Risk management key at Varley

Jo FulwoodThe West Australian

It's been a magic start to the season for father and son team Dean and Bryce Sinclair, who farm in the Varley district east of Lake Grace.

Persistent rainfall throughout March and April has meant, in some instances, four passes with the sprayer.

And, according to Dean Sinclair, that's not a bad problem to have.

"It kept raining here earlier in the season and every time it rained we had to go out and spray it again," he said.

The area has received more than 100mm since February, and a further 17- 26mm across the property over the weekend.

But life hasn't always been this easy for the Sinclair family.

In fact, Mr Sinclair said he suffered through seven consecutive droughts in his early farming days before he experienced a good year.

Raised on a farm at Three Springs, Mr Sinclair's father died young, and the family were forced to move off the property.

But farming stayed in his blood, and after several years working as a bank officer Mr Sinclair knew his future lay back on the land.

"I dealt with farmers in my role with the bank and I saw what an interesting life they had, and after a few years I became very bored sitting in an office all day. I had to get back to where the action was," he said.

After trying his luck, albeit unsuccessfully, in Three Springs, Mr Sinclair rolled the dice with the cheap land but relatively reliable rainfall at Varley.

"I share-farmed in Three Springs and had six droughts in a row. I went broke there as a result," he said.

"When I was told about this area, they said there had never been a drought here.

"I looked at the Isohyet lines across the State that showed annual rainfall and Varley is on the same line as the safer, more reliable areas such as Dowerin.

"Varley land was cheap, affordable, and apparently reliable.

"So I came here and then they got their first drought. I might have been bad luck."

But what this run of bad luck taught him was that farming was incredibly risky, and spreading that risk was the key to long-term financial stability.

Mr Sinclair believes diversifying with off-farm income and investments, and also diversifying within the farm business through mixed farming strategies, has been the key to his now successful enterprise.

Since moving to the district 32 years ago, the Sinclairs have expanded their property to 14,000ha, which stretch across 75km from north to south.

"What I've realised is that we'll never have a bad season right across that entire area," he said.

After the drought in his first year at Varley, Mr Sinclair and his brother started a concrete business.

"This was an area that was establishing itself, and there weren't that many houses or super and grain sheds around, so we did well out of that initiative," he said.

This off-farm business is still going 32 years later.

The Sinclairs crop half of their 14,000ha, and are midway through seeding their program which involves planting 2800ha of barley, 1400ha of oats, 1800ha of wheat, 700ha of lupins and just under 700ha of canola.

They hope to be finished seeding by late May.

Mr Sinclair also spreads his frost risk by mixing mace with yitpi in the one paddock.

The business also runs between 8000 and 10000 Merinos, and, to further protect them from risk, Mr Sinclair said he was considering multi peril crop insurance.

"Because of our debt structure we find that we must have a really good risk strategy so we don't get burnt," he said.

"Since we are also looking at buying more land, and we can't afford to have a bad year."

Mr Sinclair paid tribute to farming partner and wife Rosy, who he said kept the business wheels turning.

He said like many women marrying into a farming business, Rosy had "done it tough" in the early years.

"It was hard for her when she first came out here as a pretty school teacher to live in the corner of a shed for two years, with no power, no ceilings and having to cart water every weekend," he said.

As with many wives, he said Rosy did all the bookwork for the business.

Mr Sinclair also said loyal skilled workmen were critical to long-term business success.

"I've been blessed with the most magnificent workmen, blokes that have stayed with the business since I've been down here," he said.

He said good skilled labour had played a part in his farming success, but ultimately tackling all aspects of farming risk was the only way to win in agriculture.

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