’ point of view and comes from the top down as opposed to traditional marketing which comes from the bottom up. We are required to provide what the brands want, which is determined by what the consumer wants.’’
ZQRX utilises user-friendly modelling, real-time metrics and machine learning to cover aspects of environmental and social responsibility, people management and animal welfare. The program supports, recognises and measures improvement over time while also guiding growers through the latest farming solutions and strategies to help them as they work to make changes in their business. James said in meeting the animal welfare metric it was more than just having non-mulesed sheep.
“Other requirements include skilled stockmen and good facilities. We need to be getting our jobs done calmly and efficiently and be able to provide evidence that we are meeting these benchmarks,’’ he said.
ZQRX growers are working hard to leave the land better than they found it with initiatives including restoring waterways, protecting native species, working to offset carbon and enhancing their local communities. At Dungrove Station carbon offsets are achieved through a native forest with carbon credits sold to Qantas and other corporations.
James said he had recently registered a project with the Emissions Reduction Fund. “We will be taking carbon out of the air and putting it back into the soil. To achieve this, we take soil core samples, have them analysed and this gives us a baseline of the carbon in the soil. Effective grazing management is implemented and any increase in carbon levels in three to five years is measured and sold. It is a lot of work but very worthwhile,’’ he said.
Effective grazing management is a vital component of their operation, with the properties strategically located to benefit both the land and the animals and make the most of the natural resources.
“We have high country at an altitude of about 900m which enables us to move the livestock with the season. This enables us to strategically rest the country and keep the health of the land robust. We’ve been doing this very successfully for 120 years,’’ James explained.
Introducing irrigation has ensured feed is available for winter with stock being brought back to Dungrove Station when the temperature drops in the high country. The synergy between the properties is also complemented by 48 wind turbines which were commissioned in 2019.
AWN regional manager Hobart, Tony Bradfield described the Downies’ enterprise as an innovative, unique family farm. “James and Jess have put water on Dungrove, they are involved in forestry and are unique in their grazing systems. They are very forward thinking and in tune with the environment,’’ he said.
“They were attracted to NZM as they wanted to see their wool go to a unique place and are very connected to what they do.’’ A lot of wool growers are already doing all the metrics, according to James.
“ZQRX allows us to join the dots and match up with what we are already doing. Consumers want a product which is grown kindly, which is good for the animal and the environment and that’s what many farmers are doing. It offers good long-term benefits, and we are very happy to be involved.’