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Farmers, and the farming industry, often talk about getting closer to the customer. Mostly, that's where it remains; talk.

But three South Island merino farming families have decided to walk the talk to take their wool from a sheep to a person's back.

Mihi Merino (mihi being a Maori greeting to pay tribute to or acknowledge) has been two years in the making for the Pattie family of Glencairn in Seddon, the Pitts of Mt Gladstone in the Awatere Valley and the Simpsons of Balmoral Station in Tekapo.

This week they officially opened a Mihi Merino retail shop in Fairlie, linking into the main tourist route from Christchurch to Queenstown.

Achieving this, in what is a quite complex, distant and fragmented processing and garment creation chain has been no mean feat says MM general manager, Mark Buckley, a 30 year wool processing veteran inspired to come onboard by the owners' passion and commitment to wool.

"There's a lot of factors involved in processing the wool, as well as the whole issue of timelines that need to be understood," he says. Aligning these aspects with cashflow is one area that's caught out farmers attempting something similar in the past.

For a start, getting the wool off the sheep's back - pre-lamb shearing in early spring - and getting it back as a cloth or fabric is a six to eight month exercise.

Ironically, there's no early stage worsted wool processing facilities left in New Zealand, so the greasy merino wool, with an average micron of either 18.3 or 19.5 has to be sent to Taiwan for scouring and top making, before heading to India for spinning. (Note: there's one woolen processing plant left, this produces a 'rougher' more uneven yarn compared to worsted which keeps the individual fibres more parallel).

The yarn is brought back to Levin for knitting, dyeing and fabric finishing, before being cut, made and trimmed in Timaru.

"Making up the garments and working in with the designer's the simplest part," says Buckley. The company policy is to have as much NZ-made content as possible, "and this strikes a cord with the people who come into the shop."

Originally MM was going to target the under-25 demographic, but the company's found that those who more appreciate the clothing, and who can afford it, are the 35+ age group.

MM will look to open more stores, if and when it is economically feasible, but for now will look to create awareness of its brand and products.

"We'd like to see people buy our product at the store, and after they've gone away, buy it online to some degree," says Buckley.

And while the company would like to sell the brand in other retail outlets, the reality of having such a high NZ content means it couldn't be competitively sold at equivalent price points to other merino clothing.

"The next stage for us is to consolidate our following," he says. "Already we have next season's colours and ranges to work through; it’s a very long-winded process. There's a year in the planning to get to a garment."
Among the lessons learned by the company's partners are the huge raft of processing issues.

The company would also acknowledge there's been challenges with marketing, branding and website design.

"A lot of money's gone into a black hole with very little back at the moment," says Buckley. "But we'd prefer to think of it as an investment. Even just setting up the retail store itself is mind-boggling. That itself is not just about getting a lease and opening the doors."

Part of the brand's success will be because the farming families all share the same environmental philosophy, and all manage their properties in a sustainable, renewable way. Even the shop recycles as much as it can Buckley says, and like the farms themselves, aims to minimise its carbon footprint.

"Mihi Merino delivers what the market wants," he says. "High quality garments with a traceable value chain."

As much however, the exercise is about taking charge of their own market and future.

"There's no greater buzz that the owners get than feedback from people saying that the Mihi Merino garment's they've bought are just great."

Farmers walk the talk, taking their own wool from a sheep to person's back

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