By Julie Andreazza, Willbriggie, NSW Farmer of the Year 2018
As featured in the 2019 Country Web Annual
Three weeks after losing my father to a sudden and fatal heart attack, I found myself in the ED at Griffith Base Hospital, again. When the Doctor approached me and told me my husband was having a heart attack I was in complete disbelief.
When I saw him, hooked up to what seemed like every machine in the hospital, I knew it was real. As he looked at me and said, ‘Make sure you claim the life insurance so you can pay off all the debts’, my heart sank. I could not believe this was happening. And so began the roller-coaster of what could have easily been the end of our family as we knew it, but instead, it was a defining moment where I knew I had to step up.
Like everyone else I am a normal person doing my best to live the best life I can with my family – raising our kids and running the business the best we can. But, as Glen would say, life has a way of ‘throwing logs in front of us’ and it’s up to us to decide if we are going to say ‘that’s just too hard to get over’ or ‘watch me climb over this one too!’ And climb is exactly what we did.
Winning NSW Farmer of the Year in 2018 has been humbling and an honour, especially given how many logs we have had to jump to get here.
I think what makes farming business different to other businesses is that usually it is a family farm. And I’m sure, like us, most farms have a heavy personal input from most family members. Our challenge as partners, wives and mothers is to balance all the dynamics of family life and business, while keeping the family stable and maintaining a thriving business.
So this is my story:
Together with my husband Glen (who is now fit and healthy) we own two properties totalling around 370 ha and we lease a further 265 ha from my father-in-law, south of Griffith in the Riverina Food Bowl. We produce rice, wheat, and more recently corn.
Farming has always been Glen’s passion. He started work on his father’s farm at 15-years-old and then, after we married, Glen and I purchased our first farm in 1991.
Working with my in-laws for many years, Glen decided it was time to split the business and we became business partners in 2003. This was possibly the worst time to venture out in a farming business. It was the beginning of the millennium drought and we had entered into huge debt to purchase our property and we had to buy our own machinery.
I did my best to support Glen in any way I could but it was tough. Back then Glen had no one to bounce ideas off and although I worked hard on the farm, he was the business brain and felt the pressure of having to make all the decisions.
By 2006, the drought was biting and we decided to sink an irrigation bore. It was a huge undertaking but meant that we got 700 ml extraction (the neighbour behind only got 350 ml). As it was one of the first bores to be drilled in our area it was a huge gamble, but Glen was convinced it would give us more water security so we could grow copes and not be constrained by almost zero water allocations during the drought. He was right. Even though we entered into more debt to pay the $600 000 bore, it saved half the wheat crop that year and has paid for itself over and over since.
At the same time we used our overdraught to convert part of our general security water to high security. This paid off too and we now have water security 95 per cent of the year, compared to general security which ‘gives us whatever we are going to get, which this year was only seven per cent’.
Glen staying on top of our water portfolio has made all the difference in our ability to farm. The mixed portfolio allows us to grow crops every year and after the heartache of having to shut off the water to our rice crop in 2005, and watch our lively hood die in front of our eyes, Glen set out to never let this happen again.
We got over that log, then, as life would have it another was thrown in front of us when the farm next door came up for sale. Now anyone who owns a farm knows that these opportunities don’t come up very often and we literally jumped at the chance to own more land. There was no negotiation. We paid what the neighbour asked and signed on the dotted line before he could change his mind.
That was in 2008. Life was good but very tight. We were in huge debt, were both working fulltime, and we were juggling a hectic family life with four young children.
We were constantly looking for opportunities to help the business thrive and by 2012 we installed a 9.9 kilowatt solar system which supplies the house and the sheds. It paid for itself within five years – I wish I had installed 10 of them.
Land forming has been another important part of our business and we have slowly converted both farms from wriggly bays to bigger bays with drive over roads. This allows for easier, more efficient farming, whether we are fertilizing, watering, spraying or harvesting. It saves time, fuel, money on fertilizers and sprays, and it makes for easier working conditions, which benefits Glen’s mental health and his ability to sustain his work environment.
Glen has always been a gadgets man. If there’s new technology out there that can make work easier and more efficient, then we own it. I’m not even going to pretend that I understand how all his tractors are set up, but I do know he has computer screens in every tractor and uses precision farming and prescription field maps. It means he can accurately fertilize paddocks to their individual requirements, resulting in savings on fertilizer because one block might need less than the next. This gives us a better yield and also takes care of the environment as we are not spraying or fertilising unnecessarily. His next venture is to own his own drone so he can take his own field images and be more self-sufficient and able to make decisions more quickly.
As well as technology, we have hosted wheat trials for the last 10 years. This has given us a deeper understanding of what they need, and the researchers an understanding of what we as farmers need to do achieve it for them.
