A key objective of the Irish National Rural Network (NRN) is to promote innovative and inspiring initiatives that can help people in the farming community and in rural areas to maximize the success of the objectives set out in Ireland’s Rural Development Programme (RDP) on behalf of the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine (DAFM). A recent NRN case study on the Irish Wool Industry carried out with Blátnaid Gallagher who farms near the historical Village of Aughrim in east Co. Galway, who availed of LEADER funding to help establish the Galway Wool Co-op in June 2021, is a key example of how the network communicates important opportunities and outputs in the RDP to the general public, particularly those involved in farming and interested in rural affairs.
The Irish Wool Industry
Wool is a sustainable, organic, renewable natural material which can be used in a wide range of products such as textiles, fertilisers, insulation and packaging. Whilst wool production was an important component of the agricultural industry in Ireland in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80s, today Irish farmers breed sheep mainly for meat, resulting in wool being considered as a secondary product. This shift in focus within the sheep sector has resulted in high quality native Irish wool, such as that of the Galway Sheep breed’s, seeping into the national wool clip, however, and subsequently haemorrhaging out to the Asian Wool Markets predominantly classified as waste, resulting in a high-value product becoming a low-value one, with the price of wool having plummeted to as low as 20 cent per kg. Furthermore, the majority of woollen products found in Irish woollen mills and retail shops are produced from imported wool, further contributing to the poor price returns, and recognition of premium quality, carbon friendly, native Irish wool.
The Galway Wool Co-op
Having obtained a MSc in AgInnovation: Agricultural Innovation and Entrepreneurship from NUI Galway in 2019, Blátnaid Gallagher founded the Galway Wool Co-op in January 2021 with other members of the Galway Sheep Breeders Society in an effort to reverse the decline of the dual-purpose Galway purebred population, Ireland’s only native sheep breed, by establishing niche market opportunities domestically and internationally for Galway Wool, a native Irish grown bio-fibre. Using its LEADER funded website as its headquarters, this innovative Co-op, now comprising of 70 pedigree registered Galway Sheep flocks throughout Ireland, ranging from five to 80 sheep, is the first virtual Co-op of its kind in Ireland.
Following a number of Zoom meetings and WhatsApp conversations between this farmer-owned and run co-operative during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, their hard work and determination to create a separate and direct supply chain for Galway wool to yarn makers finally paid off in June 2021 with the sale of its first batch of native Irish Galway wool to Donegal Yarn, who offered the Co-op a fair and equitable price of between €2 to €2.50 per kg for the Galway breed’s wool, as opposed to the average market price of just 20 cent per kg. Donegal Yarn sell directly to weavers and knitters in Ireland and all over the world from its spinning mill in Kilcar, Co. Donegal. As part of this transaction 5,400kg of clean rolled, premium Galway fleece was collected, weighed, and prepared for supply to Donegal Yarn by Co-op members during a special ‘Wool Meitheal’ event held in Athenry Mart, Co. Galway, marking a historic day for Irish wool sales, with the group achieving almost 12 times above the going rate for their premium produce.
Support from the LEADER Programme
Ireland’s LEADER Programme 2014-2020 (extended to 2022), co-funded by the European Union, played a key role in supporting this locally-led initiative to establish an e-commerce marketplace and trading platform in the form of a dedicated Galway Wool Co-op website as well as a range of promotional material including a video (see here).
Since its inception in 1991, the multi-annual LEADER Programme has been the mainstay of rural community development here Ireland, providing local actors with the necessary resources and support to enable them to actively engage and direct the local development of their area in an innovative, integrated and inclusive manner through its ‘bottom up’ framework. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic the LEADER Programme remained fully operational with Local Development Companies throughout the country working tirelessly to continue to deliver much needed support and assistance to their local communities. Such efforts are typified by Galway Rural Development’s ongoing collaboration with the Galway Wool Co-op, as well as other innovative farm diversification initiatives, through the LEADER funding process. Commenting on this experience, explains that ‘LEADER funding was critical to the start-up of this initiative. We are truly grateful for the support given by Galway Rural Development (GRD), for all their hard work and continued help through the grant process’.
Steve Dolan, CEO of Galway Rural Development (GRD) highlights that ‘more than a dozen food and agriculture-related companies in east Galway benefitted from LEADER grant approvals from Galway Rural Development in the last year. Grants totalling more than €620k, of more than €1.5m approved, were offered to agri-businesses right across East Galway’. The Galway Wool Co-op were among the more prominent beneficiaries of grants in the last twelve months, along with Killeen Farmhouse Cheese, Kylemore Farmhouse Cheese, and Gra’s Chocolates. A range of smaller groups and companies also benefitted from different allocations. Interestingly, Steve points out that ‘all four of the aforementioned companies are led by female entrepreneurs and the evolution of LEADER has played a positive role in social change’. This trend illustrates women’s essential role in boosting innovation in the agri-food sector.
Roadmap for Future Policy
Looking towards the survival, continuity and future prosperity of the agri-food industry, traditional family farm model and broader sustainability of rural society future of farming and rural society here in Ireland, this pioneering, innovative and inspiring initiative provides a firm policy roadmap for the Irish wool industry by reinstating a route to market for native Irish wool. The long-term goal of the Galway Wool Co-op is to continue to promote the cultural integrity of sustainable and tracible Galway Wool, and to ensure it becomes a premier quality bio-fibre sought after by international designers and creators of home interiors and slow fashion garments, for example.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine have recognised the shortfall in the demand and recognition for Irish wool-based products, and committed €100,000 in March 2021 to a Wool Feasibility Study, intended to assist in the formulation of a strong policy framework for the Irish wool industry. Findings from this study are due to be published in the coming weeks.
Galway Wool Co-op Website: https://galwaywool.ie/
Galway Wool Co-op Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/The-Galway-Wool-Co-op-111626074518267
Galway Wool Co-op Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thegalwaywoolco_op/?hl=en
Galway Wool Co-op Twitter: https://twitter.com/thegalwaywoolco