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Sowing seeds of sustainability: A CHARITABLE TAKE ON FARMING

With a strong family farming history dating back to 1920, Jack O’Connor is clearly proud of this agricultural legacy and he explains how his involvement in the operations of Oxton Park, near Harden, since his early childhood has shaped his worldly approach of the industry as he sets his sights on managing a farming operation in Uganda.

There are so many ways young people today can inject themselves into agriculture here in Australia, and across the world,” Jack O’Connor believes.

And the 24-year-old has certainly been doing just that, especially as he now embarks on what promises to be one of his most challenging roles yet – managing a small farming project that aims to make a community self-sustainable in one of the poorest nations in the world.

When I speak with Jack, he’s just finished up a role as part of the marketing information team with Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) in Sydney after studying agricultural economics at university and spending a year overseas which included another of his passions, playing in rugby teams in Ireland, and is now back at Harden in southwest NSW on his family’s farm preparing for his next adventure.

With land encompassing some 8,000 hectares from the Harden area to the outskirts of Young at Wombat, despite being managed by Jack’s father John, uncles Paul and Peter, and their cousin Pat, as well a dedicated team of employees, Jack says “you’re never short of a job” when he returns to the farm.

“When you decide what you really love doing in life, coming home back to the farm doesn’t feel like work. We’ve got a great team at Oxton Park and it’s one of the things I love about it most. Some of the families grew up in my grandfather’s era (Justin “Poppy” O’Connor) and have been working here for over 40 years mentoring all the new generations coming through. They are people that I respect a great deal and have learnt so much off over the years…” he explains the farm business that has traditionally centred around Merino breeding, prime lamb production along with broadacre crops such as wheat and canola.

“Before my time and into the 1990s, we grew various other crops such as oats, along with running cattle up until the early 2000s. Since then, the business has really adapted to shifting global trends, that has seen us move in line with a strengthening global sheepmeat market. Something of which I think in recent years especially, Australia as a whole has seen a lot of promise in.”

Jack says that despite going through many challenging times over the years due to climatic conditions and market trends, the O’Connor’s feel fortunate to have retained such a strong interest in the business from many family members.

Even though he admits he’s still thinking about what focus his long-term industry involvement will eventually have, it’s been important for Jack to gain experience both on-farm and in the corporate areas of agriculture too.

“That transition from school when you work out what you really love doing in life you start to realise that agriculture is something you can make a career out of. Coming home back to the farm doesn’t feel like work, it’s a way of life and that’s why we love doing it.

“The thing about our agricultural industry in Australia is we don’t have the greatest track record in attracting young people back to agriculture, and it’s one of our biggest challenges, but I think it is about opening people’s eyes up to the opportunities that are also there that aren’t necessarily on-farm. There are so many elements to our industry and the footprint that we have on a global scale is definitely one of my passions.”

Now, he’s taking that passion further as he is set to pull on the work boots and is digging deep as part of a managerial role with the Manjeri School Project in Buikwe in rural Uganda, Africa.

In 2008 the local school had become bankrupt and there was a fear that the kids of Buikwe, would no longer have a school to go to. Resources were scarce and foreign investment was being lost. Built upon a belief that all children, no matter what part of the world, deserve the opportunity to get a good education like so many of us have had in Australia, a Sydney young professional Nick Harrington had visited the area, and felt he needed to make a change. By introducing a sustainability framework with a focus on building social developments in the community, the Manjeri team aims to make the school self-sustainable in the long term and no longer dependent on foreign funding.

Together with a team of volunteers, also mostly Sydney based, a number of projects began, starting with a chicken farm on-site to provide a source of income for the school, a matatu taxi and water business, and the larger scale farm that Jack has been involved with on a volunteer basis for about three years, firstly from our Australian shores. Now he will manage the farm, community engagement projects and the school, from on the ground in Africa.

“The full-time role I am taking on will hopefully be one of the last pieces of the puzzle. Nick and the rest of the founders have had an exit strategy for 2018, so we aim for all of the enterprises to be generating enough profit so that the school will be operating self-sufficiently without the need for international funding. The school is currently operating at just over 60 per cent self-sustainability through all the enterprises, so there is still quite the challenge ahead of us for the next 12 months.”

“With a team of 30 local employees on the ground, covering both teaching staff and on the farm, we aim to empower the local community through education. In Uganda, there are many cultural sensitivities that you have to be aware of, but we’ve built a strong rapport with our team on the ground and have always had great support from many businesses in Australia, so everyone’s confident in the progress Manjeri can make this year…

“There are 250 children in the school from kindergarten to Year 6 and the educational milestones we’ve achieved and the growth of the number of children now graduating has been massive. When we first started our projects 50 per cent of the children were orphaned and could not afford school fees and attendance wasn’t a prerequisite. We have been really lucky to have so many dedicated and experienced local teachers come on board over the years and have had some outstanding academic improvements as a result. Sport in Uganda is such a big part of the culture as well and our football teams have been doing really well in recent years. It’s a great place with great people to be around.”

