Pulling out all stops to stay on the land

Cate RocchiCountryman

Hollands Track Farm, between Lake Grace and Newdegate, has been on the market for months, yet its tenacious owners, the Kelly family, have managed to put their crop in this year, beating some hefty odds.

The Kellys said they were focused on reducing inputs by cutting reliance on fertiliser and herbicides, and improving soil health by sowing summer crops.

The family hoped long-term costs would fall and also reported initial paddock trials have resulted in greater-than-average yields for canola and wheat, up to an 80 per cent increase on one site.

Despite their impressive results and innovative future plans for a farm that uses fewer chemicals, a run of poor seasons over the past few years still forced their property on the market.

However, Malcolm, wife Cathie, son Nick and daughter-in-law Lucy were confident they would see through the crisis.

The family had creatively generated short-term cash.

They opened a bed and breakfast to catch passing tourists travelling to and from Esperance, and friends and neighbours had rallied to help financially, showing some truly remarkable community spirit.

The Kellys' enterprise comprises a family owned small to medium farm of 2000ha.

This is supplemented by another 1000ha of leased land.

Like many in the area, Malcolm and Cathie bought the original farm as a conditional purchase in the late 1960s.

It was cleared with bulldozer and chains by contractors and Malcolm.

After years sticking to wheat, sheep and clover, they now grow wheat, non-GM canola, barley and field peas.

Furthermore, summer crops including tropical grasses are planted for soil health and diversity.

Speaking at their Newdegate farm, the Kellys said they were not surprised so many farms had hit tough economic times.

"The writing has been on the wall for a fair while, especially with the debt levels carried by farmers," Nick said.

"When you put a crop in the ground, it is done with faith that it is going to rain," he said.

"You keep going and hope things will improve, but I guess it has come to a crisis point now across the whole Wheatbelt.

"People are going broke in good areas, not just marginal areas."

When asked what led to the Kellys' current position, Cathie was open.

"We cleared this farm from new land and incurred debt that we have never recovered from," she said.

Cathie added that their operation had been considered small, but the message was always "get big or get out".

"So in 2008 we bought another property," she said.

"In 2007, we had an exceptional year, but the added purchase was a big outlay and, I think this happens to a lot of farmers … we increased our debt."

Soon after the Kellys expanded in 2008, they also bought a John Deere 1890 disk seeder costing $150,000 to plant the summer crops, and underwent house extensions.

"Obviously we did not realise there were going to be five really difficult years to follow," Cathie said.

To keep financially viable, the family has had to think outside the box.

"For the past three years we have been trading ourselves without the bank, funding our own crops through Landmark, CBH and through peer lending," Cathie said.

But bad seasons continued and this year, when things reached desperate point, it appeared the Kellys had no resources left.

Then local farmers helped them get the crop in and Lucy's father - Dr Graham Jacobs of Esperance - stepped in to take up leasehold land the family didn't want to lose.

"It is quite an amazing story," Cathie said.

So far this year's wheat crop is doing well.

"We still have plenty of subsoil moisture here … we just need the rain to keep topping up and we could be in for a great year," Nick said.

Commenting on what he described as his sustainable farming system, Nick said: "We have seen great results.

"It has been costly, but I'd still do it again.

"This farm is heading to using barely any inorganic fertilisers.

"That will save a lot of money on inputs, as our aim is to be far less reliant on chemicals, herbicides and insecticides."

Nick said standard practice in Australian agriculture, sadly, did not recognise the benefits of farming without large amounts of fertiliser.

Nick, who completed two years of a Bachelor of Business and Agriculture degree at Muresk, said he sought guidance from overseas and Australian experts.

He said many farmers in South Dakota had been farming without using standard fertilisers and chemicals for some time.

However, applying their techniques to a farm in the South West of Australia had been challenging.

He spent five years researching disk machines to sow summer crops, and bought the John Deere model on the recommendation of South Dakota farmers.

The Kellys were adamant using large amounts of chemicals to grow food was not the way forward, both for health and cost reasons.

Lucy, a trained architect, is one of a new generation of farmers' wives who saw a bright future in agriculture, but said things would need to be done differently.

"I think from a marketing perspective we have to market our products better, and I don't really see that going on," she said.

"Farmers are proud, private people who don't want to rock the boat … but they might have to."

Lucy said relying on chemicals to farm was not the way of the future.

"It's our generation's time to say we don't want GM, we don't want chemicals, we want to look at different systems of farming," she said.

"I know it comes down to the dollar … in the world's eyes, we are not successful right now but we want to change the system."

Nick said by pursuing soil health, herbicides would become irrelevant.

"I think we have definitely been deceived for a long time… we just accepted that it is the best way to grow a crop and I think it is completely wrong," he said.

Cathie added that moving to a total cropping system exacerbated problems in poor soil quality across the Wheatbelt.

Sheep and clover helped the soil, but a total cropping system - which many moved to in WA in the late 1990s - depleted the soil.

Details of the Kellys' B&B can be found at www.hollandstrackfarmbnb.com .

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