1 March 2002

NO WOOLLY THINKER

Farmer Frank Langrish is

heading up the wool board

at a crucial time in its

history. Tim Relf meets him

FRANK Langrish is sitting in his East Sussex farmhouse, talking animatedly about the "frustration factor" in farming nowadays.

High on his list is the system of animal movement licences post foot-and-mouth. Hes using words like "convoluted", "fiasco" and "unworkable". And DEFRA are firmly in his sights.

"If I call, they know to look out," says the farmer, haulier and chairman of the British Wool Marketing Board.

"Its not as if theres anything new about moving sheep on the Marsh. Its gone on for hundreds of years."

And Frank should know. The Langrishes have been farming around Rye for the last century. He can trace his family back to the time of Cromwell when they were sheep farmers on the Hampshire Downs.

Today, Langrish Farmers is a family partnership – an all-grass system, with three separate flocks finishing about 3000 head a year. Its a low input, relatively low output system, with two-thirds of the ground SSSI. "We havent fed our ewes out of a bag since 1963," he says.

The farm grosses £9000 or £10,000 a year from the 15-20t of wool produced nowadays. As Frank says: "It grows whatever we do and its got to be cut off once a year – so you might as well make as much money from it as possible."

But hes only too well aware of how wool prices have plummeted, as the New Zealand $ has lost value against the £. "I can remember when wool was a third of our income."

He recalls, when he was a boy, how a fleece could be worth £4 or £5 while a fat lamb might have made £7 or £8. Last summer it was more like £20 for a lamb and £3 for a fleece.

"The danger is that if the price of wool doesnt rise and the volume handled doesnt rise, then the cost incurred in handling and selling will rise. There comes a point when some producers will argue you might as well shear sheep and dump it. This is something we desperately want to avoid.

"Most farmers at least expect the price of wool to cover the cost of shearing – that has not always happened."

The UK is the worlds fourth largest wool producer after Australia, New Zealand and China. But quantities have shrunk, with less than 70,000 producers now compared with 100,000 four years ago. Current annual production of 36kg compares with a peak of 50m kg.

&#42 Price trend

The falling price trend will, he predicts, be reversed "naturally" as there is no longer a world surplus. And farmers can improve returns, by producing "clean white wool" which makes a premium.

F&M has, ironically, had a beneficial effect on the quality of the national wool clip, says Frank. The national flock has got younger with big numbers of older sheep taken out by the welfare scheme. And many Swaledale and Herdwick flocks have been replaced by Cheviots which produce a very good quality white fleece.

Frank also hopes prices will rise as a result of his "modernisation" plans at the BWMB which include reorganising depots to increase efficiency.

Such changes have involved redundancies – something which he says he "has not much liked doing."

"But we will save £0.5m in wages in the current year."

His plans havent been universally welcomed. "There is a resistance. Some people do not like to admit times have moved on."

But hes no stranger to controversy, having been involved with the calf export trade pre-BSE and with sheep exporting until F&M. "You had to be careful about opening your mail."

Live exports were, he maintains, a "legitimate trade" and one that makes sense. "From this farm, you can get to Paris in four-and-a-half hours. It can take me longer than that to get to Birmingham which is the nearest export abattoir now."

Father-of-three Frank spends about 80 days a year on wool board business. It does, he says, pretty much what it was set up to do in 1951 – collecting, grading, packing and auctioning the wool.

&#42 Enough to do

As for how long he will do the job, he is unsure. "The last chairman did 17 years. I have no plans to do that." Besides, there is more than enough to keep him busy on the farm. "I actually do not do much farming any more – my time is mostly taken up by bureaucracy.

"I dont have a problem with the sheep. Its the bureaucrats I have a problem with."

He muses about how the farm employs fewer people on the land but now needs a secretary two days a week. "We got rid of the staff that look after the animals and replaced them with staff to look after the paperwork."