Third generation farmers switch from sheep to cropping

Published: December 2018 |Edited By: Beverley Hadgraft

The Fox family from Marrar in the NSW Riverina have shifted their focus to remain profitable as the climate changes. 

Bun (Harold) Fox, his son David, grandson Daniel by the canola crop on their farm in Marrar, about 40km north of Wagga Wagga in the Riverina. Photography by Matt Beaver.
The golden olden days of farming
Bun (Harold) Fox, 82, reminisces about a time when things were done very differently on the farm. But one thing that hasn’t changed is his family’s commitment to looking after the land.

Bun (Harold) Fox, 82, in the canola crop.

It wasn’t my first choice to be a farmer, it just happened. If I had my time again, I might’ve done something different. However, because I was the eldest, I had to leave school at 16 and come home to help my father, Jack. I thought that at least I was finished with studying, but Dad had other ideas. He sent me on a wool-classing course so I could earn some extra dollars. I’m not sorry about it now. I’ve enjoyed the lifestyle. Also I’m thankful for the opportunity it’s given our family. I watch the achievements of my son David and grandson Daniel and feel very proud. I think they’re probably some of the leading fellas in their area now. 

The first block Dad bought was 455 acres [184 hectares] and then when I came home, another 640 acres and we ran sheep and did some cropping. 
“When I started in 1951, all we had was an old 1936 tractor we bought off a neighbour. It was worn out when we got it, but after the war there was nothing else available. It only had an eight-foot header.”

I wouldn’t like to count the hours I worked. We just had to get the job done. During sowing time, I’d start at 6.30am and keep going until I finished my seed, probably at 10pm. I’d come home, then load up ready for the next morning. It was hard physical work, yet on a typical day we’d only sow 50 or 60 acres. They can do that now in less than two hours.

The old 1936 tractor Bun used to use when he first started in 1951.

In 1971, I married Lillis. I met her through the church camps. My church has always been important and the place I liked to be on Sundays. Things have changed now, they [the younger generation] would work 10 days in the week if they had them.

In 1980, we built our own house, Gladlea, on the farm and moved in from our place in the Marrar township. We would have built in 1975, but we had to pay for a new header and the business came first. We were always careful with money. The only time we went into debt was to buy land.

We made do with the machinery we had until we could afford better, and when weed sprays came in, we even built our own sprayer on top of an old Land Rover. There was no cab or anything, you just stood on it, and if the wind was blowing your way, you copped the spray in your face. We didn’t know any better. The cabins they have now are air-conditioned, carbon-filtered and more comfortable than most houses.

I haven’t been an exceptional farmer, but I’ve tried to look after the land, give it my best shot and learn from experience – like the time we had some excess wethers and didn’t know whether to sell them, then ended up keeping them and they knocked the paddocks bare. It took so long to recover; I didn’t do that again. 

I do very little on the farm now, although I’ll drive a tractor or ute to pick things up. Once computers came into the headers, I was illiterate. We’re not even a mixed farm anymore. It’s going to be cropping only from here on. What do I think? Well it wasn’t my decision, let’s put it that way, but I believe that when you hand over the reins to your children, you hand over the authority as well.

From sheep to cropping
Having shifted the farm’s focus from sheep to cropping, David Fox, 55, has embraced the “worldwide revolution” in boosting soil health and has dropped down to zero tillage.

David Fox, 55, and his wife Cathie.

I always knew I’d come back to the farm. I wasn’t quite 18 and we had about 1,300 acres [525ha]. It was a pretty humble start, but we kept at it and I did contract shearing and crutching and windrowing to subsidise our income. What’s the old saying? Don’t wish for it, work for it. Actually, I saw that on a shopping bag from Lorna Jane!

We always wanted to expand, but Dad is conservative and wary of risks. After I married Cathie in 1987, we bought the place we live in now, Brigadoon, which is just under 800 acres, and leased another 600 acres. That helped put us on the map. We went through the Millennium Drought reasonably well so in 2008 we bought more land. So we’ve gone from 1,300 acres or 500ha – now it’s about 2,100ha.

In the 1970s, everything was full cut-out tillage. We then went to minimum tillage, so just worked it once. In 1998, we bought a direct-drill combine and then in 2003, an air seeder. That was when we had a run of drought, so we direct-drilled everything and didn’t plough much at all.

In the past two years, we’ve bought a disc seeder, gone to zero tillage and full stubble retention and bought a stripper front for the harvester [it strips grain and leaves plants intact]. The aim is to have a lot of cover so we have low evaporation and conserve water. We’ve also been running our sheep down. In 2002, we had around 2,000 ewes. Now we’ve got one. Daniel doesn’t like working with sheep much. Young blokes don’t, and there’s a good reason for that. Sheep take a lot of time, and as farms have got bigger, time is at a premium. Our lambs were as good as anyone’s, but if we focus on cropping we’ll hopefully free up a bit of time so we can have a life.

The Fox family property at Marrar where David and his son Daniel have replaced sheep with crops including canola and wheat. 
Crop diversity and innovation helps build drought resilience  
We’ve also introduced different crops and are constantly looking at diversity. If we’re still running canola, for instance, we might also run some type of legume underneath it to supply natural nitrogen and host some mycorrhizal fungi. That’s one of the beneficial microbes we’re trying to promote to help build carbon in our soil and make more resilient plants. 

