The many lives of a young farmer

Published: May 2019 | By: Beverley Hadgraft

Rachel Nicoll is a farmer, fireworks manager, the NSW Farmers Hartley Branch Chair and lobbyist- and she is a strong voice for the agricultural industry.

Rachel with a white leghorn rooster on her farm in Hampton, near Lithgow. Photography by: David Roma. 
Farming eggs, growing berries and dealing with trespass

FEW will be surprised to hear that Rachel Nicoll is up at 5.30am to start work on her 65-hectare farm at Hampton in the NSW Central Tablelands. On a good day, she and her younger brother Aaron will check email orders for free-range eggs and fresh produce or shovel manure. 

“Other days we wake up and have a burst hose line or a pack of wild pigs has got in and wreaked havoc, then we go into triage mode,” Rachel says.

What is more surprising about the siblings, however, is that by 7am they are suited up and in the car travelling to their full-time jobs at a local fireworks factory.

They try to be back by 5pm to put chickens away, check water then head out to the fields to do as much crop maintenance as possible before dark.
“If you’ve been on a computer all day, there’s nothing better than driving a tractor or pruning a bush.” – Rachel Nicoll.

The siblings took over the farm in 2016 after their father John passed away after years of battling health issues. Unfortunately, he died without a succession plan so Aaron and Rachel are now joint managers and effectively rent the farm from their mother Vicki, who is “still very much the mentor”.

Rachel Nicoll with her “mentor” mother Vicki at their farm in Hampton, about 30km south of Lithgow in the NSW Central Tablelands.

“My parents started their farm journey in 1980, coming up on an old red rattler train from Sydney, everyone staring at the wheelbarrow and tools they were carrying,” recalls Rachel. They were never afraid to experiment, she adds, and she aspires to that same willingness to learn.  

“We have about 300 chooks now,” she says. “We did have more but scaled back when Dad was unwell. We used to do a lot of our own breeding but unfortunately we’re on a spur power line so outages are more frequent and long term. We’ve had times we’ve had 3,000 eggs in an incubator and lost them overnight.”

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With farm time so limited, both siblings are strategic planners. Winter nights, especially, are spent looking at what outcomes they want to achieve and how to get there.

Weighing the free-range eggs. Rachel and her brother both work long hours on the farm after their 9-5 jobs.

“Because I’m focused on compliance at work, I tend to carry that over to the farm in terms of labelling and marketing. Aaron has a business degree and is focused on how we can perform better.”

The family employs no other workers so most weekends are spent cropping or harvesting – they grow herbs, vegetables, berries and chestnuts – the latter bought almost exclusively by Korean customers. It’s a big workload but, Rachel says, they’ve always managed.

Ripening blackberries from the Nichol farm where they do all the cropping and harvesting themselves.

“There are some losses in terms of what we don’t pick but we’re very conscious of the life cycle of everything on the farm, so what we don’t pick goes to the chooks just as their manure goes into the soil. We don’t have organic certification but we rarely use any chemicals. We do a fair bit of bumper protection between us and neighbours for biosecurity.” 

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Rachel with two of their Australorp chicks. The Australorp is a breed native to Australia - having been bred from the Orpington chicken.

Rachel is proud of what they’ve achieved including building new sheds for farm machinery and setting up water infrastructure so they can pump and transfer water around the property from their bores. They’ve recently started growing garlic and, after de-stocking their small beef herd due to drought, may consider agistment if the rains return.

A bigger headache is crime and trespass.

“We’ve had a lot of drones fly over the property recently and we’re not sure why – there’s been quite a lot of activists wanting to know what’s happening on farms or it could just be curiosity.” – Rachel Nicoll.

“Our area is also notorious for wild pigs and Mum was attacked by two pig dogs that had got away from their owner.”

Every challenge on the farm is met with the same attitude: Rachel looks for lessons that can be learned. Rather than lobbying for drones to be made illegal, she responded to the invasion by doing a drone course. 

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“I’ve realised they could be very useful for us – doing perimeter checks or checking for trespassers.”

Fireworks manager role in Wallerawang providing stability

After leaving university with a science degree, Rachel was looking for a job and Howard & Sons Pyrotechnics had a maternity leave post. She took it, hoping to get useful experience for her resume. “When it finished they asked me to stay and I’ve been there ever since. That was 10 years ago!”

Rachel in her day job as a manager at Howard & Sons Pyrotechnics.

The family business supplies fireworks displays for anything from New Year’s Eve to sporting events. Most firework formulations and products are imported from China so have to go through an approval process. 

Using her science background, Rachel assesses these formulas to ensure they meet the necessary Australian requirements and classifications. She also works with industry bodies to help develop standards and best practice guidelines.

In 2007, Howard & Sons had a disastrous explosion at its Wallerawang site in the Central Tablelands, so another of Rachel’s roles is site safety. “Fireworks react differently depending on their classification so we have to segregate where we store them on site so we don’t have that risk again,” she says.

