Who will be farmer of the year?

Top contenders vie for farmer of the year

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Lauren Newell, Wingham; Matthew Fenech, Horsley Park; and Chris Hall, Wallendbeen, are all vying for the title of 2019 Farmer of the Year, to be announced on Wednesday in Sydney.

Lauren Newell, Wingham; Matthew Fenech, Horsley Park; and Chris Hall, Wallendbeen, are all vying for the title of 2019 Farmer of the Year, to be announced on Wednesday in Sydney.

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The Land brings you the Farmer of The Year finalists and the Young Farmer of the year finalists

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Once again The Land brings you the Farmer of The Year finalists and, after a brief hiatus, the Young Farmer of the year finalists, all of whom will meet in Sydney next Wednesday to learn who have been selected as this year's competition winners.

The award is an initiative of the NSW Department of Primary Industries and NSW Farmers, with support from SafeWork NSW and Australian Community Media, publisher of The Land.

Farmer of the year contenders

Chris Hall, Wallendbeen. Horticulture

A professional background has helped third generation cherry producer Chris Hall to approach his horticultural enterprise, shared with his wife Lee, from a clever angle.

Mr Hall used to run a managed investment scheme, and brings from that experience a love of spread sheets, while Mrs Hall has her own clinical psychology practice and applies those skills when keeping worker morale up and focused.

There has been attention paid to soil health, microbes and cover crops between orchard rows to boost size and flavour.

Earlier this year Mr Hall was presented with the 2019 National Carbon Cocky Award for demonstrated improvement in carbon management in horticulture and was a finalist in outstanding performance in soil carbon sequestration.

Generations change and you have to change with them. These days we have a lot more people coming through the door. We look and see what people want. - Matthew Fenech

As a result, it comes as no surprise he is more interested in what is growing under the surface, rather than only looking at the cherries on top.

"We found herbicides were holding us back," he says. "Now, nutrition management is a big thing. We are chemical free and synthetic fertiliser free."

Cover crops between rows of trees offer a promising future, and Mr Hall says areas of the orchard with richer soil produce sweeter cherries.

Investment in an optical grader has allowed the enterprise to target markets based on quality, while reducing the cost of labour.

"We're producing 32-plus millimetre cherries with intense flavour," he said. "We are in a premium place right now."

Of course, adding layers of complexity to the enterprise does not come without challenges, like dealing with cranky software in the grading unit, or working through quality assurance for export and, of course, handling workers' health and safety.

Rennae Connell, Megan near Dorrigo, and Tim Caroll, Borenore, are in the running for Young Farmer of the Year. Both producers share the remarkable ability of being able to profit during drought.

Rennae Connell, Megan near Dorrigo, and Tim Caroll, Borenore, are in the running for Young Farmer of the Year. Both producers share the remarkable ability of being able to profit during drought.

Mathew Fenech, Horsley Park. Poultry

Matthew Fenech is a third generation poultry farmer in the western suburbs of Sydney and has managed to survive, even thrive, by appealing to new migrant markets and by adhering to strict biosecurity.

His grandparents started an egg farm in the 1960s and during Mr Fenech's parents' time it produced meat birds. These days there is a mix.

Fresh eggs remain the staple along with boutique lines like Balut and Penoy.

Roosters, not traditionally a saleable item, are reared on a separate small holding nearby, part of the family enterprise, and are sold live to Vietnamese and Indian customers who slow cook them in their dishes because the meat remains firm and the flavour is rich.

By embracing the diversity of new markets Mr Fenech remains viable.

"Generations change and you have to change with them," he says. "These days we have a lot more people coming through the door. We look and see what people want."

The threat of disease used to be a limiting factor for previous generations of poultry farmers in the Sydney basin, but as farms have decreased, so has the threat of outbreak.

Nevertheless, Mr Fenech adheres to a strict biosecurity program that involves different parts of the enterprise located on three separate sites. Employees working with eggs do not work with roosters on the same day, for instance. Customers are not allowed access to the sheds.

The approach certainly helped the Fenech family escape a recent salmonella outbreak unscathed.

Lauren Newell, Wingham. Beef

Marketing products and the personalities behind them is a strength of Lauren Newell from Linga Longa farm.

With her husband Bob, the couple manage a small Hereford herd of 60 breeders with a bull running year round to maintain consistent production.

Mrs Newell employs a butcher to work in the farm's NSW Food Authority approved processing plant, breaking down bodies according to orders initially sourced at markets in Newcastle and Sydney, where there has been greater interest in local produce.

A farmstay helps diversify their income, with guests educated about agriculture.

While the farm's adoption of no-till cultivation and rotational grazing has meant pasture lasted longer with less rain, the whims of this season still made their presence felt, with the loss of calves.

Meanwhile, customers came on board through social media sponsoring a cow's feed in return for getting to name her. The social media campaign enabled Linga Longa farm to retain its breeders.

