IMPORTERS HIT WOOL FUND PLAN
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — Apparel and textile importers are apprehensive about an Agriculture Department referendum that could have them paying into a fund to promote lamb chops as well as wool.
Congress last fall authorized creation of the USDA-administered fund, a measure pushed by sheep ranchers after lawmakers eliminated their annual $100 million price subsidies. Much like the campaign that raises more than $47 million each year to pitch cotton goods to the public, the sheep program would generate about $5.8 million for wool and another $7.2 million for mutton, lanolin and other sheep by-products.
“The sheep industry wants to replace their price supports with a promotion program to get people to buy more wool and meat,” said Laura Jones, executive director of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textile and Apparel. “The whole thing is ludicrous. It isn’t a serious attempt at helping an industry survive.”
The USA-ITA opposes the Feb. 6 referendum on several fronts. Importers contend the fund’s objectives are too broad. Furthermore, they say it’s virtually impossible to calculate the weight of imported wool according to formulas established by the program.
Under the proposal, importers would be assessed 1 or 2 cents per pound of wool used in apparel or textiles, depending on whether the wool is “greasy” or “degreased.”
“You have to do these bizarre calculations of live sheep weight,” said Julia Hughes, divisional vice president of government relations, Associated Merchandising Corp., an independent buying arm for some of the nation’s largest retailers.
“It’s almost impossible for people in our business to do. Even if you bring in 100 percent wool, you’re not going to know the weight.”
Hughes also serves as chairman of the USA-ITA.
Although importers already contribute to cotton promotions under another USDA-mandated program, they say the wool program is a different beast undeserving of their money. First, cotton promotions are targeted strictly at cotton apparel, textiles and fiber. In addition, U.S. cotton textiles are made exclusively from domestically grown cotton, as is much of the imported apparel and textiles. The U.S. sheep industry supplies only 30 percent of the domestic textile industry’s wool needs.
About 9,000 apparel and textile importers will be eligible to vote. At the same time, 90,000 others tied to the sheep industry — from farmers with large herds to 4-H Club teenagers with one sheep — can cast votes.
The sheep industry has been in decline since its peak in the Forties when it had 40 million head. Now there are 10 million sheep, making the country a small world wool player compared to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Since Congress pulled the price supports, the industry has lost 20 percent of its herd and another 15 percent decline is expected, according to the American Sheep Industry Association, based in Denver.
The sheep industry, with help from subsidies, had annually spent $1.7 million promoting wool, but only at the textile and apparel-maker level. If the referendum passes, the expanded budget would also be directed at consumers, as Cotton Inc. has done.
“What we would like to do is let the consumer know more about wool. It’s a fiber they don’t understand. There are perceptions it’s just for the winter,” said Rita Kourlis-Samuelson, group director of wool marketing at the American Sheep Iindustry Association.
The referendum is even drawing controversy over how it’s being conducted. Voters must either mail an absentee ballot to a local USDA Cooperative Extension Service office by Feb. 2 or vote in person.
“There are three offices in Manhattan, but I don’t think many importers know that,” Jones said. “This whole thing is skewed against us.”