There’s no doubt that whilst the Ugandan agricultural landscape is vastly different to what Jack has been used to, as the only Australian on the ground he is still able to draw on his extensive on-farm knowledge in the mixed cropping, livestock and aquaculture operation. Grown on the small farm is corn, sweet potato, watermelon, chilli, 12,000 tilapia fish in two ponds, goats, cattle and Jack will be investigating the viability of a piggery in the coming months. A portion of the produce from the farm will be given to the school kitchen, of which has resulted in more than 70,000 meals a year being provided to the children. However most farming operations are designed as cash crops and aim for the revenue generated to cross subsidise the costs of the school that were traditionally alleviated by a combination of both tuition fees and foreign funding.

The farm is located 70km north east of Kampala, the main capital, but it can take three hours to travel due to the state of the roads. It can be difficult to comprehend that just 5 per cent of the roads in Uganda are paved, with others all very rough, dirt roads.

“Over 90 per cent of Africa’s total employment comes from agriculture, which is a dizzying statistic on its own, but commercialised farms over there are just not on the radar. Through working with local businesses, we have seen a real opportunity to improve efficiencies in the agriculture in Uganda, not just on-farm but working on vital elements such as marketing, data collection and record keeping as well. Seeing the pride that our team gets through being involved in the farm, the improvements we’re making and what we’re all trying to achieve makes it all worthwhile,” Jack explains.

“You can’t take for granted local knowledge either and growing what the local markets are demanding. A lot of the kids’ families have small farms of their own so we hope to use Manjeri as a consultancy in the community to highlight what’s working and what isn’t. At the end of the day, we’re all new to this as well, so it won’t happen overnight but it’s definitely a goal of ours.

“Uganda is located right on the equator so we have really healthy loam soils around us, and where our farm is situated, there’s quite a reliable water source, however like farming anywhere, you’re always in some way at the mercy of the weather. You’d be silly to think you can beat it, particularly in Uganda with such extreme wet and dry seasons.

“How wet it can get throughout a season can provide a few headaches, particularly in cropping, however we’ve seen the risk and opportunity there is in Africa on how reliant everyone is on rainfall because of the costs of irrigation systems, so we are lucky we have been able to grow all year round with a reliable water source. It’s just about working with our team on how to make the most of this opportunity. Quite the different framework to Australia where we have been seeing strict restrictions and a licensing regime.”

Jack says education has been the key in ensuring the farm managers are aware of the best practices to ensure profitability and productivity.

“Our experience and research on the ground has made us really think about simple farm production models and limiting our input costs. There’s no point asking our farm managers to dive into something they aren’t familiar with just because it sold well in the market that week. We have to play to our strength, understand what will work the best on our farm and overall be strategic in how we invest the money that is generously donated to us.”

Jack says most of the financial donations originate in Australia, and with additional funding, the team is looking to gain support for a fencing project at the farm. Purchasing more land to add to the school’s portfolio is a possibility as well as instilling more security in the matatu taxi business, which he says is a vital service for the school children living rurally who would otherwise spend 3.5 hours a day walking to get to school.

“It really is a unique opportunity to combine my passions, I’ve always enjoyed working with people and helping people, and from a charitable point of view it was a unique opportunity that is agriculturally focused, so what I am going to learn out of the experience will mean a lot to me,” Jack says, adding that his accommodation and daily routines will be much different to the creature comforts he has been used to.

And there have already been plenty of memorable moments for him, especially during a short stay there in January. He says a project he feels proud to have been involved in was when Oxton Park, accompanied by the support many other family and friends, gifted many of the farm workers and community members with new work shirts. One of the ladies, Elizabeth (62 years of age) has seven children and remarkably she had said it was the first ever brand new item of clothing she had received in her life.

“Over 60 per cent of the population in Uganda, or 20 million people, are under the age of 25. Promoting the opportunities in agriculture and educating young people here in Africa, along with continuing to introduce new and innovative efficiencies in the wider industry will be one of the biggest challenges facing global food security in the coming decades. With a life expectancy of around 55 years of age, there is no doubt that work is also needed in so many other aspects, but greater support from developed countries such as Australia will undoubtedly continue to make all the difference,” Jack says.

“The real basis where we come from with Manjeri is that we are lucky to have a great education in Australia and we feel that all kids no matter where they live, should also have that opportunity.”

As challenging as the experience in Uganda is going to be, home is possibly always going to prove where Jack’s heart is though… He’s already booked his tickets back to Harden for the Christmas period, although he chuckles that it will no doubt also secure him some long daily stints on a header or chaser bin during what once again promises to be a hectic harvest period.A CHARITABLE TAKE ON FARMING

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