Lure of the land in their blood

Corrina RidgwayCountryman

Salmon Gums, recently suffering a poor season and water deficiency, has been a tough taskmaster for a crop of passionate next generation farmers.

In this era, the isolated agricultural region is possibly one of the best places to understand the passion and issues of a young generation in a rapidly evolving agricultural landscape.

Siblings Sara and Lloyd Nolan, Beau and Digby Graham and Gerrad Starcevich are 20-something third and fourth generation farmers located in the Salmon Gums region 100km north of Esperance.

Recent years have seen these young rotational cropping and livestock farmers experience some of the worst seasons on record.

However, the five locals see themselves based in the region and industry for the future.

With country lifestyle changing and the lure of city lights in memory, it's easy to wonder why they still call Salmon Gums home - or came back at all.

Originating from family farms, there is a common love for what the five have known since birth.

It seems the saying 'you can never take the country out of a girl/guy' still applies.

"I've always wanted to come back to farming," Digby said.

"With us, the farm needed a commitment and it seemed as good a time as any."

Lloyd and Sara cite never wanting to live in the city as a major factor for returning to their roots.

"Here is where I grew up, it's the lifestyle," Lloyd said. "Farming is also rewarding and you get out what you put in."

Being in control of their direction strikes a chord.

"I returned partly because you work for yourself. It's not that great working for others," Gerrad said.

Staying in the cropping and livestock industries in recent years has been hard. Lean seasons due to poor rainfall have been compounded with poor prices.

Emerging global competition, interest rates, the soaring Australian dollar and deregulation are some new-age concerns. Yet the five still find a lot to like.

Family and freedom are important factors. The blood of family business still runs in the agricultural industry, valuing lifestyle and community through changing seasons.

While other industries might have lost out, the agricultural industry still holds fast to the human factor.

In a world tied up in regulation, flexibility of working with the seasons is highly valued.

"I love the work. I work when it's busy, save up, then off-season I can go away for a few months," Sara said.

"It's also not an office - the mixture of activities in farming is key," Digby said.

"You're not stuck in one job, if you get bored, there's always something else.

"I'd like to say I was in it because of the money but I'm not."

Seeing the fruits of their labour still spurs on the younger generation much as it did the old.

"You learn hands-on in the industry and develop so many different sets of skills," Beau said.

The constant advances keep Gerrad interested.

"I like where the technology is going. You may have to do long hours but it's easier to do - these days the tractors are comfortable," he said.

The ability to be independent is just as critical as it was two generations ago. The current crop needs to keep an eye on the weather as well as the stock market, the dollars and their bottom line.

As farms evolve into business enterprises to survive, new challenges grow.

Along with the seasonal worries of falling grain prices and in Salmon Gums a quiet desperation for rain, Digby cites more direct issues.

"I would say at the moment our Federal Government has a lot to answer for," he said.

"The mining sector paying workers such high wages is pushing up our hired help prices. It really comes back to unions having too much say."

"The ability even to find good skilled workers is harder too," Lloyd said.

The deregulation of the wheat industry and market instability also creases brows.

While deregulation may be seen to create a competitive market for prices, the loss of the power of the majority has some younger farmers questioning the move.

"Occupational Health and Safety is also taking over," Beau said.

"Also, there are so many regulations to get through to do anything.

"That became especially apparent in the live export industry debacle. How can the Government stop the trade of an entire agricultural industry and community when we are 100 per cent committed?"

The increased focus to make someone accountable sees paperwork building each day. Other concerns cover environmental developments.

"Chemical resistance in weeds and the GM issue are huge," Lloyd said.

"Fuel as an input cost is also crippling. Reliable, economical renewable energy to power machinery is a real issue for the future."

Fertiliser prices continue to soar, although Salmon Gums has lower fertiliser inputs than elsewhere, and lack of rainfall is a constant stress.

"It's concerning, we still can't predict weather with accuracy," Gerrad said.

"The day it can be predicted within a closer range will be a good thing. Dry seeding can get pretty iffy."

Shrinking and aging rural communities pose social challenges.

"Isolation from population can be a challenge sometimes," Digby said. "There is always a limited number of people in your age group."

The declining rural population makes finding a partner challenging.

"It can be an issue, the distance to town, but really it's not too bad," Beau said.

However, the group can see the upside. Isolation has created a strong bond and strengthened the nucleus of their community.

Common experience creates a comfort in being able to relate directly to each other.

The group is quick to point out future opportunities. Technology and innovation are foremost.

"The changes in technology are amazing," Sara said. "You really need to keep up. Who knows where it will go?"

Beau said it would help them get rid of the middle man.

"By cutting the need for outside staff, it will help increase profit margins," he said.

All five agree that the ability to live off increasingly fine margins is the key to survival, along with rain and access to land.

"The ability to remain efficient is vital," Digby said. "Especially here, improving water use will be key."

"The only real opportunity comes in expansion," Beau said.

"These days you really need a family farm to get into the industry - that and rainfall. Rain on the ground means smiles on faces."

As for where they would like to be in a decade?

"With a bit more land in my own name, more profit and a good work-life balance," Sara said. "Still doing things that I want to achieve as well."

Digby echoes the need to access more land.

"I want to be out of debt as well," he said. "Out of livestock and with more responsibility on the farm."

Brother Beau lists another aim - settling down with a family".

"I will be happy to be still where we are, as long as we keep moving forward and evolving and keeping up with technology," Lloyd said.

"With a family, hopefully we will still be successful as well … and have won lotto," Gerrad said with a laugh.

The mining sector paying workers such high wages is pushing up our hired help prices. It really comes back to unions having too much say.

DIGBY GRAHAM

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