Getting water off their paddocks as quickly as possible saw Derrinallum croppers Matthew and Rachel Hinkley take out the prestigious Weekly Times Coles Farmer of the Year award at a lavish ceremony in Melbourne last Friday.
Since taking on their Kurweeton Road property 13 years ago, the couple has grown their cropping operation by an impressive 400 per cent and boosted their return on assets to 10 per cent.
Having both trained as agronomists at the University of Melbourne, Matthew put his skills into practice at Mortlake while Rachel took a position at Horsham.
The pair eventually partnered up while working in the cotton industry at Moree and decided to move back to Victoria with the intention of practicing what they preached on their own farm.
“I guess we were giving other farmers advice often enough that we eventually thought, ‘hey, we could do this’,” Rachel said.
“At the time it seemed like having a farm of our own would be unattainable but we eventually found a sheep/wool farm at Derrinallum that needed a bit of work and was in our price range.
“Matthew’s family farm is at Mortlake, so that meant we were close enough to borrow equipment in those early years.”
Rachel kept her position as an agronomist with the National Bank in Ballarat for the next eight years to maintain and off-farm income and steadily the couple grew their operation to 1620 hectares of owned and leased land, where they grow wheat, canola and barley.
Rachel said Matthew had “exceptional vision” when looking at properties and could see their full potential.
“The farm had been loved in its day as a wool property but it had a low stocking rate – it just needed a bit of love and hard work really,” she said.
“We worked out the economy of scale needed to make the farm viable and worked hard to make it happen.”
Situated in a high rainfall zone with heavy soil types, Rachel said the biggest secret to their success was in water management.
Existing drains were cleared and others put in place,with a view to getting the water off the paddocks as quickly as possible.
“Water was, and remains, the biggest focus for us alongside crop agronomy and fertiliser rates,” Rachel said.
“Our farm is at a low point in the district, so we receive everyone else’s water as well.
“Water is something neighbours have to work together on and we’ve definitely tried to do that in terms of clearing drains, rather than just passing the water on to them.”
The couple were “completely surprised” to be named as Australia’s best farmers, which carried with it a $10,000 prize.
“Entering the competition was never about the money for us,” Rachel said.
“Farmers spend so much time in the paddock and yards and do many, many hours of work that goes unrecognised.
“We’re very passionate about agriculture and think it has a positive future, so I suppose this award is really recognition for all those hard-working farmers.”
Rachel thanked the Weekly Times/Coles partnership for staging the awards and paid recognition to their farm’s two staff members – Tracey Tabart and Shaun Thurrowgood – who she said were crucial to their entire farm operation.