The Manx National Farmers' Union is shocked by the news that a contract to sell wool was never signed.

The Isle of Man Examiner has already reported extensively on the issue of Manx farmers not being paid for their wool, with a significant number still waiting to be paid for the 2021 clip.

Now, it seems that the Manx NFU, after spending nearly a year trying to sort out the issue, has finally lost patience.

The problems arose in 2020 when the Department of the Environment, Food ad Agriculture decided to stop the in-house provision of service, collecting, grading and storing the wool on-island prior to it going across to be auctioned, with the payment then coming back to farmers in a straightforward and transparent manner.

The DEFA put these services, along with the selling of the wool, out to tender with the intention of appointing an external contractor to deliver the service, and received two responses.

In September 2021, it announced that it had awarded the contract to Brannach Olann, a UK-registered company.

The Manx NFU became involved in 2022, after farmers complained that they had received no payment for the 2021 clip despite the Brannach Olann having promised to pay ‘within 60 days of delivery of wool’.

Sarah Comish, general secretary of the Manx NFU, said: ‘After many versions provided by the department over specific responsibilities and payment obligations we felt that we were being misled, and finally resorted to submitting several Freedom of Information requests to try and establish what was really going on.’

Union members were shocked at what they discovered.

Sarah said: ‘These enquiries revealed that there never was a proper signed contract with Brannach Olann that we could identify, that it was obvious that due diligence had not been followed, and that the department had subsequently managed the ‘contract’ very poorly, effectively washing their hands of it even when it became problematic.

‘When it became evident early on that the process was failing, at cost to farmers, we asked that whatever arrangements that were in place be terminated, and that, if the department would not take it back ‘in-house’, then alternatives be sought.

‘Instead the department has opted to do nothing, and we are now in a worse place than ever.

‘I think it’s fair to say that producers feel that they have been misled by the department.’

‘Farms which are already under stress financially have got yet another unnecessary burden to carry, because the department has refused to step in and address the issue at all until this year,’ Sarah added.

She went on to outline what now needed to happen.

She said: ‘What we want to happen is what we wanted to happen over a year ago.

‘That is, for any department arrangements with Brannach Olann to be terminated, and for the department to accept its responsibilities under the 1948 Marketing Act, and pay all the producers what they should be paid for their wool properly and fairly.

‘We want DEFA to accept that responsibility. And if they want to contract it out, again, that it goes out to tender immediately, as it should have done last year.

‘We are already well into this year’s clip now with no proper arrangements in place.

‘At our last meeting with the department they did assure us that it was going out to tender again, but we do not know if this will really happen, and there is currently Hobson’s Choice for the farmer.

‘It does not recognise that farms cannot keep wool stored in sheds, waiting for the department to sort this out.

‘Obviously we want any tender situation to be a fair and open process, and to be done thoroughly in a way that protects producers from being exposed.

‘We would have expected the department to do some kind of background check on the companies that tendered for any contract or to review the arrangements when issues were flagged up.

‘Unfortunately, they didn’t practise the necessary due diligence in the tender process or in the management of the ‘agreement’ with Brannach Olann and, rather than accept that and resolve the problem, they have persisted in refusing to admit this.’

Brannach Olann claims that they have sent the majority of the money to DEFA to distribute to local farmers.

But data protection rules meant that the department could not pass on farmers’ bank details to the company, to allow them to pay directly to farmers themselves.

So DEFA does hold some money but even that does not seem to be getting passed on to farmers in a fair manner.

The Manx NFU head said: ‘Everyone’s had a battle to get paid.

‘It’s been very sporadic, and the department has tried to pass on the responsibility and the problem to farmers.

‘Some farmers got paid last summer for the previous year’s clip but those that were still waiting for the 2021 clip payment as late as this spring got varying amounts.

‘I could not get the department to answer my questions on the wool grades and payments. They just stopped responding.

‘Producers should be getting a fair payment from the department as set out in the Act, and they need to accept that they owe producers, as the responsibility ultimately sits with them to see this is done.

‘Instead they have attempted to obfuscate the process.

‘The department is welcome to correct this, but the lack of response to queries does not help in resolving the matter.

‘Until then, the information we have collected so far suggests that the people who have waited longer for payment are getting paid less, and that prices paid seem to be at the discretion of the department.

‘What it does demonstrate is that the department had the ability to manage the payments all along.

‘They just didn’t want to take the risk and instead passed that risk on to the farmers.’

She went on to say that the falling price of wool over recent years has meant that it is not even an enormous sum for them to find.

‘It’s not actually a lot of money. The amount of wool that will go off-island to be sold is approximately between 100 and 120 tonnes,’ she said.

‘And the value of the wool has been low particularly since 2020. For us, it’s a matter of principle, of producers knowing that the department is operating within its own legislation, and in their best interests, providing the service and support that is very much needed by the industry.’

And, if it seems a shame to you that such a natural and sustainable product as wool is so undervalued, then Sarah is in complete agreement.

She said: ‘British wool is an incredible product used in knitwear, furnishing fabrics, bedding, mattresses, hand knitting yarn, and carpets, both residential and commercial, including a significant market in cruise ship carpeting due to its hardwearing properties.’

Interestingly, whilst it might be highly valued by the cruise industry, the carpets on the new Steam Packet vessel, Manxman, are not made from Manx wool.

What a shame – what a nice story that would be, giving positive recognition to an industry that is currently feeling very let down.

More reading here.