For someone so smart and ambitious, 10 years is a long time to stay with one employer but she’s grateful for the opportunities Howards has given her and admits it’s difficult to move elsewhere with the farm to consider. “I could never give that up.”

Some of Howard & Son fireworks displays. Source: Howards Fireworks Youtube.

Another bonus of her job as manufacturing production and logistics manager is the opportunities to travel. Rachel has been to Japan for an international fireworks symposium and to Vietnam for a global fireworks competition, which Australia won. 

The technology behind displays has moved on, she says.
“When I started, you ran around with a torch and were lighting a match to set it off. You’d have ash raining down on you and it was scary and exhilarating at the same time.” – Rachel Nicoll.

Now the firing mechanism is computerised, although Rachel and other staff still have to follow the designer’s brief to wire products up and plug them into the firing mechanism. 
Leading the way for the NSW Farmers Hartley branch 

Rachel joined NSW Farmers in 2011 as a member of the Young Farmers Committee, and quickly became secretary/treasurer of the Hartley branch. Two years ago, she put up her hand to have a crack as chair.

Rachel, the current deputy Chair of the Young Farmers Council (at the front), with Tim Carroll (Chair), Laura Phelps (previous deputy Chair) and Alexandra Hicks of the Young Farmer Business Program. Source: Fairfax.

Most of her members are men over 40 and she admits initially there were concerns she didn’t have the necessary experience or networks. “But I understand what drives them, and where we have areas of commonality,” says Rachel.

She has a value she repeats often: “Seek first to understand before being understood” – and she needs that with a membership ranging from city tree changers with 16ha hobby farms to graziers with 800ha.

“Few other branches would have that diversity but that’s what makes it so special,” says Rachel who is also a member of NSW Farmers’ Rural Affairs Committee, as well as deputy chair of the NSW Young Farmer Council.

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“There are some robust conversations but I try to understand all viewpoints without perpetually sitting on the fence – I have to take a pragmatic approach.”

Rachel finds that encouraging all local farmers, whatever their background, to join NSW Farmers provides a good opportunity to promote best practice. She recently organised small farms and biosecurity workshops, for instance, both of which were particularly useful for those who might not have history of caring for the land. 

Rachel has a big emphasis on biosecurity on her Hampton farm, and has encouraged local farmers to do the same.  

“With biosecurity, we had a presentation from the Local Land Services then tackled a worksheet. By the finish, everyone had started a biosecurity plan and we made it clear if they had a question or concern, they could come back to us.” 

As well as organising these events, formal meetings and the AGM, Rachel represents her branch at events such as local shows, drumming up even more membership. Does she ever have a weekend off? “Well I do, but I tend to fill it doing something that represents farmers,” she says.
“I regard myself as a connector and an enabler. I’m someone our farmers can ring up and have a chat to.” – Rachel Nicoll
Lobbying for farmers’ best interests

Rachel says that five years ago, the mayor of her local council of Lithgow “probably couldn’t tell you what a farmer in our area did or looked like”.

Farmers were just not as visible as those with greater financial heft. While agriculture, forestry and fisheries make up more than 18% of the businesses in the area, they contribute less than 2% to Lithgow’s GDP.

“However, it made me realise that not being visible didn’t mean our voice wasn’t worthy of being at the table and perhaps we were inviting the regulation or extra compliance we were being burdened with.

Rachel hones her business skills at a NSW Farmers training day in March for female members. Photo by: Jane Dempster. 

“I changed my thinking so that farm advocacy is what you do to define it and who you are in face-to-face challenges. We now have regular meetings with local government and in the past two years I’ve been invited to sit on the Economic Development Working Party and Tourism Advisory Committee. 

“We recently held a drought workshop and the council came to the table and said: ‘What can we do to help?” – Rachel Nicoll. 

“They instigated hardship policies and made water access subsidised for farmers. It’s been a positive shift and everyone has been on board.”

Another priority is mental health. At a farmers’ breakfast, Rachel invited a mental health nurse to speak as a catalyst to get the community sharing stories of loneliness and the need for strong social bonds. Last October she joined the Australian Mental Health Leaders Fellowship, set-up to equip emerging leaders with skills to improve mental health in the community. 

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She also established the Hampton Wild Dog Group to combat local wild dog devastation and secured funding for baiting, trapping and education programs.

Rachel has been a tireless, and successful, farming advocate.

Like a few other branch chairs, she recently got funding to subsidise Q fever vaccinations, with members participating in a Q Fever research project with the University of Notre Dame. That opened another door, allowing Rachel to present to junior doctors about how to build trust with regional communities. 

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She’s also caught the eye of the National Farmers’ Federation and last year was invited to Europe and the United Kingdom as part of a delegation discussing what global trade will look like after Brexit.

“I may be Gen Y,” Rachel says. “But I’m not Gen Why Bother?” 

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