Growing next gen farmers, keeping bush communities bright

Sandra Ireson’s favourite time of day is just after lunch. The beef producer and co-founder of agricultural mentoring organisation, ‘Hay Inc.’ loves to have a cuppa on the deck after a busy morning. It’s here she breathes in the warm, still afternoon, watching the light move through the trees.

From her vantage point, Sandra looks across the green of her garden which offers an oasis in the midst of the flat, dry plains of her family’s property, Belmont Station in western NSW. 85 kilometres north of Hay and five kilometres from the village of Booligal, Sandra, her husband Matt and their three children, Lochie, Ellie and Pip breed Angus and Black Baldy cattle and prime lambs on 6000 hectares along the Lachlan river.

Photo: Sarah Houston

Growing up on a Merino property in the Snowy Mountains and married to a fifth generation farmer, farming is in Sandra’s blood. However, when she and Matt were first looking for a property, she tried to convince him to pack up to the coast and try something new. 

“I was a little bit keen to travel around Australia and become an oyster farmer, but Matt didn’t want to leave the district,” Sandra laughs. “And there was pressure to stay in order to keep the Booligal School open. We’d lobbied to have it reopened and it did when my oldest started kindergarten, with just six pupils. If we’d left, the school would’ve shut.”

So stay they did, raising their children and cattle in the saltbush country. The family runs around 300 breeders, selling two thirds of their cattle numbers in the most recent drought and currently working to rebuild the herd. Lochie studied at the University of New England, and came home during the pandemic in 2020 to continue his studying online – now working as a contractor locally.

Photo: Sarah Houston

I think that has been a silver lining of COVID-19; there’s quite a few you blokes and women working locally who normally may have been overseas. Having them stay local is great for the community – and the rugby team! It breathes life into the local fabric.

The Ireson’s middle daughter, Ellie is working and also studying Agriculture through UNE while living in Darwin, while their youngest, Pip is working as a jillaroo in the Queensland Gulf.

“Our three children have worked on cattle stations in Northern Australia. Someone said to me the other day, ‘you send your kids up there so they can be part of a strong work ethic and learn from others, it’s a fantastic experience for them. It’s tough but they love it.”

COVID bringing kids back to the bush

With universities going online, Sandra has noticed many young locals are taking the chance to upskill while still working in the bush.

“There’s been a lot of young ones that were probably doing their second or third year at university, that now can go and work on a station and punch out a couple of subjects and still finish off their tertiary qualifications. That brings them back into these small communities”.

“It’s really good, because it’s interesting for them, they can work on different properties, learn new ways of working, earn money and study. It’s the best of both worlds.” 

Photo: Sarah Houston

Each family member has fostered hobbies and passions, never allowing rural living to waylay entrepreneurial spirit. There’s a side-business picking native everlasting daisies that are abundant on the plains when it rains – Pip and Sandra selling them by the bunch to florists, spreading floral love online during lockdown. There’s also a side hustle breeding working dogs – Belmont Kelpies – which has garnered quite the cult following, the social media pages splashed with grinning pups. Meanwhile, Ellie spends many an hour in her little shed out the back of the house, designing and hand making silver jewellery.

Hay Inc.

The winner of the 2017 Agrifutures Rural Women’s Award for NSW-ACT, Sandra understands innately the immeasurable learning to be had on the land, co-founding rural education program, Hay Inc. in 2014. The program offers a range of short courses for young people aged 18-25, delivered on rural properties by volunteer producers throughout the Hay district along with trainers from Australian Wool Innovation and TOCAL.

Photo: Sarah Houston

The idea for it started ticking away in 2011. With Lochie away at boarding school at Sydney’s Saint Ignatius’ College Riverview, the Iresons met plenty of folk from the big smoke who they felt were disconnected from Australian agriculture.

This was around the time when the live export ban happened, and it really made me realise so many young people in city areas don’t know where their food comes from.

Sandra offered to host 25 Riverview Year 10 boys for a week, to broaden their understanding of what life looked like on the land.

“I ended up having those 25 boys come on a ten-hour country link bus to Hay. They visited farms, learned about different processes and production lines. They looked at our little one-teacher school and they swam in the river. They had a great time.”

Photo: Sarah Houston

That program has since flourished, with young people – some from the city, some from the bush – coming from across Australian to take part every year, learning on-farm practical skills like fencing, drenching and stockmanship. Not only do the students walk away with a strong understanding of real work and a springboard into a rural career if they want it – they also have a network of mentors and mates to call on for life. And with registrations now open for the 2022 intake, the interest is booming.

“From the 2021 program, 13 of the students are now employed locally. We’ve had other regions want to learn how to roll out a program in their own areas. But almost more importantly, these young people are finding their tribe,” Sandra said.

“It’s an alumni of the next generation of people passionate about producing food and fibre. They make mates for life.”

After a brush with breast cancer last year, Sandra says her love for the country she works alongside her family and their way of life is stronger than ever.

“It has changed a bit of an outlook for me, in terms of really making the most out of every day,” she said.

Agriculture is important to everyone. We’ve all got to eat. And there are just so many opportunities across the industry. I love the variety too. I’ll be out in the paddock one day and the next day, I’ll be crunching some numbers, and then looking at some sales and marketing. I’m really, really lucky that I get to run my own business and have my children involved in it too.

“When you’re involved in ag, you’re involved in a rural community too where there are some fantastic people. It’s been so great to be able to encourage new young people into the community and into the industry too. We need them.”

Looking to explore your #Agventure? Register for National AgDay 2021 for more information and resources about the many careers available in agriculture.

Emily Herbert

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