Offcuts: Where were you when…

Wool classing in Australia circa 1900. Photo: Wikipedia.

WE all remember where we were and what we were doing when significant events that shook Australia or the world happened.

For older Australians, the moon landing in 1969 or our America’s Cup triumph in 1983 will invariably spark nostalgic memories about watching Neil Armstrong’s famous step on TV at school or enjoying a celebratory drink in a pub as Bob Hawke declared “any boss who sacks a worker for not turning up today is a bum”.

For my generation, it might be the hype and excitement around the 2000 Sydney Olympics or the tragic and world-changing events at New York’s World Trade Center a year later that triggers the memories.

The Australian wool industry itself played host to a significant event very recently with the benchmark Eastern Market Indicator (EMI) hitting a record 2027 cents per kilogram at the end of the M48 sale week this year.

For those who’ve ridden the wool roller coaster from the exceptional seasons of the 1980s, the collapse of the reserve price scheme in 1991, record-low prices of 465c/kg in 1998 through to the market optimism of the present, this buoyant period in Australia’s wool history will be something they look back on fondly and associate with significant events of the day.

But what else was happening both at home and abroad when the key events that shaped Australia’s wool industry took place?

Take a trip back through time with us as we pinpoint some pivotal moments in our wool history and alongside them, what was happening here and around the globe at the same time.

1788: The first fat-tailed sheep arrives in Australia with the First Fleet

  • Parts of the First Fleet, comprised of 11 ships and 736 convicts, start arriving at Botany Bay, NSW on January 18th, 1788.

1840: Wool auctions begin in Australia

  • The first road from Adelaide to Port Adelaide (where Quality Wool’s original headquarters were based) is completed.
  • British Government agrees to cease sending convicts to New South Wales, after some 80,000 had been sent since 1788.
  • The Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp, becomes valid for the pre-payment of postage.

1930: Wool represents over 62% of the total export value of Australia’s primary products

  • The world economy enters the Great Depression when the stock market crashes.
  • Don Bradman scores a record 452 not out in one innings.
  • Phar Lap wins the Melbourne Cup.
  • Sliced bread goes on sale in the UK for the first time.

1950: Prosperity in the wool industry peaks with the average greasy wool price reaching 144.2 pence per pound (equivalent to $69 AUD in 2018 accounting for inflation)

  • Sir Robert Menzies is the Australian Prime Minister.
  • Petrol rationing ends in Australia, nearly ten years after it was introduced in World War Two.
  • Diners Club issues the first-ever credit cards.
  • US President Harry S Truman orders development of the hydrogen bomb, with Albert Einstein warning nuclear war could lead to mutual destruction.

1970: Wool prices bottom after 20 years of gradual decreases despite a record 180 million sheep producing approximately 890,000 tonnes of wool at the time

  • The average house price in Australia is $16,600.
  • The Beatles officially disband.
  • The world’s first jumbo-jet, the Boeing 747, has its first commercial flight from New York to London.
  • The global population reaches 3.63 billion.

1974: The reserve price scheme is introduced to provide growers with a guaranteed minimum price for their wool

  • 1974 is by far the wettest year in Australia since 1890 with an annual average of 759.65 millimetres (29.91 inches).
  • Australia’s road signs switch from imperial to metric.
  • Cyclone Tracy devastates the city of Darwin.
  • Elvis Presley’s Aloha From Hawaii television special is seen around the world by more than one billion viewers.

1991: The wool market collapses and in February 1991 the reserve price scheme is suspended when the size of the AWC stockpile reaches 4.7 million bales 

  • Quality Wool is established.
  • Bob Hawke steps down as Australian Prime Minister, succeeded by Paul Keating.
  • Australia’s economy suffers its worst recession since the Great Depression.
  • The internet is made available to unrestricted commercial use and the number of computers online reaches one million.

1998: Wool prices hit a record low of 465 cents per kilogram in October

  • John Howard’s Liberal/National coalition government is re-elected in the federal election.
  • 1998 marks the 50th anniversary of Holden’s first motor car.
  • The search engine Google is founded.
  • Microsoft becomes biggest company in the world valued at $261 billion on the New York Stock Exchange.

2001: Australia produces approximately 645,000 tonnes of greasy wool in the 12 months ending 30 June 2001 – 27 per cent of the world’s yearly output

  • Australia celebrates the centenary of Federation.
  • Ansett Australia, one of the world’s oldest airlines, goes into administration due to financial struggles.
  • The average cost of a carton of beer in Australia is $28.00 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
  • Apple releases the iPod.

2018: Wool prices hit record levels with the EMI peaking at 2027 cents per kilogram clean at the end of the M48 sale week

  • Quality Wool is in it’s 27th year of operation and services four states – South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.
  • Australia’s population reaches 24,751,668 as of June 5th – a 30 per cent increase since the start of the new millennium.
  • The average Australian wage is $81,619 and the average home loan is $388,100.
  • 2018 marks 100 years since the end of World War One.
  • Former reality TV star Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America.

Only time will tell how long the current exceptional wool prices can be sustained – in fact at the time of writing, the EMI had subsided somewhat back to 2011c/kg after a month of gains.

And while nothing is ever certain about the future, I’d wager if you repeated this same exercise in 50 years time, the recent period of prosperity would still be seen as a significant event in Australia’s agricultural history.

So enjoy it while we’re in the moment and be sure to stop and smell the roses!

Kane McKay