Introducing Sue Middleton. Sue and her husband Michael Brennan farm in the Wheatbelt region of Western Australia. Their story is number 45 in my quest to feature 52 farming stories in 52 weeks to celebrate the Australian Year of the Farmer.
Summary of our family and farming enterprise
My Husband and his family have farmed in the district since 1926. Originally Michael’s Grandfather and his Grandmother farmed with their Uncle Dan. Michael has farmed here all his life with his parents, and we had a stint of farming with his brother who is a pig vet. They developed a small piggery into a larger breeding and grow out facility and when Chris exited, Michael and I took that on. Michael and I now farm in our own right, and we are just integrating one of the kids Peter, who is 24 yrs old, back into the broadacre operation.
The broadacre operation is a 5,500 ha Wheatbelt operation – rotation canola, wheat, barley, lupins. We also grow oaten hay for the export market. The piggery has two breeding sites – one is here and that is about 325 sows and we lease the pig skills centre at Muresk (a former ag college) at Northam where we have approx 300 sows. We then grow out the pigs on site here in ecoshelters. We have also developed a 210 citrus orchard at Moora (the farm one hour from here) and use groundwater to irrigate the citrus trees. We are in our second year of production, which has taken 10 years to develop from scratch. The total farm holdings are 6,500 ha’s. We have a self-replacing merino flock of 1200 ewes so there is some pasture in the total as well.
We employ 35 people and run the operation from Wongan Hills where we have built an on farm office. We have one person who works in admin and finance and other than that support, my husband and I run the operation. We work 7 days a week.
I also run a consulting business from the farm. My background is in Rural Community Development and I help regional and local groups to develop projects or to do planning to support change processes. I also sit on boards to ensure there are grassroots people talking to the Government. My current roles include the Deputy Chair of the WA Regional Development Trust, COAG Reform Council, Fruitwest and Chair of the Institute for Agrifood Security at Curtin University. My past roles include the Chair of the West Midlands Group (Grower Group), National Rural Advisory Council, National Regional Womens Advisory Council, the Australian Research Council, and Regional Solutions Board. I work across all levels of government and community decision making to work for better outcomes for people in rural communities and industry.
What is the best lifestyle factor you enjoy as a farmer?
It is great to drive around the crops doing a crop-run when they are growing well. There is no greater pleasure than growing a great crop. Conversely in the dry years it can be tough when the rain doesn’t come and the crops get compromised. It is also very satisfying to see our animals grow well and we love to see them in good condition. Growing things is what we love.
Biggest short and long term challenges?
Our rainfall has dropped significantly over the last 10 years and although our rainfall efficiency has improved enormously it is getting more difficult each season to deliver a profitable outcome. The changing climate in our area has meant the autumn break has pretty much disappeared so that means you have to take a chance when you seed each year, and the long-range weather forecasts are below 50% in their reliability so you just have to take the risk and then manage within the season. The majority of your annual expenditure is done and dusted by the time you’re seeded, so its very risky and the forecasting tools don’t really help that much. It takes a lot of faith. We are at the mercy of the weather and you can lose 50% of your production in a year – not many businesses in Australia face those kinds of risks every year when they open their doors. Australian farmers are extraordinary risk managers.
The high Aust $ is hammering our businesses. It has affected price and market outlooks in everything we do – citrus prices are at their lowest ever in Australian history because the high dollar means its almost impossible to compete in export markets so that has dumped a lot of product back on the local domestic market. I predict that many farmers will have to exit in the next couple of years because your equity can only last so long, and once you’ve sold your water entitlement and run your business really skinny, then if conditions don’t improve you have to get out to save what you have at that stage.
The dominance of the two supermarket chains in Australia is also a huge issue. They really do set domestic prices in fresh food. They have two groups of people they need to respond to – their shareholders and their customers. Their customers want cheaper food and their shareholders want more profit. To deliver that consistently in a high cost production country like Australia is, it has to come from somewhere. The milk price wars are a great example of that.
What do I wish non-farmers and the Australian Government understood about farming?
Firstly that what we do is really risky and we are at the mercy of weather. That means that not every product we produce will look the same. Oranges with blemish on their skin are just as good as fruit without blemish on it. Blemish is caused by wind – it’s a very natural part of fruit. Learn to eat fruit and food that doesn’t look perfect but is identical in every characteristic that impacts your health! This one shopping habit alone will save you dollars in your pocket.
We are wasting 50% of the food we produce in Australia. We don’t need cheaper food – we need to stop taking good productive energy and turning it into waste! If people focused a little bit more on reducing the food waste from their homes, they would find their food bills dropping dramatically.
Buy as direct as you can- each week take one product that you consume and find a way of purchasing it as directly from a farmer as possible. Start reading labels – be ferocious in your food stores – demand locally produced food where you know the food production standards are high. You have all the power – exercise it – start reading food labels and start checking where food comes from. We do supermarket checks regularly and supermarkets frequently label fresh food incorrectly and say it comes from WA when it really comes from interstate – check the labeling and challenge the stores to be more accurate.
The government needs to understand the huge impact of policy changes. The banning of live trade to Indonesia has rippled through WA agriculture and caused huge impact not just on northern Australian cattle farmers. We now have $500k of straw in our paddocks we can’t sell because the bottom fell out of the pellet market. The knock on effect of decisions like the cessation of the trade has been gigantic. The goverment doesn’t pick up that tab, and they need to be VERY cognizant of the impact of their decision making. We do not need them to add to our market risks.
Finally I would like people to know we are in a very technical game. It is very science driven and we utilize all knowledge we can to improve our sustainability constantly. Looking after the land and our animals is a priority for us. But we are in a marginal game and we are unprotected in the world markets competing against countries that are highly subsidized. It is not a level playing field in this globe! To keep our noses ahead we need more investment in research, development and most importantly extension so we can keep learning and driving our businesses productivity and profitability further.