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Addicted to farming

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Fourth generation Miling farmer Tony White fondly calls farming his addiction. He not only loves what he does, but also the lifestyle it affords his family: partner Peta and their two boys, Xavier (11) and Mitchell (10). He believes that while adaptation is key to surviving — making farming fun is fundamental to keeping the next generation involved.

“With this farming game we’re in we’ve just got to adapt — whether it’s climate change, or whether it’s government policies or it’s lack of rain, or it’s something else.”

 

There’s been plenty of changes since Tony’s great grandfather Latimer White came to Coomberdale in 1907, later founding the family farm Genocanna in Miling, and the family’s agricultural practices have evolved in many ways.

“We came out west chasing the rainfall,” explains Tony, speaking from the Badgingarra property he leases to complement Genocanna.

“I’ve changed from a straight Merino flock to a Merino white Suffolk flock — the basis of the sheep flock is the meat, but we still get a fleece and some hybrid vigour. We can use the grain we have on the home farm to value add the sheep.”

From planting saltbush to improve his pastures, to leasing more land and trying his hand at contracting, Tony’s efforts expanding the boundaries of his enterprise haven’t stopped. His latest family venture — buying the local roadhouse — has the bonus of breathing life back into the shrinking town of Miling, which was literally bypassed by the Great Northern Highway upgrades project last June.

“I guess you couldn’t get many people more passionate about keeping Miling alive than Tony!” says Peta, “He’s even president of the Miling Progress Association. So when the shop was going to close, he was just as passionate about trying to avoid that as I was — I just put my hand up and said that I would run it, I suppose.”

Adept at adaptation herself, Peta, who was a marketing executive in London before falling in love with a farmer and moving to Miling, has embraced the challenges of renovating the roadhouse, and increasing food and produce options to entice more locals to shop in town. Now they are proud to be able to offer a full paddock-to-plate solution with their own meat brand, Manuka lamb.

“Having the shop is a unique opportunity to offer our meat to the public. Part of the reason we got into doing our own sheep was because the confidence fell out of the market. That the gap between what the farmer was getting for and what the supermarket was making — it was huge!” says Peta.

“So, although we believe our quality is just as good, if not better, we don’t want to be putting on enormous premium.”

Export-grade Manuka honey is harvested at the Badgingarra lease block by the owners, and since the sheep contribute by grazing and fertilising the bushes, the name was fitting — while they are yet to notice a ‘Manuka’ taste, the Leptospermum scoparium offers an alternate fodder and shelter on the once cleared land.

“We now have customers coming in and buying sides of lamb. I had a truckie come in and buy four whole lambs and 20 barbecue packs to take down to Perth — it’s become an opportunity that we want to pursue more. Customers like to know that they’re buying meat from the people who grew it,” explains Peta, who has been experimenting with packaging options and is committed to processing as locally as possible.

“There’s been a lot of disconnect from agriculture, but we can bring that back better. I think it is more important that people understand where their food comes from,” adds Tony. “It’s very hard to do a farm shop in WA or Australia where you drive to the farm and get your produce.”

Getting consistency throughout the seasons is another challenge for Tony, but being able to use grains and hay from the home farm is a circular solution. They are also keen to offer hogget and mutton and bring back some diversity in the meat range and have seen demand already.

While the roadhouse, which also offers fuel and hot meals, and the soon-to-be-reopened pub offer a reason to stop into Miling, the dwindling population is a worrying trend across many regional towns, and Tony would love to see the town thrive again as it did when he was a boy.

“Back then we had more people around. We had a lot more sheep around the district, so there were a lot more people employed. The farms were smaller. I guess just the economy of scale in agriculture has decimated rural communities and people have moved away and never come back, so we lose a lot of people, and we get bigger farms.”

Less people means finding employees across their businesses is a constant issue, but Peta is optimistic “Numbers at the school have swelled to 24 this year! With another three starting in two weeks.”

“In attracting employees to the area, you really do need for them to appreciate and value the lifestyle. Because we can’t compete financially with the mines, but we can offer a lot more, for a lifestyle and family,” adds Tony.

“I think it’s a good pathway. I think agriculture is pretty exciting for the young people to come into it. It’s not all about the money. It’s about making it fun I think.”

The latest proposed ban on live sheep exports throws up yet another potential roadblock for farming families like Tony’s and yet another challenge to keeping our regional communities alive, but somehow I think they’re up for the challenge, and I’ve no doubt they’ll be adapting in whatever way they can to keep their sheep.