Home Farming It can’t be that hard

It can’t be that hard

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Roy and Laura Mellon are relatively new kids on the block in the Chittering Valley, selling their first lot of farmer-direct beef and lamb from their Shawshack Farm property in January 2024. The journey has taken them on the steepest of learning curves, trying to transition from a hobby to production farm amongst some of the toughest conditions in recent years.

Despite living in the neighbouring Swan Valley for many years, Roy admits that he had never even heard of Chittering before moving here in 2021 with Laura, their son, and Laura’s mother. “I really didn’t know anything about it — Laura had this place on her wish list and when I sold my business, we thought we’d take a look,’ said Roy.

The 150-acre property came with 12 cows and a spattering of sheep. Roy says, “I then had this bright idea — let’s turn it into more of an actual farm, rather than a hobby property. I had zero farming background — like zero. The most experience was watching Clarkson’s Farm. We thought, ‘It can’t be that hard.’”

Despite this optimism, Roy knew he would need some expertise and support and enlisted the help of farm manager Sarah, who had worked with the previous owners.

Roy says, “I then started gearing up the stock — to Sarah’s horror, as she thought the property couldn’t run that many heads, but it was fine. We were growing good enough feed, and we started to put all the infrastructure in place — machinery, building sheds, replacing fence lines, and even put 2.5 km of bitumen roads all the way through.”

While all this was being done, the price for beef and cattle started declining, with many farmers sending beasts to the saleyards rather than wearing the expense of trying to manage them through what was one of the driest summers on record.

“When the prices started tanking, I doubled down — I figured we’ll just buy some more, it is a bargain,” said Roy. The property currently runs around 90 head of cattle, a mixture of Murray Greys, Black Angus, and Scottish Highland cows, and approximately 90 dorper sheep. For the most part, any problems along the way have been overcome with more capital investment, a position Roy says they are very fortunate to be in, “I don’t know how anyone that actually has to do this for a living gets through,” but there is the ever-present thought of wondering when to pull the pin, and of course there are some problems that money cannot fix.

“We completely ran out of feed, and even if you can afford to buy it, finding hay is like buying cocaine,” said Roy. “Then we got hit with the drought — and that is one thing you can’t just buy your way out of, right? Maybe for our household, but even that was a 10-week wait for water carriers. For the farm, I was going through 100,000 litres in a week. The dam was completely dry at that point, and two of the three bores were dry.

“I was saying to Laura, ‘What happens if this last bore dries out? We’ve got no water, what do we do?’ I’m still looking into solutions for that, it was just too close for my comfort.”

The pivot into selling farm direct meat came after a disappointing trip to the saleyards. Laura took approximately 30 prime dorper sheep and returned having only managed around $20 per head.

Roy says, “That was mind blowing for me — I can’t even buy a tray of lamb chops for that, and you’re telling me it’s 20 bucks for a whole sheep? I figured, I’m spending so much money going to the butchers, why don’t we actually eat some of this meat ourselves and work out a price to sell it to the public?”

This next venture came with even more infrastructure investment including a cool room, commercial freezer, and an automatic generator to protect against the unreliable power supply. Shawshack’s first round of meat went out in January this year. For Roy, experiencing the fruits of his own labour was eye-opening, revealing a significant difference in freshness and taste compared to supermarket products.

“I thought supermarket meat was fine,” he laughs, “But when you actually try farm meat, you’re like, ‘Well, that’s really different,’. There’s actual flavour in the meat.
“It was a lot of hard work, but it was super successful and then people were asking, ‘When’s your next slaughter?’”

Roy soon discovered that he wasn’t the only producer to have this brainwave, but demand for quality farm-raised meat, along with a growing distaste for how the major supermarkets treat both their farmers and their consumers — “Someone’s making money in this system, and it’s not the farmers,” says Roy — means support for direct-to-consumer sales has been steadily increasing.

The swings and roundabouts of farming are in stark contrast to Roy’s previous career, building an award-winning payroll and workforce management software company. There is a high level of irony in leaving a job focused on increasing labour efficiency and streamlining processes, to enter the world of farming with its uncontrollable variables. Roy says, “It just went against everything I’ve been taught. Cash is king in any business, but the cash flow on this property is just phenomenal.

“And the economy of scale is unreal — nothing is small like a normal property or house!”

Roy has managed to apply his tech-savvy nature to many of the mundane farm chores and while he can see the potential for tech-industry development in this area, he has learnt enough about farming to know that is a tough market to crack. “I know farmers are reluctant to adopt change,” he said. “I’ve got electronic readers on all my tanks, for example — I know other people just drive around and check all their floats, but it feels backwards to me. This way I get an alert straight away to tell me if there’s a leak. The number of times when cattle have just bloody stood on something and broken it…”

For now, Roy and Laura are forging ahead, searching for the elusive sweet spot in productivity and enjoying the lifestyle. “To wake up and see the valley like this, it’s unreal. Like a postcard. And you pinch yourself. And everyone is super friendly — I mean, nothing is a five-minute conversation,” laughs Roy, “But it is incredible how everyone comes together, whether you’re trying to find feed, or they’ll warn you if they’ve seen a fox, everyone is very caring.

“There’s so many times Laura and I question ourselves and think, ‘We should have bought a penthouse’,” admits Roy. “But do we regret it? Absolutely not. It’s a good life and a great environment in which to bring up our son. It is never a dull moment.”

Keep an eye on Shawack Farm’s Facebook page for updates on product availability, or you can order direct from www.shawshackfarm.com.au.