In the breeding at Walgett

Walgett adaptability rises above the drought

100 Stories of Hope
Jeff and Anna Holcombe, Burren Junction. Photo: Rachael Webb

Jeff and Anna Holcombe, Burren Junction. Photo: Rachael Webb

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Walgett - where even a good drought can't quell the positivity.

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The Walgett area in North West NSW produces some top stock - people included - because it takes a certain type to thrive in these parts.

The Holcombe family at Burren Junction are of just such stock. Punctuated by a good 2016 winter, they've otherwise been in drought for seven years and in February will have fed stock for three straight years.

After a recent storm, Jeff Holcombe, who runs the farm Rayleigh with wife Robyn, said they got 8.5 millimetres at their other block at Narrabri, but not even enough to wet the dust in the rain gauge at Burren.

"It would be an awful thing to spoil a good drought, wouldn't it," he says cheerfully as he rattles along in the ute between farms.

The same cheerful optimism has been passed on to their daughter, Anna, 25, sister to Sarah, 29, who last year came home from Queensland to help for a while.

Anna already has an agricultural science degree under her belt from Sydney University, and earlier this year left her position of three years at AuctionsPlus to help on the farm.

The seasons started getting drier in 2013 as she began her degree. She remembers driving the chaser bin for the two harvests before leaving for university. The second of those years was "not a crash hot harvest", she recalls. Yet, she was not discouraged.

"I don't think it ever made me question what I was doing at uni," she says.

"I'm very happy to be home ... initially I thought it might have been a short term thing, but then I realised how much I missed it."

She was not alone.

"There are a lot of young people in the Walgett community," Anna says.

"One of the young girls my age has just opened up a shop in Walgett."

That young girl is Georgie Currey, a born and bred local who returned at the start of this year.

She opened Petals and Seeds with Sarah Wickman, who moved to Walgett 16 years ago and married a local farmer.

Left: Sarah Wickman and Georgie Currey, at Petals and Seeds, Walgett. Photo: Rachael Webb and (at bottom) a Walgett design bowl in their shop.

Left: Sarah Wickman and Georgie Currey, at Petals and Seeds, Walgett. Photo: Rachael Webb and (at bottom) a Walgett design bowl in their shop.

A Walgett design bowl in Petals and Seeds.

A Walgett design bowl in Petals and Seeds.

Georgie had been contract mustering in Western Australian and Queensland for a couple of years before she moved home. Since then, she ran after-school art classes and a florist shop and Sarah had a sushi shop one day a week out of the same premises as Georgie.

"So we just thought bugger it, we'll just open a shop full time," Georgie recalls.

"We didn't want people to keep leaving when they could be spending their money locally."

The shop offers "something different, without the big price tag", she says as she rattles through some of their range of stock, most of which is made by other country women.

This includes the handmade LightenUp Lampshades from Rowena, Blue Sky Cheese and The Dill Tickle pickles and jams, both from Mendooran, eggs from Carinya Station, Lightning Ridge, and a local favourite, Bitchface Relish, made in Walgett.

One business not being started from scratch, but instead handed to the next generation, was Douglas Bros. Fencing Contractors.

Blair Douglas, Douglas Bros. Fencing Contractors, Walgett.
Photo: Rachael Webb

Blair Douglas, Douglas Bros. Fencing Contractors, Walgett. Photo: Rachael Webb

Blair Douglas, 28, finished his teaching degree in 2012 and in his first year back in Walgett it flooded.

"So I did a bit of teaching for about two years, which took a bit of pressure off the business until 2015 when it got a bit busier," he said.

In 2016, which was a wet winter, he went teaching again. But in the past 18 months, the business - started by his father, Ron, and uncle, Gordon, after they moved to the area in 1982 - has had a better run.

His uncle left the business in 2001, and since Blair moved home in 2012, he has been gradually learning the ropes after a vacancy was left by an exiting employee of 20 years.

"As I've been taking over, a lot of our gear was quite old, so we've been replacing tractors and plant and that sort of stuff," Blair says. But, switching between teaching and fencing hasn't meant all work and no play.

He plays rugby with the Walgett Rams and says the town has seen an influx of younger people, the social scene also helped by the occasional cricket match, or nurses ball.

The North West Plains Sustainability Group also played a role in bringing people together.

Co-ordinator Denielle Smith said the group's 2016-20 strategic plan included a survey to identify the community's needs.

One issue that surfaced as a priority was succession planning - the results showed it was more limiting than climate variability, pest pressure and road and rail conditions.

So the group has run succession workshops, kicked off a gardening club (see p46), a three-part regenerative agriculture workshop, and in the past fortnight held a cover cropping workshop - and the interest in all these has steadily grown.

"And that is a reflection of the people out here. They live and breathe the Walgett Shire and they want to make it work," Denielle says.

Meanwhile, with the help of his father, as Blair Douglas comes to grips with the running of the family business, he says there is a lot of potential in Walgett.

"There is opportunity for business ideas to start and grow here for sure," he says.

But that potential didn't just happen. Good planing was key, and back at Rayleigh Jeff Holcombe has just sold another 20 females and weaned his calves at four months.

It's all part of an ongoing plan, which helps them to adapt as they go. He and Robyn have a target of 120 breeders come next calving.

Good stock are hard to replace - their Poll Hereford stud was established in 1957.

"It's genetics we can't get back - if we were to lose it, I think it would be a loss to the industry," says Jeff.

They also run a drought-reduced flock of Merinos, formed on a foundation of Milray ewes, with rams since used from Haddon Rig daughter stud, Boorooma.

Their focus on quality and on animals that suit what is an often tough environment, shone through at the family's annual on-property sale this year where all the bulls were sold, and that wasn't their only win.

Robyn says it has been a dream of Jeff's to win at a major show and in June they won their first national show grand champion and President's Shield for best team of three bulls at Dubbo - a much needed morale boost.

"It really gives you that boost to keep doing what you're doing," says Robyn, as did seeing that next drop of calves.

"When you actually see those calves hit the ground... you're still looking to the future." And it's the future they've got their eye on.

"People are saying it's worse than the '40s now, but the '40s were followed by the 1950s and they went 15 years in this shire and didn't feed an animal - you never know what's around the corner," says Jeff.

"It's one thing I learnt from my father, you can't give up."

So with the younger of their two daughters now home, hope springs once again at Rayleigh.

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