Loyal retiree holds out hope for wool industry

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Stuart Catto is a dyed-in-the-wool man of wool – literally.

On Friday, Mr Catto (67) will accept the last wool from his Oamaru wool business, Catto Wool, and close the doors for good, after a life in the industry.

While he had no regrets about the career he chose, he had a small regret that he was unable to convince a buyer to take over the business, he said.

But retirement was approaching and he was looking forward to spending more time with his wife, fishing trout and baiting, hunting pigs, deer, wallabies and goats, and driving on back roads he had never traveled before.

Raised on a farm near Gore, Mr Catto started fighting for the local shearers around the age of 12 and continued until he left school at 17. He went to Lincoln for two years, studying wool.

After Lincoln he was offered a selection of jobs and chose to work for Mair Wool in Christchurch, a firm which was essentially an auction appraiser.

Then in 1986 he bought an existing wool buying business in Oamaru and moved south.

He had spent two years driving heavy machinery in Twizel, with hydroelectric development, in the late 1970s and had gotten to know people from North Otago, so it wasn’t entirely unheard of.

At this stage the business was based in Tyne St, but then needed more space and Catto Wool moved to Harbor St in the heart of the city’s historic quarter in 1991.

But back then it wasn’t the bustling attraction it later became – “no one cared about it back then” – and he took half the building first, then the three quarters, then the whole space.

Later more space was needed and premises in Tyne St were rented.

The last six or seven years have been particularly difficult and, although Mr Catto said he always tries to take a glass half full rather than a negative approach, it is becoming very difficult to do.

But he remained hopeful that the industry would do well.

“I’m still looking for hope on the other end. Surely there is light at the end of the horizon now.”

Known for his own woolen clothes, Mr Catto said one of his pet beef was farmers who didn’t believe in their own industry, whether it was wearing synthetic – or plastic – clothes. or lay synthetic carpets in their homes.

“When that starts happening, you might as well throw in the towel. You have to believe in your own products,” he said.

Mr. Catto’s work has covered a wide area, from the summit of the Styx to Waikouaiti, the Lindis Pass, Twizel, the summit of the Hakataramea Valley and Waimate.

In the heyday, it was not uncommon to work 14-hour days and he had the same routines; breakfast was once mutton pie at McGregor’s Tea Rooms in Palmerston; recently it was at Vanessa’s Cottage Cafe in Hampden.

In the 2021-22 season, Beef + Lamb New Zealand estimates that shearing expenditure will account for 99% of wool income for the average farmer, up from 36% in the 2016-17 season (before the sharp downturn demand and prices for wool).

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