Harvey Family - Western Flat | Rabobank Australia Client
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Harvey Family, Western Flat

South Australian sheep producers Martin and Kirsty Harvey have weathered many challenges over the years but are now reaping the rewards of taking calculated risks.

They have diversified their enterprise and invested in improving soils on their farm at Western Flat, 40km from Bordertown in the state’s upper south east.

It’s a journey that began when Martin was just 23, when his parents Jill and Darryl presented him with the opportunity to buy the 850ha family farm, Broadview.

“I’m one of five kids and when Dad wanted to go and study economics he said whoever was interested in the farm could put their hand up to buy it, and I was the only mug who did,” Martin recalls with a wry chuckle.

Fresh from studying agriculture and a year of travelling, Martin returned home and took on the farm – an opportunity many young people can only dream of, but certainly not an easy one.

“The debt was overwhelming for a number of years, probably until I was around 30, I did wonder what I had taken on,” he says.

He credits his parents and siblings, as well as Kirsty’s family after they married in 2005, with providing emotional support and a willing hand to keep them going.

This family involvement continues with their own children, Will, 11, Zoë, 9, and Lilly, 7, who all pitch in. When Kirsty isn’t working off-farm as a paramedic, she’s also very active in running the business alongside Martin.

Challenges

One of the biggest challenges Martin and Kirsty faced was improving their marginal soils.

They invested in an extensive clay spreading program to target non-wetting sands and now only have about 10% of the farm left to improve.

“This has completely transformed our country, we now have better fertiliser retention and pasture germination,” Martin says. “I don’t think we would still be here if we hadn’t been able to improve the soil structure.”

They have seen values for productive farming land in the region skyrocket from the $740/ha Martin paid to around $3400/ha – reinforcing that the $440/ha cost of clay spreading is a sound investment.

His parents’ foresight to secure water licences has also paid off, enabling Martin and Kirsty to diversify their business.

With the support of Rabobank, they have expanded their irrigation program from one centre pivot to five, and now have 125 hectares under irrigation for seed production.

“Land prices are high in the area so we’ve focused on improving our existing land and Rabobank has really encouraged us to take on things which benefit our business,” Martin says.

“That is why we’ve got things cranking the way we do, as we can handle a higher level of debt because it is generating income.”

Recent export market volatility has created over-supply for lucerne seed, so the Harveys are looking at other opportunities such as producing lucerne hay. They also grow dryland lucerne for grazing on half the farm

Backing sheep

The family has bred Poll Dorsets for 40 years and were early adopters of the White Suffolk breed around 30 years ago. Martin and Kirsty put their own stamp on the sheep side of the enterprise when they purchased a Border Leicester flock from a stud dispersal in 2009.

“Buying the Wongary Border Leicester stud from Rob Hooper at Wrattonbully was the best move we have made,” Martin says.

It followed their decision to sell their beef herd and focus on sheep as part of drought preparedness planning after a run of tough years in the 2000s.

“We sat down and looked at our enterprises and what was working, and decided to focus on doing the best job for our sheep as that is where the returns are,” Martin says.

They now lamb down 250 Poll Dorset ewes, 250 White Suffolk ewes and 400 Border Leicester ewes and sell 350 rams a year, all under the ‘Paxton Stud’ name.

They timed it perfectly. The Border Leicester breed has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and their stud is well supported by repeat clients, so much so that at their 2017 sale Martin and Kirsty scrambled to pull additional rams into the ring in response to hot bidding on the 145 they had catalogued. In total, they sold 180 rams from 185 offered to a top price of $7000 and average of $1522.

Martin says adding the Borders has opened up positive relationships, such as with a local independent stock agent, Robin Steen from Pinkerton, Palm, Hamlyn and Steen who has sourced new markets for their rams. Paxton genetics now regularly achieve top price at the Naracoorte first-cross ewe lamb sale – the biggest of its kind in Australia.

He credits Rabobank as another agribusiness who has shown support for family businesses like his who are “giving it a go”.

“We’ve been with Rabobank for around 15 years and they are terrific to deal with, they understand farming and seasons,” he says.

“Ten or 12 years ago we were going through a tough patch but buying the Border Leicesters ramped up the sheep side of things and turned our business around.”

Kirsty and Martin say their local Rabobank Regional Manager, Sarah Martin, is very supportive of their evolving stud, and provided the support to invest in on-farm infrastructure. The Harveys built sheds for undercover yards and an on-farm selling complex for their first on-property ram sale in 2017 – a big step for the family who previously sold their rams privately.

Martin and Kirsty also draw on Rabobank’s other products, such as equipment finance. For example, they have invested in flock recording technology, moving to electronic tags three years ago and purchasing a Gallagher sheep handler two years ago for automatic data collection during weighing.

The information they collect underpins their genetic selection and feeds into Lambplan to generate estimated breeding values. The Harveys are selecting for traits such as growth rate, muscle and fat in their terminal sire program. Their Border Leicester rams are used in maternal Merino flocks so they breed for a balance of traits, such as early growth, muscling, good wool and fertility.

Positive outlook

With things ticking along nicely at ‘Broadview’, Martin and Kirsty can take the time to reflect on their journey so far and what keeps them going.

 

“For me, I find it really rewarding when people come along and buy our livestock in what is a very competitive local market,” Martin says. “We work bloody hard to produce our rams and we are lucky to be able to class many of our clients as friends, as they have been long-time supporters.”

 

Kirsty agrees, adding: “It’s also rewarding to see our children, as they get older, start to ask questions about our business and why we do what we do. It adds an extra element to give them the opportunity to have an education in agriculture, and the potential to take on the farm if they decide that is what they want to do.

 

"Our bank manager, Sarah, appreciates how a family farm works. She understands the business encompasses our lives, and how to move it forward not purely based on the numbers – she takes in our family situation.” 

 

With Rabobank’s support, Martin and Kirsty built a new family home on the farm in 2015, which they see as cementing their commitment to their life on the land. They are active members of their community – Martin is involved in the Bordertown Football and Western Flat cricket teams and volunteers for the CFS and he’s a familiar voice on the local radio, calling footy matches.

 

“We also sponsor three different footy clubs and we’re proud to be able to give back to the community,” he says.

 

They are encouraged to see Rabobank also supporting the community and the industry, including sponsoring the Sheep Feature Breed at the Adelaide Royal Show.