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Farming for the future

As the O’Connor family celebrates 100 years of family involvement in their Oxton Park farming enterprise at Harden in the picturesque Hilltops region, they reflect on what the centenary milestone means to them. Rosie O’Keeffe discovers how a family passion for agriculture, community involvement, and a well-planned business structure and advice, have been instrumental in unlocking the possibilities for future generations to write their own pages in the history books when they take the reins of this mixed operation.

It’s autumn 2020 and the annual shearing operation is in full swing at Oxton Park at Harden. Spanning three large woolsheds and with some 30,000 in the flock to go under the clippers over just a few weeks, it’s certainly one of the most labour-intensive operations on the farm. And, when I glance through historical information including the late Patrick O’Connor’s article written for The Bulletin journal published in 1934, wool production was at the forefront of the family’s enterprise, even in the early years. “If there is any secret to our success, it might be attributed to the loyal cooperation of every member of the family, and the adoption of a policy long before our time that proved to be a sure winner – sheep and wool growing,” Patrick had documented. From what began as an original 400ha purchased in 1920 by the O’Connor brothers James and Patrick of “Oakleigh” Marengo (later known as the village of Murringo), today the Oxton Park operation encompasses almost 20,000 acres (7,800 ha) with more properties acquired through the ages as the opportunity arose. The total Oxton Park enterprise spans 19 separate holdings/properties all adjoined, including the larger farms “Newington” purchased in 1963, “Guerness” purchased in 1968, “Granite View” purchased in 1976, “Stanley Park” in 1981, with “Fernleigh” and “Werrington” the most recent to be purchased in 1990, which significantly increased the size of the overall Oxton Park enterprise by 25 per cent. As markets changed, so did the focus of the operations, and today, just over 50 per cent of the land is used for cropping wheat, canola, triticale and pastures, and the livestock component has evolved from a Merino wool enterprise, to a flock with a composite meat and wool purpose. But, more important than the growth of the enterprise, is that after 10 whole decades of ownership, the O’Connor family bloodlines remain strong. Four members of the family – brothers Peter, Paul, John and cousin Pat – lead a team of 10 full-time employees, between 20 and 30 casual workers during seasonal peaks, and the next generation has also begun involvement in the business, as cousins Jack O’Connor, Brad Cavanagh and Max O’Connor cement their on-farm roles at Oxton Park. “The strength of Oxton Park has been the size of our enterprise and for our working directors to be able to specialise in particular areas of the business such as the wool, meat and cropping areas… But, what is most important to us, is that we are strong believers that we are just looking after the land and preparing it to pass on to the next generation and hopefully having made significant improvements along the way,” Peter says. “The O’Connor family’s stoic attitude has enabled us to really roll with the punches and reflect everyone’s passion for farming. The ability we’ve had for several family members to work together within the business, is quite unique.” Both Peter and John make reference to the secrets to their successful family-run enterprise and that it could actually come down to community involvement, with two generations involved in local rugby union clubs. “Sport has been a big part of our family through the generations. We’ve all grown up playing rugby and involved in the local clubs at an organisational level too. I think the culture of teamwork could have flowed on from the football field to the farm as well,” John says.

Peter adds, “Communication is also key, and having a strong corporate management structure that separates personal interests from business investment and operations.” The family business became an officially incorporated entity in 1996 after having been run as a partnership between brothers Justin and Kevin. A succession planning process ensued and a structure that sees regular board management meetings with external advice from chairman and farm advisor Chris Duff and accountant and financial adviser Stephanie O’Connor has ensured everything runs smoothly from the day-to-day operations to forward strategic planning. Whilst the story of Oxton Park may date back 100 years, farming in the O’Connor family is documented much earlier – in 1861 it is noted Thomas O’Connor established “Oakleigh”, with occasional support from brother James. “The thing that stands out through all the history we’ve read about the enterprise, is that there were bushfires, droughts, floods, certainly plenty of tough times, but they always managed to get through them… Everything goes in cycles, like it still does today,” Peter says. . The original “Oxton Park” was a part of the landholding known as “Demondrille”, held by grazing right in 1851 by Wyse. Eventually subdivisions occurred and blocks were sold to the Commercial Banking Co. before in 1906 Thomas Allsopp, miller of Murrumburrah, bought a portion of what became Oxton Park. In 1910 it was sold to James Ford a grazier near Young, then the O’Connor family’s legacy was to begin. Interestingly, diary notes state that Patrick had assessed the property as worthwhile farmland, even back then, with the advantages of fertile and well-drained soil. “Agriculture is positioned very well in this environment. We are still very fortunate that we are in a consistent and versatile area where we can produce different crops, we can breed livestock, and the accessibility of water is better than most,” John comments. During the first years, and notably in 1922, Patrick had recorded a good season with excellent crops and good prices, however a dry autumn and heavy rain and hail spoiled the wheat crop the following year. Despite the climatic challenges, this was when the first expansion of the property was negotiated when a block of 40 acres (16ha) was purchased. In 1924 wool boomed, and towards the end of the year a neighbouring 223-acre property called “Glendale” was purchased. It was also a significant year for the shearing operations, for the first time being held on-farm. In the following years, the prices ebbed and flowed and the Oxton Park enterprise survived through a small bushfire in 1940 and while 1943 saw the heaviest wool clip on record with 152 bales, 1944 was one of the driest years and a dry December created fuel for a devastating bushfire that burnt out Oxton Park with hand feeding necessary for almost the whole year, although the crops were noted to have yielded reasonably well. The year 1955 was documented as an “abundant year on Oxton Park”. “Rain fell in the best quantities at the right time and accurate management of stock, crops and pastures provided an exceptional yield. Though grain prices fell, fat cattle and sheep became very dear. Oxton Park wool clip exceeded 200 bales for the first time,” Patrick’s records say.

