“Always being up for a challenge” is the best way to describe the attitude of farmers in Coleambally.
The small town boasts just over 1300 people, with many of the residents directly related to the original farmers who drew farms in the ballot in the 1960s.
The town officially opened in 1968 with many of the farms dedicated to growing rice initially.
But there has always been diversity in farming from mixed farming enterprises to rotational cropping to growing various types of crops.
The challenge of growing new crops has never been turned down by farmers in the region.
“Coleambally has always had a pioneering and challenging character,” Coleambally farmer Donna Wiseman said.
“In the early days the region opened through the ballot and that generation faced challenges and with new cropping systems it’s a challenge for the people who are coming through now.”
This story was published in the 2018 edition of MIA Farming. Click here to read the magazine online.
This could be the reason behind the town being home to so many third generation farmers.
Many young farmers are starting to establish themselves in the region both on their family farms and on their own slice of farmland.
The introduction of cotton to the area has helped make farming more viable in the region and enable many farmers to employ or work with their children.
Donna has been on the farm for more than 30 years while her husband grew up in the region after his father drew a farm in the ballot.
Today they primarily grow cotton and maize.
“Cotton is fabulous for the young farmers,” Donna said.
“It’s very much technology based but you’ve got to have sound agronomy skills.”
Donna is proud to have two of their four sons return to the farm to work with them while the other two are healthcare professionals - one working as a nurse in the same hospital he was born in.
The two who returned to the farm both completed apprenticeships before coming back to work the farm.
“They are able to bring their professional skills back onto the farm which can be used and they earn the respect of working for an employer,” Donna said.
The most vital skill young farmers bring is their skill with technology which has been the biggest change in the industry in the past 30 years.
“The guiding system and computer systems in the machine is phenomenal,” Donna said.
“You can look at the interface and look at the yield map that comes out the header and move it into the spray rig and adjust for variable rate sprays and variable rate fertiliser.”
This type of technology allows chemicals and fertilisers to be applied where required on the paddock.
“It’s important to have young gun farmers coming back,” Donna said.
“A lot of them are coming back and saying: Dad get out of the way.
“When I went through school I didn’t touch a computer and we’re too old to change,” she joked.
“We’re very comfortable leaving our boys with the technology.”
While the feeling of comfort in this instance comes from the younger generations skills with computers; it is echoed throughout the farming operation thanks to family ties.
“There is a long standing trust and reliability that comes from working with family,” Donna said.
“The only downside is it can be hard to separate the employer/employee and father/son relationship.”
The joy of working with family is also echoed by fellow Coleambally cotton grower Keith Burge.
“The best family relationship you can have is if you can work with your children,” Keith said.
“It’s a challenge but if you can make it work it’s the best.”
Keith and his wife Marge took over the farm from Keith’s mother in 1989 after working with her for a year.
Today he works alongside the eldest of his four children, Phillip, with their farms producing mainly cotton and corn.
Before working on the farm Phillip completed a degree in engineering in Melbourne.
While leaving the farm and coming back after working or studying is one common way it isn’t the only way to start life as a farmer.
Many know they want to work the farm when they complete their schooling and go straight into the family business.
“There are a number of different ways to do it just depends on the purpose,” Keith said.
“We value education and encouraged the kids to go away but that doesn’t mean someone who comes straight onto the farm isn’t just as good.”
Much like the Wiseman family Keith has found the improving technology around farming has had a huge impact on his operations which will continue into the future.
“The technology is brilliant and so is the engineering in the machines,” Keith said.
“It’s making farming more precise and we’re doing a better job with technology.
“Coleambally farmers have always adopted to new technology and grown different crops.”
Just some of the currently technology includes spray rigs which can be programed to turn individual nozzles on and off a certain points in the paddock, automatic watering systems, checking paddocks and water levels with drones and using yield mapping to apply fertilizer to certain areas of the paddock.
These systems are a far cry from the way the first generation of Coleambally farmers worked the land but they are also vital for survival in the future of farming.
Both Donna and Keith hope to see a fourth generation running their farms but there are many variables.
When it comes to the future water security is a major factor making investment in technology and machinery a risk for families.
“Everyone has their hand up for the water in the Murray Darling Basin Plan,” Donna said.
“It’s a big unknown and it makes all the investment we’re putting in a bit risky.”
With fears of losing water aside, Keith hopes to see a fourth generation on the farm if that’s what they want to pursue.
“It would be nice to see but there is no pressure for that to happen,” he said.
“We don’t want to impose anything but if they want to do it they have the chance.”
With water challenges, technology changes and changing crop types it’s safe to say the fourth (or fifth) generation of farmers in Coleambally will need to be just as innovative as the pioneers of the region.
For further reading, click here to view MIA Farming online.