In an old wool shed in country Western Australia, young men and women clad in black suits and heavy workboots huddle over tables laden with freshly shorn wool.

With a clipboard tucked under one arm, and a freshly shorn mullet of his own, Jake Faulkner studies the fleeces intently.

“You’ve got a time limit to look at everything and get everything done,” he says.

The agricultural student from Cunderdin in WA’s Wheatbelt is part of a team competing against other budding farmers in the country competition of merino-wool judging.

a man in a suit tuching wool 

Jake Faulkner says your presentation matters when wool judging.(ABC Great Southern: Andrew Chounding)

Ordering the wool, judges score for desirable traits like cleanliness and fibre length, with flaws and qualities relayed to wool buyers and farmers before fleeces are sent to market.

But 16-year-old Jake knows the eyes of the judges are on him too.

“They really like it when you’ve got a nice blazer on and long pants, and shiny shoes,” he says.

“[And] you’ve gotta give yourself a haircut, you don’t want anyone stitching you up.”

The competition is serious business and a win in WA could see the student make their way to the national titles. 

a sign that reads junior judging competition

Wool judging is a major competition in country towns.(ABC Great Southern: Andrew Chounding)

Compete first, have surgery second 

The competition is held in Wagin, 230 kilometres south of Perth, one of the state’s largest wool-producing regions, and competitors like Jake know sacrifices need to be made.

“On the school holidays, I buggered me leg up a bit [torn anterior cruciate ligament], but I couldn’t get surgery on it — so got the old brace going,” he says.

“I didn’t want to drop [wool] because only a few people get in — probably next year I’ll get surgery.”

Like the beauty pageant of old, presentation, confidence and poise are all rewarded and judges like wool buyer Hayden Baker know what they’re looking for.

A man sits at a desk, pointing at papers with a pen.

Wool buyer Hayden Baker says presentation is paramount.(ABC Great Southern: Andrew Chounding)

“My job is to judge the students judging the fleeces and make sure they’re using correct terms, handle everything nicely and speaking really well about themselves and fleeces,” he says.

“We’re judging the person as well — you need clean boots, clean pants, clean shirt, tie needs to be done up properly.

“If you look professional, you talk professional, nine times out of 10 you’re going to get top marks.”

While their city counterparts might join chess or debating clubs, in the country, working with wool is king, and competitions like Wagin’s are designed to prepare young people for life on the land as early as possible.

a table of wool

Competitors know the wool isn’t the only thing being judged.(ABC Great Southern: Andrew Chounding)

Australia’s youngest judge 

In 2022, Libby Hardingham was already representing WA on the national stage against a field of competitors almost 10 years her senior.

“I won the merino fleece judging at the Royal Show, which qualified me for nationals in Tasmania in 2023,” she says.

“I went over there and competed with people that are like 25.”

At just 16, she was the youngest competitor, only missing out on first place by two and a half points after finishing fourth.

a young woman with brown hair

Libby Hardingham was only 16 when she competed against 25-year-olds in Tasmania.(ABC Great Southern: Andrew Chounding)

Despite the loss, the now 17-year-old says the experience gained was invaluable.

“It was amazing to have that opportunity to meet people in the industry, talk to other competitors and get pointers as well,” she says.

“Even if you don’t win or anything, it’s good; you get experience, you get out into your community, you get to meet people in the industry, and that could lead to future jobs.”

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Posted Yesterday at 12:00amSun 31 Mar 2024 at 12:00am, updated 21 hours agoSun 31 Mar 2024 at 2:39am


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