Seven generations help future-proof farming legacy at Spalding

Seven generations help future-proof farming legacy at Spalding


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The Sommerville family hit the ground running in the Spalding district almost 150 years ago and since then, a long line of progressive and determined farmers has paved the way for the next generation.

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The Sommerville family hit the ground running in the Spalding district almost 150 years ago and since then, a long line of progressive and determined farmers has paved the way for the next generation.

Fifth-generation farmer Eric Sommerville had farm life thrust upon him in 1969 at just 17 years old, after his father Syd died.

"By default I became a farmer and in hindsight it has been a good thing," Eric said.

"I really did not have time to think about what else I wanted to do, I just had to farm," he said.

After Eric's great great grandfather William arrived in Australia from Scotland in 1871, the family holding continued to grow and eventually Syd bought the family property 'Highlands' at Spalding in 1936.

As one of five children, as a young man Eric had ambitions to become a livestock agent but he decided to continue on with what his forefathers had helped to build.

In 1974, Eric married Judith and together they improved the family enterprise to "a high standard".

"I am probably better at farming than anything else," he said.

They have built the broadacre enterprise to 995 owned hectares and 855ha of leased land, cropping 1850ha, but the early days of farming were not easy on the young family.

Be efficient in what you do and look after the soil because at the end of the day, that is our asset. - Ben Sommerville.

Eric began contract spraying while Judith also worked off-farm to increase cash flow and support the improvement of the operation.

"Sommerville Spraying was formed to supplement our income and help with cash flow," Eric said.

"We would be medium sized without it and on the borderline of being able to support three families, so the spraying business is vital," he said.

Eric and Judith's sons Damien and Ben followed in the family's farming footsteps.

But they were told by their parents from an early age that "farming was their choice."

"It was always their decision if they wanted to come home and be on the farm," Eric said.

Ben finished high school and returned to the family farm in late 1999 because "he could not see himself doing anything else".

"I was always interested in farming but we knew the option to follow any career path was there," he said.

Ben completed a series of tafeSA on-farm training courses and began his life as farmer.

He said his earliest memories on the farm as a child helped to prepare him for the demands of a continuously changing industry.

"During seeding and in the winter time, dad was gone before the sun was up and home well after dark every night, so I remember those days really well," he said.

Cropping wheat, barley, oats and canola, and growing export hay each year, the business responsibilities are shared, but individuals have the responsibility to ensure tasks in their areas of expertise - such as commodities ordered, grain marketed, machinery maintained and administration - are completed.

"Ben is the 'get the job done guy'," Eric says. "This is vital to the successful outcome at harvest time."

Ben said his priority was to make sure the machinery was ready to go, "so we can get the crop in".

The technology and on-farm practices available to farmers these days have jumped ahead in leaps and bounds compared with the Sommerville ancestors', Eric says.

"Farming has changed enormously since Dad bought this farm. It is quite astounding that he worked with horses and now we work with horsepower in air conditioned comfort, with amazing technology at our fingertips," he said.

"If Dad was here now he would not think that any of this would be possible - he would be blown away."

The Sommervilles' progressive and sustainable approach to farming has remained a focus since 1975 after they began to restore Highlands' natural assets.

I am working to build more resilience into our farming activities, landscape and business structure. - Ruth Sommerville

"Since then we have planted trees each year because we believe it is very important," Eric said.

About 3 per cent of the property is segregated to allow regeneration near creek beds and preserve natural vegetation to encourage beneficial insects for integrated pest management.

"Since commencing planting of revegetation sites, we have noticed an increase in native fauna and flora, particularly echidnas," he said.

"We also monitor soil for potential acidity and salinity - we are very focused on battling erosion and maintaining soil cover.

"We measure our ground water for quality and supply too, understanding that water is essential for survival."

Eric says and the greatest progression he has seen in his years on the land was the adoption of minimum tillage and stubble retention.

"We were very fortunate in this area that we were introduced to this concept by Tom Cootes, a local farmer who shared his knowledge and experience with us. This person rapidly advanced agriculture in this district," he said.

"The change to minimal tillage would not have been possible without the use of herbicides. They allowed a one-pass operation, which in-turn allowed the soil biology to improve, allowing a massive improvement in production.

"The advantages of being able to take a grass out of a grass crop, such as wild oats, or ryegrass out of a cereal crop, has only been possible in our generation.

Eric said glyphosate was the single largest contributor to these outcomes.

The extensive progression of on-farm technology meant a focus on machinery quality and reliability became a main driver for Eric and his sons.

"We have a policy of keeping our farming equipment in good, up-to-date condition to keep it reliable," Eric said.

"This fits in with our agricultural contracting business as we like to maintain a high standard for ourselves and our clients."

If Dad was here now he would not think that any of this would be possible - he would be blown away. - Eric Sommerville.