"We were overwhelmed by the response," said Mrs Newell.

A key development in the enterprise has been diversification into bone broth and the promotion of beef cuts other than primals so the whole beast is used. Mrs Newell lately developed a bone broth suitable for dogs and has identified a willing market in Sydney.

Young farmer of the year contenders

After a 12 month hiatus, the Young Farmer of the Year award has been re-introduced, and in 2019 this competition profiles two enterprising producers who will certainly go on to inspire another generation on the land.

After all, how many farmers do you know in this drought who have gone beyond surviving, to thriving?

This award helps identify outstanding farmers who are pushing the boundaries within their industry and in farming generally, and recognises people with outstanding management skills who demonstrate a combination of innovation, profitability, sustainability and community involvement.

Tim Carroll, Borenore. Beef

A methodical approach to enterprise has resulted in Young Farmer of the Year finalist Tim Carroll turning a profit despite the drought.

As manager of The Bridge, a beef breeding and trading operation on 600 hectares of Central West basalt soil, Mr Carroll's adaption of new technology and best use of data is paying dividends.

By monitoring average daily weight gain through the implementation of tracking collars on each animal, Mr Carroll can prove that $2.60 worth of bagged pellets a day, fed in his drought constraint paddock, results in an average daily weight gain of 1.5 kilograms or $4.50 at 300c/kg.

"Agriculture is a passion, but it is also a business," Mr Carroll says. "You have to be positive and pro-active when it comes to new ideas."

Minimising risk has brought a two-part benefit to the enterprise, preventing injury while saving the enterprise on premiums.

"It was a business decision to prevent harm," Mr Carroll said, referring to the removal of quad bikes, replaced with side-by-side vehicles.

"We sold the grain augur and we don't use silos so there's no reason for anyone to be up a ladder. We handle bulk bags with the right gear so no one needs to be out of the tractor and under bags."

Mr Carroll said the extra cost of buying grain in bulk bags certainly impacted the bottom line, but there were savings in insurance premiums that helped offset that cost.

Adoption of new technology has improved on-farm performance by reducing labour with drones used to drive cattle along laneways.

"Labour is hard to find and expensive," Mr Carroll says. "Reducing that cost through the use of technology is a driving force of our business.

"I am of a generation that were early adopters of the iPhone and now I struggle to live without it. Technology and innovation put us on the front foot."

Mr Carroll's enterprise is also investigating investment in virtual fencing, although the present 3G telecommunications signal is not robust enough and he may have to wait for the roll-out of 5G.

The future for agricultural investment is strong, says Mr Carroll with his wife Lucinda, who works in the banking sector, reporting agricultural return at 4-5 per cent, while money in the bank might only attract 2pc.

"This drought will create opportunities and I'd like to see myself as an advocate for agriculture. I'd like to help young farmers who, like myself, want to run an operation of their own."

Agriculture is a passion but it is also a business. You have to be positive and pro-active when it comes to new ideas. - Tim Carroll

Renae Connell, Megan. Dairy

A timely shift to Jersey capable of producing A2 milk from a traditional Holstein herd has helped Young Farmer of the Year finalist Renae Connell deliver a profit at a time when the dairy industry remains in crisis.

Milking 160 head on 123 usable hectares near Dorrigo, with her husband Scott, this young industry leader is paying back loans in a drought year utilising a pasture-based system supplemented with on-farm grown grass silage.

Recent investments have included a new herringbone dairy with automatic drafting that has reduced labour three-fold to the point that a milking session takes just one hour.

Concrete laneways and creek crossings have resulted in easier and smarter management, reducing lame cattle.

Last year, Valley Rose Jerseys purchased a neighbour's property and so now have an opportunity to expand, although the new farm requires a lot of work.

Substantial debt for such a young couple is a risk, but recent returns have shown their lender, Rabobank, that these young farmers are clients that should be embraced.

"Dairy is not an easy career path," admits Mrs Connell, who grew up milking Jersey cows on her parents' stud at Bowraville.

"But we are looking at new ways of getting the best return from our cows so that we can pass this on to our daughters if they are interested."

Jersey cows sourced from her family almost 700 metres below the Dorrigo plateau, actually increased production by a thousand litres a year to 6000l when they acclimatised to the temperate airs around Megan.

"Research matches our gut feel that moving away from Holsteins to Jersesy was the right hing to do," she says. "Their feed conversion is much better.

"They put more dollars in the bank. It is a no-brainer."

On-farm safety, a key component of the Farmer of the Year criteria, is maintained with the help of written procedures, easily available contact lists and induction of employees into the safe handling of animals.

While the biggest risk to this young farmer household is heavy debt, Mrs Connell says it is managed through keen budgeting, matching litres produced against profit.

"We're not interested in being the biggest producer, but we seek to be the best working farm with the best animal health so that everything functions at its best," she said.

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