Thorpe Farm, for Australian agriculture
Will Bignell is one of a new generation of farmers, focused on mindful management of both time and resources.
He’s the seventh generation to run Thorpe Farm near Bothwell in Tasmania and while he has a firm grip on managing the farm, he doesn’t live there, preferring to watch his three boys play sport on the weekend than chase ewes. To achieve this, while at the same time doubling his productivity, has required careful planning and investment.
Will had worked on the farm off and on since 2000, but it was around five years ago that he started to really make his mark.
He invested in some major irrigation infrastructure when the Southern Highlands Irrigation Scheme came through, first mapping and draining the land and then installing 160 hectares of overhead irrigation, featuring a 940 metre long pivot.
That kicked off a monumental change in the farm business.
“Water buys production, there’s no denying that, and I’ve had to make some fundamental changes in the business from where it was five or ten years ago, but it’s been well worth it,” Will said.
The irrigated country is now growing brassicas, lucerne, clovers and pastures for lambs, as well as some poppies and barley. The cropping program doubled overnight and ewe numbers have more than doubled, with the increase of an extra 3,500 ewes over the past five years. He joins about 6,000 ewes a year, a mixture of 3,000 merinos producing 17 to 18 micron fine wool and 4,000 composites.
Through the expansion phase, Will has kept a clarity of purpose, as well as diligence and patience.
“Wool and fattening lambs is the bread and butter farming that I can quickly build on and grow if I push hard,” he said.
“We used to have an extremely diversified business, and yes, I still do grow a few Maple peas, or a bit of rye corn for the distilleries, but the small vegetable crops like Jerusalem artichokes or horseradish are very difficult to scale up.
“My overall goal on the farm is to have a safe, enjoyable workplace. Reducing complexity is a big part of what I do.”
Will Bignell, Thorpe Farm, Tasmania.
Will employs two full time workers as well as casuals for shearing or sowing crops. Installing remote sensing tools and improving on planning has helped ensure farming doesn’t need to be a 24/7 job.
“I work hard so I can take the weekend off in Hobart, because if the farm can’t hold itself up for a couple of days without me, I’m doing something wrong,” he said.
Will studied agricultural science at University of Tasmania, completing his PhD on the subject of long chain omega-3 in lamb, and continues to apply a scientific mind to the farm.
“Experience and knowledge is extremely important in what I do,” he said.
This comes from a range of sources including family farming history (196 years), consultants and scientific literature. Will also finds a lot of insight and direction from benchmarking groups.
“I can see clearly which things work by analysing and reviewing the data and it helps keep me on track,” he said.
“The precision ag stuff I do quite well, but in most other areas I’m learning, and I need to get the basics of the system right if it’s going to grow.”
In terms of increasing productivity, Will sticks to a simple system that mainly involves investing in fencing and fertiliser.
“My ethos is to ‘grow the weeds I’ve got’ which means adding fertiliser, [letting sheep] eat the weeds, which is fencing, and change the weeds, which is new pastures,” he said.
“I only do a little bit of pasture renovation each year. It’s amazing what you can do when you start rotationally grazing and chasing production.”
Will says his focus on soil health means he is working to build soil organic carbon levels through pasture phases, rotational grazing and minimal disturbance. The farm is a mix of hills, mountains with remnant forest and flat plains for grazing and cropping.
He has enjoyed building a relationship with Elders and appreciates the efforts staff have made to find him a bargain, offer credit in a cash flow pinch or drop by with a word of support or advice.
“It’s been a slog sometimes, but Elders has been very supportive, and I’ll happily build a relationship over a price margin any day.”
He’s in touch with the local branch at Bothwell regularly and particularly values time with Michael Brooks, who’s been with Elders for 50 years.
“Brooksy’s backed me ever since I was a kid and his father was our stockman all his life, so he really knows our place well,” he said.
“We’ve got a long history here, but the future is bright too.”
To see how you can maximise the returns of your property speak to your local Elders team.