Ben believed these days, technology "caught up with you before the machinery wore out".

"You can refurbish an old machine, but the technology changes very quickly and more often than not, that is what you are chasing," he said.

Ben said to demonstrate maintenance importance, he remembered the year a second-hand tractor broke down and caused chaos at seeding.

"It was in the early 2000s and our tractor blew up in the middle of seeding which caused a bit of stress - so machinery maintenance is so important for us," he said.

Damien joined his brother Ben on the farm about 10 years ago.

After realising agriculture was not going to be an easy career path, Damien began a professional quest for further knowledge to help build himself a long-standing career in agriculture before he returned home.

"I wanted to have additional knowledge behind me so I began working in off-farm roles to fast-track my knowledge bank and networks," Damien said.

So, in 1998 he began a Bachelor of Agriculture at the University of Adelaide, Roseworthy Campus, and in 2001 he began working as an agronomist in Murray Bridge, and later the Mid North and Yorke Peninsula.

"This was a great grounding for working in agriculture in SA," Damien said.

"I was exposed to high-value irrigated horticultural crops, dairies, glasshouses and Mallee dryland farming.

"I cannot imagine a more diverse location to start out my career and a wealth of skills were passed on to me."

A short time later, Damien returned to the family farm and joined Ben, to help bring the family farm into the future.

After about 10 years of battling dry seasons, weed pressure and more recently the devastating impacts of frost, it was not a surprise to Damien's family that he embarked on a new journey and joined the Hart Field-Site Group board in 2010, before becoming chair for the past three years.

"I saw Hart as a great way to expand both my network and knowledge base, whilst at the same time doing something to give back to the industry, plus I get to work with some great people," Damien said.

He said aside from helping to build his knowledge base about broadacre farming, the most valuable benefit was extensive personal development.

"It has really helped to grow my confidence in business management and appropriate governance, and the skills associated with people management and public speaking," he said.

I cannot imagine a more diverse location to start out my career and a wealth of skills were passed on to me. - Damien Sommerville.

"Much of what I have learned from Hart has been and continues to be used on the farm. Hart's trial work covers so many topics that it is difficult to pinpoint one trial or area that has made the difference but at one stage or another, the trials have all taught me something that could be used in our operation."

Damien believes farming has become an industry of seasonal challenges and frequent change, and family farms can either roll with it or be left behind.

"In the past four years or so, frost has been a major driver of profitability or lack of it," he said.

"It is something we are working hard to minimise in impact when it does occur.

"A big area that has changed is the move from family farming to families that are in the business of farming. There is a higher level of professionalism within many businesses.

"But one negative I am seeing is a move to 24/7-farming, that has caused less available time with family or for recreational activities."

Improved soil health and water usage efficiency have also been major areas of progression for the Sommervilles' business.

"We are much closer to using our available water in dry years but there is still a gap in wetter seasons, so we still have plenty to work on in that area," Damien said.

"But soil health and improved placement of nutrients will be the big change I see coming soon. We are collecting much better data about our farming practices and the ability to vary our inputs to match requirements is getting better every year."

Damien's wife Ruth has also stamped her mark on the family operation.

As a recipient of the Agricultural Bureau of SA's 2018 Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship for Farmers and Ag Excellence Alliance's 2018 Ag Excellence Perpetual Award for Service to Agriculture awards, Ruth has made significant professional strides that have benefited the family business.

"I am working to build more resilience into our farming activities, landscape and business structure," she said.

"My role is not a hands-on, day-to-day role within the family business, but work to support the family to continually improve the business and increase the sustainability of our farming operations.

"I support the business to design and implement landscape restoration projects, assess insect outbreaks and identify thresholds for control actions, and work to partner the operation with research activities that help us to better understand our land and the climate within which we farm."

Ruth said she was lucky to be in a successful family farming business but, more importantly, each individual was "on the same page".

"Everyone shares the same view when it comes to farming for future generations, making the land we manage more productive and healthier and, making the business structure future focused and adaptable," she said.

Between Damien and Ben there are six, seventh-generation Sommerville children on the land at Spalding, and generations of advice will be bestowed upon them.

"The first bit of advice I gave the boys was we are not burning stubble anymore," Eric said.

"When I first started farming, a 12-bag an acre crop would have been a good crop. Grandpa still says that is a good crop, but because of practices such as stubble retention, we can target and achieve closer to 20 bags, about 4 tonnes a hectare."

Eric hoped to ensure working on the family farm was an option for his grandchildren in the future if they choose to do so.

"As stewards of our land and environment, we feel strongly that looking after our soil will help to ensure our future as farmers," he said.

For Ben, the advice he would give to his three children Zack, Lara and Max was simple.

"Be efficient in what you do and look after the soil because at the end of the day, that is our asset," he said.​

Read more about the Sommerville family here and here

Or more about Damien Sommerville here

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