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We’ve been running on low moisture for a while now. We’ve only had eight inches [203mm] of rain this year and would normally have 20, but we’ve proven several times that if you keep your stubble cover and stop the evaporation, it does conserve moisture. In 2013-2015, we had almost zero spring rain, yet we still harvested a reasonable crop. If you didn’t learn something through the drought, well, you had your eyes shut. Last year, with 228mm of rain, we still averaged just under 2 tonnes per hectare of canola and 5 tonnes of wheat.

Despite low rainfall, the sustainable practices the Fox’s employ meant they still had a strong harvest.

Daniel has a science degree, so he’s done a lot of the research. He’s always been like that, wanting to know why things do what they do. As a kid, he didn’t read fiction. He preferred encyclopedias. When he returned to the farm we were concerned. When I came back, there were lots of other young farmers so I had good peer support. Daniel had no-one. But social media has allowed him to broaden his horizons easily. The internet is amazing – except when people use it to spread misconceptions about farming.

“I’ve got a T-shirt that says: farming is the art of losing money while working 400 hours a month to feed people who all think you’re trying to poison them”

It does feel like that sometimes, and it’s frustrating because we know we’re sustainable and doing good things. The amount of good we’ve done here, planting trees, shifting our tillage practices and diversifying crops, means the land is so much better than it was and the erosion has disappeared. 

There are still some average farmers who let livestock run on dry paddocks and break up the soil, but there’s more conscientiousness than there ever was. 

“I look at the new calibre of kids coming along and reckon agriculture is in good hands so long as we can get support from governments to insulate us against big business predatory tactics and overseas foreign investors buying our land.”

Those big businesses don’t have the affinity with the land we do. They destroy towns by buying all the farms so no-one’s left out there – and then they put that land on the market to the world at a price no local farmer can afford. The government should invest in us and let us have a crack at it.

Sustainable, scientific farming
Daniel Fox, 27, who was told by teachers he was “too smart to be a farmer”, explains how his science degree is proving invaluable for his work on the land.

First generation talking to third generation- Daniel, 27, taking advice from his grandfather Bun. 

When I was a kid, I’d get out all my farm toys and make each room in the house a different paddock. I knew I’d be a farmer, I always wanted to be helping Dad and Grandad. However, I also enjoyed school and ended up doing a double degree, studying science (majoring in maths) and teaching.  

I thought if things got bad, I’d have some off-farm income from teaching. It would’ve needed to be pretty bad, though! Teachers who were aware of my success in my studies often did a double take when I said I was going to be a farmer. I’d get responses like: ‘You should be a doctor or an engineer. You’re too smart to be a farmer’. But farming is very scientific and becoming more so every day. 

Uni has given me a greater understanding of why things happen on the farm, and if I don’t know, I can research scientific papers. I’ve got a real thirst to learn. For instance, we used to use very synthetic-orientated inputs within our farming system. They haven’t been bad, they’ve got us to where we are today, but I’ve been able to research what they were doing to our soils and how our plants aren’t communicating with our soil biology because of that. 

“Being able to understand how things work biologically and chemically inside plants lets you make better decisions about how to look after soils and crops.”

Our whole fertiliser program has been turned on its head in the past two years with all the new information we’ve found, and we’re seeing big benefits in terms of increased yields and resilience in our plants, especially in the dry. 

Grandad has obviously seen remarkable changes compared to me. But even in my lifetime, we’ve gone from burning and ploughing paddocks before crops were sown to direct seeding into last year’s undisturbed soil. That was a quantum leap in terms of having a resilient system.

Fortunately for Daniel, his farming equipment is far more comfortable and physically easy to use.

Although farms are getting bigger and there are less of us, I don’t feel restricted. Social media means instead of knowing 10 blokes locally, you know them all over the country and there are lots more ideas floating around. The big no-till groups certainly bring people together from different farming backgrounds. 

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I know I’m fortunate Dad and Grandad worked so hard to expand the farm so there’s room for me. But I do think the pressure is more intense for my generation because we have much greater input costs. We’re more productive, but with that comes higher risks. More decisions need to be made and more information needs to be known.

Three generations of the Fox Family. David’s daughter Ashleigh lines up with her grandparents Lillis and Bun, parents David and Cathie and brother Daniel.

The higher-order thinking that goes with farming now means we have to be managers and marketers. Before, when the single wheat desk [monopoly marketing by the Australian Wheat Board] was there, your only decision was to take it to the silo and get one of two grades. Now we grow milling wheat, legumes, canola, chickpeas, lentils, fava beans, barley… and there are endless competing markets to consider.

You also have to plan ahead. At the moment, India has put a big import tariff on our lentils because they want to support their farmers. I don’t have a problem with that, but they’ll have drought again and they’ll want our imports and will remove that tariff. We introduced lentils into our cropping program to increase the soil nitrogen and weed control benefits, but hopefully the economics will stand up, too. They’re a storable commodity, so when the markets open up again they’ll be profitable.

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I must admit I prefer cropping to sheep, but Dad and I made the decision to focus on cropping together. Livestock compromise your ground cover because of the hoof action busting your stubbles and exposing your soil, which leads to drying and erosion. That was a big factor in them no longer being part of our program. 

When I married Rachel in March last year, I warned her at the wedding I’d have to cancel things to go spraying sometimes. It made people laugh, but Mother Nature doesn’t always let you have weekends off. Grandad used to stop for morning and afternoon tea, but we’re too busy for that and quite often eat lunch while we’re working. Our reward is a better standard of living. We don’t work with run-down old gear; we sit in carbon-filtered, air-conditioned cabins with auto steer. It’s easier physically, but mentally it’s more challenging.

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