Meeting the world’s growing demand for food and fibre will test the mettle of Australian farmers as they juggle social, economic and environmental demands. With the help of new technologies, diversification and new ways of thinking, our producers are getting ready for the challenge.

Story By Amanda Burdon

Spike and Kirsty Wall, in their late 30s, might be considered relative latecomers to the business of farming. Though the former cotton farm manager-turned-wool classer and ex-Royal Flying Doctor Service flight nurse and midwife were born and raised on the land in north-western New South Wales and have amassed a wealth of experience in the bush, up until six years ago they had always worked for others. When they took the plunge to lease Kirsty’s parents’ property “St Hilary”, just north of Bukkulla, NSW, the region had been in drought for five years. The next five seasons were equally lean but the couple set about building their equity and sheep and cattle numbers. They started growing a family too, welcoming first Charlie and then George, who will soon have twin siblings with whom to share their 1520-hectare backyard.

“Leasing was one of our greatest opportunities and remains our greatest strength,” Spike says. “There’s no way that we could have serviced a loan on a block of land big enough to support us. This arrangement has given us the start we wanted.” And, according to Kirsty, it’s the perfect start. “We don’t have to farm like our predecessors; we take all the risks and wear all our decisions,” she says. “It has taken much of the emotion out of the equation; we see St Hilary as a business and we surround ourselves with advisors – agronomists, financial advisors, even independent wool classers.”

That’s not all the Walls are doing differently. They practice minimal or no tillage, have moved away from cereal growing and sow perennial pastures, and use contractors where possible to save on machinery costs. This year some of their finer wool was marketed direct to Italy and they are working towards establishing a Merino stud. “We’re in transition from conventional to more environmental farming,” Spike says. “It’s not so much about growing wool or beef as growing grasses, and that can only come from improving soil health.

“One of the biggest challenges facing agriculture is that there are simply not enough young people coming back to the industry because they can’t afford it,” he says. “I think we also struggle from not having a united voice; the agricultural lobby groups are too busy fighting amongst themselves.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #79

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2011