Nowhere else Des would rather be

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Des O’Connell in the shearing shed where the Duranillin family has been farming for 110 years.
Camera IconDes O’Connell in the shearing shed where the Duranillin family has been farming for 110 years. Credit: Danella Bevis

The radio blares and the hum of the shearing shed vibrates across the paddocks, with shearing in full swing on a hot February day in Duranillin. [|] The temperature gauge might have tipped more than 35C, and it’s noisy and busy. But there is no place former wool industry identity Des O’Connell would rather be.

The day-to-day operation of the family’s 2080hafarm has been largely taken over by his eldest daughter Kerryn and son-in-law Frank Chia, but after more than 60 years of farming and 50 years in agri-politics, there’s no keeping Mr O’Connell away from the action at shearing time.

While he acknowledges the farm is gradually moving more and more into grain production, as with many southern Wheatbelt businesses, Mr O’Connell is still passionate about the wool and sheep industry and its importance to a mixed farming operation.

Although remarkably modest about his contribution to Australian agriculture, the 80-year-old has been instrumental in driving massive change in the wool industry, as well as in ensuring that land degradation has its place on the Federal and State political agenda.

Mr O’Connell started farming in the 1950s when he returned from school at Albany to take over the Duranillin property — just a few hundred arable hectares at the time — from his ailing father.

He said farming became particularly tough in the 1960s, and he knew if he wanted things to change then he had to stand up and make a difference.

“I was building a farm and clearing land in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There was a collapse in wool price, wheat quotas were introduced and things got tough,” he said.

“I decided it was time to get involved in agri-politics to ensure the farmers had a fair go.”

He joined the Farmers Union (now WA Farmers) in the mid 1960s and was quickly voted to represent wool-growers as president of the Duranillin-Moodiarup branch in 1966. In 1969 he became a delegate to the General Council of the Farmers Union for the Narrogin zone.

Over the subsequent decades he held a number of other important agri-political roles that led to important changes in the areas of wool marketing and wool research.

His career culminated when he represented Australian wool growers as vice president and acting senior vice president of Wool Council of Australia from 1979 until 1982. [|]

Among victories, Mr O’Connell’s lobbying led to the introduction of objective measurement for wool, a standard measure used today.

“In the 1960s there was resistance to the objective measurement for selling wool,” he said.

“I was criticised by the then-Minister for Agriculture for trying to introduce this into the industry. But we continued to stand our ground and were successful.

“Today it is a standard feature of wool selling and has helped farmers’ incomes because it provides factual information on the value of wool.”

Although this has been a marked win for Mr O’Connell, plenty of wool industry frustrations remain.

Prime among these is the current auction-based system for selling wool.

“If you compare wool production to the grain industry, it’s just not competitive any more,” he said.

“Wool needs to be sold and exported in the same way that grain is sold overseas.

“You only have to look at the falling sheep numbers, particularly here in WA, to see something has gone terribly wrong with the industry.”

Mr O’Connell said with farmers seeing the same wool prices today as back in the 1980s, there is clearly something wrong with the way the industry and the selling system is structured.

“The auction system is failing wool growers,” he said.

Mr O’Connell’s drive to get a better deal for wool growers expanded into lobbying for State and Federal Government action regarding the environment.

“Landcare is a never-ending battle,” he said.

“We never seemed to be able to get through to the State Government that we needed some/more effort to halt the spread of salinity.”

That said, there were local victories, and Mr O’Connell speaks with pleasure about Lake Towerrining, which is today a major asset to the West Arthur shire, well known throughout the southern Wheatbelt as a popular recreation venue.

The Lake was under threat of severe degradation and a committee of local people secured funding from local and State governments to build an innovative diversion dam to save the lake from turning salty and potentially drying up.

“It was a big project that involved drainage of the Lake and persuading landholders to allow drains to go through their properties. Nonetheless it was achieved,” Mr O’Connell.

So successful was the project that it won a national landcare award in 1994, presented by then-Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Despite this local win, Mr O’Connell remains concerned about salinity and the longer-term outlook for the environment.

“One of my big concerns is climate change. This is a worldwide factor and there is no doubt that unless climate change can be halted, it would become a lot more difficult for agriculture to exist,” he said.

He cites the past dry year in the southern Wheatbelt as an example of climate change taking hold.

Mr O’Connell said he has not seen such dry conditions in his area since the late 1970s. Fortunately, his farm received 157mm in January, which he described as a Godsend.

“Generally across the state, 2015 will not be recognised as a very profitable year,” he said.

“Here in the southern Wheatbelt, we had to pump water for our livestock, while others in the district were carting water.”

Although remarkably modest, Mr O’Connell’s contributions have not gone unrecognised.

He speaks most proudly of his life membership to WA Farmers, and in 2005 was issued an Order of Australia Medal for his contribution to agriculture.

Mr O’Connell’s work over many decades meant he spent thousands of hours away from his farming business and young family, but he was always happy to dedicate his time.

“I chose to go about the situation this way. Other local people were away playing golf on the weekend and taking their Sundays off, I chose to work on those days as a way of making up for time lost on the farm,” he said.

“My wife Bev and family were certainly very supportive which was very helpful.”

Mr O’Connell’s efforts have left Australian agriculture in a better shape for future generations, including his two daughters who have chosen to stay in farming.

“It is very personally rewarding that my two daughters are passionate about farming and have chosen to stay in agriculture despite the challenges,” he said.

He believes farming will continue to be difficult, but nonetheless a great place to be.

“Farming is a lifetime enterprise, if you develop an attitude that things are too difficult, you probably are better suited to other industries,” Mr O’Connell said.

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