Sadly Patrick O’Connor passed away in 1956, passing the farm on to brothers Kevin, who managed the livestock part of the business, and Justin, who managed the crops. In the 1990s Kevin and Justin handed over ownership and management of the farm to the next generation. Kevin and his wife Val had six children and Justin and wife Monica eight children, and now Peter manages the cropping practices with Kevin’s son Pat, and Paul and John, (other sons of Justin), oversee the livestock operation. The other O’Connor family members not officially involved still take an active interest in the happenings on the property. Whilst Kevin and his wife Val, and Justin have now passed away, Justin’s wife Monica, still takes a strong interest in the management of Oxton Park today.

“We also have long serving workers who have really grown up in the business and we consider as much a part of the enterprise as family. John Brown was involved at Oxton Park for more than 40 years working alongside Kevin and Justin, and now his sons Greg and Nigel, have been working with us for more than 20 years,” John says. Over the years, boundary and internal fencing has been improved, water storages increased, and substantial tree plantations established across the properties in the past 15 years has been an integral part of biodiversity. Capital improvements include two large woolsheds, 1,200 tonne capacity sealed silos to store niche marketed grain and a further 10,000 tonne storage capacity in what is known as ‘West Shed’ which has also housed a number of large charity events. “Being a part of the community has been really important to us as well. We have hosted six charity balls at Oxton Park over the years and also held events in Sydney to raise funds for cancer research through the Garvan Institute. Over the years more than $1 million was raised for this cause,” John says. In the late 1950s and early 1960s under Justin and Kevin’s management, Merino sheep breeding continued to be the mainstay enterprise of the family farm and there was a substantial Hereford cattle breeding operation, and then when Jim Wright became the farm financial adviser and agronomist through the Harden Rural District Advisory Service, wheat farming became an ever important enterprise, through development of new varieties and advancements in technology. This farm advice continued through the Chandlers Rural business, then to go on to become Delta Agribusiness. Around the late 1990s, the family decided to cease cattle breeding and concentrate on buying store calves, fattening them up on grazing crops, or fattening sheep for meat. The collapse of the wool price reserve scheme in 1991 meant there were 4.7 million bales of wool in the stockpile, which took 10 years to clear and had a dramatic impact on business and resulted in a shift towards a dual purpose flock. Whilst the O’Connors say immense lows have been experienced over the years in wool production, there have also been many highs.

The shift into more of a dual purpose Merino evolved when sheep meat prices improved. There is the aim to increase fleece weights, but at the same time improve carcase performance from a quicker maturing sheep. There has been an AI program since 1995 and current lamb marking percentages are about 110 per cent lambs marked to ewes joined. The main objective at Oxton Park is to continue to lift wool weights on the flock without losing the excellent lambing percentages recorded in the past decade. Peter says another shining light that changed the farm’s prospects was canola production. “In the 1980s we had dabbled in rapeseed which was a precursor to canola. There were a lot of issues such as disease, the best varieties to grow, how to grow it and how to harvest it, but it became a very profitable crop and provided us with break crop between wheat crops. This also improved our wheat yields and weed control. It has been a game changer,” Peter says. The cropping program has continued to evolve and now encompasses 56 per cent of the farmland with canola increasingly important in the rotation and the production of more dual-purpose crops. “In general terms, with the wool downturn in the early 1970s, we moved to cropping on a larger scale, machinery got bigger and wheat varieties improved dramatically. “Chemicals were introduced and we got away from ploughing and working the fields to kill weeds. Glysophate was a game changer and was the saviour of erosion problems generated by over cultivating paddocks.

“Growing the right varieties of wheat, triticale and/or canola to cover the shortage of feed during the winter time has been fine-tuned over the years, to the point where they are often the best gross margin of any enterprise on the farm.

”At the start of the millennium, commodity prices were taking off, but drought years were to follow, but despite the challenges, the O’Connor family have been consistently achieving profits from their productive well-managed enterprise.

As the sun sets radiating a golden glow on Oxton Park, the brothers reflect on the past 100 years and the bright future ahead. Whilst the O’Connor family farming genes remain strong, it’s about involvement and inclusiveness, rather than ownership, and preserving the land for the future generations.

“There has certainly been some huge challenges along the way in putting it all together and keeping it all together. We are proud of the overall results and that the business is stronger than it has ever been… It really does give us a lot of satisfaction seeing the younger people coming through our business, whether family or the people working for us, we really are proud to be a part of such a wonderful part of history, farming at Oxton Park.”

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