We also host delegates from Japan, Vietnam, Italy and America, as well as local tourists and school excursions, to showcase our technology and farm machinery. Overseas visitors are always impressed to see our ‘clean farming’ – a wonderful reputation that Australian farmers have around the world.
After 30 years of marriage, farming is our family passion and our family unit has been a major factor in our success. We always communicate what is happening and we have clear roles in terms of how we run the business. From a young age it has been important for us to sit around the kitchen table and discuss everything, from personal to business, because that’s how we support each other to thrive.
Going back to that decision to sink the bore in 2006, it came from a kitchen table discussion – we sat the kids down (I think the oldest was 15 at the time) and in the midst of the millennial drought said to the kids, ‘We are either going to have to sell out and move, or tighten our belt, invest heavily and make this business work’. The decision was unanimous – none of the kids wanted to leave the farm and we made a choice as a family to pool all our resources, including all the kids’ savings, and for them all to work on the farm knowing we couldn’t afford to pay them until some money came).
Looking back, that was a turning point and it has set us up to succeed not only in business but with every part of our personal lives.
While times were tough we all agreed to save money, so there was no spending on luxuries. The kids learnt to appreciate hand-me-downs; there was no going to the movies, no take away, no random shopping trips, and no buying lunches from the canteen. I learnt to make meals out of 1 kg of mince. We had no family holidays for years, and I went back to fulltime work while continuing to maintain my role in the farm office keeping all the books up-to-date. The kids worked after school and then on the farm whenever they were needed. Even our youngest, I think she was 10 at the time and had saved about $2000 from birthday and pocket money, put her life savings into the business to help with cash flow.
Glen and I had debts everywhere we turned, and thinking back now, even I am not quite sure how we did it, but we were determined to make it work.
It was at this point that Glen and I changed our ideas about the kids coming onto the farm after they finished school. We had always looked forward to the day our kids could work the farm but I decided they were all going to complete Year 12. I told them they had to bring me home a piece of paper – I didn’t care if it said electrician, doctor, builder, teacher, all I knew was that in drought proofing our farm we had to prepare our kids for future droughts … and there would be future droughts.
They had to be able to earn an income outside of the farm if this ever happened again. Because part of our resolve to make our farming business work, was the fact that Glen and I had no other professional experience to fall back on. We both left school at 15 and our earning potential was limited, unless we owned our own successful business. Literally this is all we knew and we had to make it work.
Fast forward to the day our oldest son graduated from university with a Commerce/Financial Planning Degree, when I asked him what he was going to do now. He said, ‘I’m going to stick this piece of paper that you wanted me get on your forehead and go on the tractor!’ I was happy with that because I felt happy knowing he had security for the future, just in case the farm did not do well.
We now have a 25-year-old Accountant working with us in the business, a 23-year-old daughter who is our in-house lawyer, a 19-year-old in his final year of fitting and machining, who fixes everything we need in the workshop, and a 17-year-old daughter in Year 12, with a view to studying Science & Agronomy.
In terms of succession planning, I feel like so far we have got it right. Our children have a passion to be part of the business and they are all following careers that complement the farm. And the succession planning conversation continues with our children as we share ideas about how we might pass down the farms to the kids in 10-15 years’ time when we retire. We are planning now so we all know where we stand and the kids can plan their own lives without the pressure of being reactive.
Education has always been important to me and while we have made it a priority to educate our children, Glen and I used the time during the millennium drought to educate ourselves. We successfully gained full scholarships through Ruralbiz Training. Glen completing an Advanced Diploma of Agriculture and I gained an Advanced Diploma of Farm Business Management and a Diploma of Agriculture. Due to our business and work experience most of this study was achieved through RPL, and having our own piece of paper has given us both more confidence in running the farm.
Glen’s subsequent success being elected to the SunRice Board in 2011 was in part due to his ‘piece of paper’. And more recently due to his almost eight years’ experience as a Director on SunRice he has been elected as a Councillor to the Griffith City Council.
Going forward the future looks bright. We are in the market for more land so our boys can be full-time farmers. We are slowly paying back all our debts and have enjoyed a couple of wonderful family holidays. We have completely renovated our home, even putting in a pool.
I believe it has been through good decisions, calculated risks, hard work, sacrifice, courage, communication and succession planning, that we have made it this far, not only as a family but as a thriving business. Winning the Farmer of the Year has been a huge acknowledgement of this.
I always longed for my own career, but I now realise that I have been creating this all along. As the wife and mother of the family I feel proud that although I had no professional experience or expertise in a particular field, I have had a huge influence in my children’s lives and believe I have been a great support and brought a lot of positive input to the business. Glen constantly reminds me, ‘He couldn’t have done any of it without me’.
Just as that day when I was confronted with the possibility of becoming a widow at age 47 and being left to look after a family and a business alone, I had to make a choice and I chose courage – the alternative was not an option.
I could not be prouder to have been a wife and partner to Glen for the last 30 years and a mother to my four amazing children.