Meet our Growers: Omarama Station
April 5, 2018
Words: Richard and Annabelle Subtil/
Photos: Tom Powell
In 1997, Icebreaker became the first company in the world to establish long term contracts with key merino wool growers. The contracts were based on genuine trust and a mutual concern for animal welfare and the environment. Omarama Station is one of 75 contracted stations in the Southern Alps of New Zealand and home to Richard, Annabelle, Emma and Henry Subtil.
Omarama Station has been in my family since 1919 when my grandfather purchased the property. Richard and I are third generation and our children Emma and Henry will be fourth generation. Omarama Station is twelve thousand hectares of the high country of New Zealand. We're pretty much right in the middle of the South Island. We go up to about 1500 meters to the top and we're about 450 meters here. We've got nineteen and a half thousand merino sheep and we employ three people permanently.What do you enjoy about living on the land?
This is the most beautiful country in the world and this is the best part of the most beautiful country in the world. Our kids have grown up in a way that is almost impossible for any kid to do these days. We've got wide-open spaces, we've got nature, we've got fresh water, clean air and we love what we do. So, we don't live for our holidays, we live for our work and that's pretty rare and something that we value hugely and it makes getting up every day much easier and going to work. There's always challenges and it's not like it's easy, but it's something we're completely passionate about and that makes our lives a pleasure.
"Jeremy obviously was a visionary about what people really want and the sort of stinky man-made fiber just doesn't cut it."
"We breed our sheep to be specifically suited to producing Icebreaker wool and we can only do that because we've got the confidence that the contracts give us and so, at the moment there’s a 10-year contract that we are signing up to."
Animal welfare is our business. We have to be absolutely confident every day that we can justify to anybody at anytime that they can come onto the property and see what we do. If the animals aren't well looked after, then the whole thing falls to pieces. We want to partner with companies that have the same attitude, because that makes their business more reliable and sustainable. So, it's just good for us, it's good for sheep, it's good for Icebreaker.
Primarily, it's all about feeding. We need to guarantee we have got more than adequate food at all time in front of the sheep. We preserve a lot of feed so we know that we can feed them to the optimum all the time.
Merino always need to have access to good clean water, which is really important, and shelter and shade. We have a pretty extreme climate here, from hot in the summer to cold in the winter, so we cover all those eventualities. We also work very closely with our local vets and we've got an animal health program that runs throughout the year.”
The environment is extremely important to us. We feel that we were given an amazing opportunity to be here and previous generations had looked after it incredibly well. We want to make sure that we do the same thing going forward and that, if and when Emma and Henry come back to Omarama Station, that it's in better heart than when we arrived here. Which is a huge challenge, because previous generations did an amazing job!
We run an eel recovery program and a three-way relationship with the Department of Conservation, the local iwi and ourselves. The longfin eels migration has been interrupted with the building of the hydro dams in the area, so what they do now is capture the barren females up here and transport them down to the coast, so they can go off and breed. We have a wetland which is very good for the for hibernating & breeding over the winter.
We monitor and measure all our water that comes onto the property and then monitor again as it leaves the property. What we've actually found is that it actually improves as it goes through our property, which we're really thrilled about. So, we get an independent person to do that and we're part of an Omarama stream users group, so all the properties on the Omarama stream do the same sort of monitoring. So, we've got a really good feel for the water. The eels are another good indicator of water quality, because they won't survive in polluted water.
"Animal welfare is our business. We have to be absolutely confident every day that we can justify to anybody at anytime that they can come onto the property and see what we do."
It’s a silly story…which is true! A guy who went to school with Annabelle used to work in a outdoor sport shop in Christchurch and he can remember when this guy with a ring on his thumb came in and started talking about merino wool garments. The store staff just laughed, because they said, “it's about man-made fibres, you're just wrong.” The same guy said that a few years later they were having to turn people away who were looking for merino wool Icebreaker garments. Jeremy obviously was a visionary about what people really want and the sort of stinky man-made fiber just doesn't cut it. Natural merino fiber does it all and that's why we're seeing such a great expansion in the sector.How did you become a partner of Icebreaker?
It's 20 years ago since we first started with Icebreaker. Jeremy came down to the area to look for direct supply contracts which was a new idea then and it appealed to us. We liked the way that Jeremy sort of approached the business. He was really passionate about the merino fiber itself. Rather than just being a commodity, it was the whole story around the fiber. We just signed up in that first year and haven't looked back since.Could you describe the relationship with Icebreaker?
Before Icebreaker it was unheard of to have a relationship with the people who produced the garment.
We wanted to have a relationship right the way through to when it was actually walking out of the shop on someone's back and being able to see the logo and to know that part of us was in there was really important to us.
Over time, the relationship has grown, but it's grown with us working together. So, there's really good communication backwards and forwards between Icebreaker and ourselves and we know lots of the people involved. When there's a new idea or a new product we feel that we're part of making that happen. It's much more a relationship than just a business decision. Much more than that. It gives a big buzz!What do the long-term contracts mean to you?
We breed our sheep to be specifically suited to producing Icebreaker wool and we can only do that because we've got the confidence that the contracts give us and so, at the moment there’s a 10-year contract that we are signing up to. That means that for Emma and Henry, our kids, that they've got certainty for ten years. Well, that's unheard of in agriculture.
And it's at a level that is good for everyone where we're sure we're profitable and Icebreaker know what they can get. So, it's about making sure that we are confident that our future is guaranteed going forward. And that means a huge amount to us.