Wool Classer - Graham Traves

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A shearing shed in full swing is a fascinating scene to observe; the pace is fast, the stakes high and there’s a constant, concentrated thrum of activity. And presiding over it all is the wool classer. He or she stands at the sorting table, receiving each fleece as it comes still warm, from the sheep, then sorts, classifies and grades it to be sold at the best possible market price.

One Farm Day recently visited a wool shed near Cargo in NSW. We were there to meet wool classer Graham Traves and found him, like the rest of the crew, sitting down and enjoying the last few minutes of ‘smoko’. It was a warm Spring afternoon and the sheep were waiting patiently outside under a cluster of peppercorn trees. The scene was quiet and calm, but once 3.30pm ticked over, the entire crew rose on cue and returned to their stations. Like clockwork.

Graham has been a wool classer for just over 40 years. He lives in Canowindra and during the shearing season (July-November), works across the region’s major sheds. So it’s fair to say that this is a man that knows and loves his wool.

“I get a kick out of seeing what the market will do next,” Graham says, “what style of wool it’s asking for and then working with the brokers and graziers to deliver just that”.

As long as the shears are going, Graham stands at the table, totally absorbed in his work. As fleece after fleece is thrown at him, Graham measures and then assesses it for quality before indicating to the shed hand, which pack it should to be pressed into. Throughout this process, the grazier or property owner hovers at his side. “This is their livelihood,” Graham says, “these blokes wait and invest over twelve months for the wool to come off so I understand they’re anxious to see how the clip shapes up.”

Most of Graham’s work is repeat business and he also works closely with a number of wool brokers. “I never get any pressure from the graziers when classing their wool,” he says, “but the brokers might sometimes suggest I concentrate on a specific area or trend which is helpful, it’s good to know where the market is going.”

Graham has decades of experience in the wool game and is keen to share his experience with newcomers, “in a good shed you’ll all work together and everyone knows what to do. Generally a crew like this is great at helping learners, we all get in there, encourage them and give suggestions”.

“But on the flip side, it only takes one bad worker to upset the whole lot, so you have to control that, just as with any other workplace.”

While the Central Tablelands isn’t traditionally considered a world class producer of fine merino wool, Graham is the region’s biggest advocate, “When I was first getting in to the wool game, I was told that Canowindra and the surrounding area was too good for merino sheep, that it was more suited to prime fat lambs and Tasmania and Golburn were the go, but when you get out and start looking around, it’s pretty clear that this area is as much suited to wool as it is to growing lambs.”

To prove his point, Graham points to the fleece that’s just been thrown like a parachute, across his sorting table, “this wool will probably end up in a high quality wool suit," he says, "most of the wool I’m are seeing here today is very fine, around 17-18 micron. It's is lovely wool,” he confirms with a nod.

In addition to his wool classing work, Graham is also heavily involved with the family’s Poll Dorset stud, and shares the work load with his three brothers, “I’m the stud and farm manager and my brothers help part-time.”

So how did a farm boy turn into a wool classer?

“I was always taken with the wool industry,” Graham says, “so shortly after finishing school, I took my wool classing certificate, and learnt the rest on the job.”

Beginning his classing career just before the wool boom of the seventies when Australia had a record 170 million sheep, Graham has seen the highs and lows of an industry that once carried Australia’s economy.  He recalls the spectacular collapse of the reserve price scheme in 1991, an event that left such a large stockpile of wool that it took almost a decade to sell off. This in itself encouraged many graziers to switch to lamb production and  merino numbers dropped dramatically.

But even though the reserve collapse meant tough times for the entire wool industry, Graham was no fan of that system; “with the reserve, there was no incentive for growers to be innovative, they started growing for weight rather than quality and we saw a lots of average wools coming through the market.”

“Since we lost the reserve scheme, price is now more reflective of quality so graziers are driven to innovate and grow better wool.

“Over the past decade,” Graham says, “I’ve seen very fast take up of available scientific advances. Farmers now take samples from each sheep so they can track what micron they produce. They are getting smart about how they breed their sheep and what they feed them all in order to produce exactly the kind of wool the market wants. And as a result, we are now seeing much broader, well-styled wools that are much finer than they look.”

It seems that Graham thrives among the buzz of a hard working shearing shed and he certainly recommends the career to anyone interested in pursuing agriculture from a different angle, “if you can, start your wool classing studies while still at school, then go to TAFE, get some experience as a shed hand and most importantly, do your research and follow the market trends."


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