DiGiorgios clear a path to prosperity

From Italy to Lucindale: DiGiorgio family make their mark


Life & Style
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The hard work and tenacity of Italian immigrant Steve DiGiorgio and his family have seen them become prominent South East livestock producers and vignerons.

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WHEN 19-year-old Stefano (Steve) DiGiorgio left his small village in Italy for a new life on the other side of the world, he saw Australia as a land of opportunity.

But, it was his remarkable vision, along with hard work and tenacity, that saw this come to fruition, clearing vast tracts of scrub in the South East as a contractor and for his own family.

Less than 70 years on, the DiGiorgio family has accumulated a large area of farmland as well about 350ha of vineyards in Coonawarra and Lucindale.

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It is nearly two years since Steve passed away but the same drive to succeed has been instilled in the next generation of DiGiorgios.

Nanni DiGiorgio manages the grazing business and is the stud principal of Sterita Park Angus stud, while his brother Frank has made DiGiorgio Family Wines a highly-regarded brand.

In 1952, Steve boarded a ship in Naples with a suitcase and just enough money to send a postcard home to his mother when he arrived in Melbourne.

His idea was to head to the Qld canefields, as part of a migrant scheme, but this did not go according to plan.

For the first few months, he was shunted between military camps on Vic's Mornington Peninsula and then found work on a farm in Urana, NSW, although he was not treated well.

His luck changed when, after exchanging a few letters with a friend from his village Secinaro who was working at Bokara Station, south of Lucindale, he was told there was a job for him there.

As a farm labourer at Bokara, Steve would learn many of the skills that would make him a highly respected contractor.

He also learned English at night, finding communicating difficult in the early days.

Bokara's owners at the time, the O'Grady and Shepherd families, quickly recognised Steve's work ethic, although Frank recounts one amusing incidents when Steve mistakenly cleared some of the neighbour's land.

In the first three years, Steve divided his time between the Qld cane fields and Lucindale.

During this time he was able to sponsor his parents Francesco and Louisa, two sisters and their husbands to join him in Australia.

In 1956 Steve returned to Italy to marry his sweetheart Rita.

"My mother did not agree when he first started writing to me because I was only 15 and had three other sisters," Rita said.

"She would not have allowed it but because he was all the way in Australia and not the same town she thought (there was) no harm."

The newlyweds lived in the shearers quarters at Bokara but in 1957 Steve bought a 160-hectare scrub block, Sterita Park, at the same time Frank was born.

"He came to the hospital saying we have a new boy and now we have new land," Rita said.

Once it was cleared, their small farm ran 300 sheep and a milking herd of 70 cows.

About the same time, Steve sold his Ford Customline car and old tractor to buy a Track Marshall bulldozer and became more serious about land development, contracting to families who had been granted soldier settlement blocks after World War II.

"He worked five days a week at Bokara and then Steve and his father would spend the weekends contract fencing, stump picking or cutting posts for fences - he never stopped," Rita recalls.

This often included 36-hour shifts on a dozer.

HARD YAKKA: Steve DiGiorgio on a bulldozer clearing land during the 1950s.

HARD YAKKA: Steve DiGiorgio on a bulldozer clearing land during the 1950s.

Rita says hard work came naturally to both of them and while Steve was away, Rita was busy cooking for workers, milking cows and raising their four children.

"It was just what you did," she said.

They gradually took on more work at Lucindale, Callendale and Furner and even in western Vic with up to 10 bulldozers, often driven by extended family members.

Even in his land clearing, Frank says his father was forward-thinking, leaving some clumps of majestic red gums trees and shelterbelts for stock which are still noticeable today in the landscape.

"Around here you can't see the horizon in too many places for trees and where there isn't any they were never there," Frank said.

Dad's theory was always that you could afford to pay 20 per cent more (for land) if it was alongside. - Frank DiGiorgio

Steve was also contracted by the local council to raise rubble for building roads and went into business with Dennis Kolpodinos in the late 1960s to establish Lucindale Stock Transport, which they ran together until it was sold to We Us An Co.

In the first 15 years, the DiGiorgios accumulated about 1000 hectares, always looking for opportunities, especially if the neighbours' land came on the market.

"Dad's theory was always that you could afford to pay 20 per cent more if it was alongside," Frank added.

When native vegetation laws changed in the early 1980s they turned their full attention to farming.

Wool was the DiGiorgio family's main earner for many years.

The Sterita Park Merino flock was based on Bellbro bloodlines with a Collinsville infusion and in the 1990s they moved to buying rams from Avenel at Wanganella, NSW.

They had a close association with classers Don and Bill Walker from Classings Limited, who Nanni says had great foresight in breeding plainer, positive micron sheep.

At their peak numbers, the DiGiorgio family's shearing went for three months, shearing 38,000 sheep.

But with the downturn of wool in the late 1980s, Nanni said their focus had become prime lambs.

About a decade ago when crossbred wool prices were low and barely covered the cost of shearing, they decided to used Dohne rams over their Merino-Border Leicester ewes and have retained the progeny to "smarten up the wool".

"We've ended up with a self-replacing ewe that microns under 25 and we haven't had any difference in lambing percentage compared to a first-cross ewe, and it is still a great carcase," Nanni said.

The Poll Dorset-sired progeny are sold on hooks at 23 kilograms carcaseweight to 25kgcwt to Thomas Foods International.

The DiGiorgios established the Sterita Park stud in 2002 and offer about 90 bulls at their annual on-property sale each year. The yearling bulls are run on dryland lucerne.

The DiGiorgios established the Sterita Park stud in 2002 and offer about 90 bulls at their annual on-property sale each year. The yearling bulls are run on dryland lucerne.

Angus offers market advantages

Breeding good livestock has always been a passion of the DiGiorgios', paying the top price at the multi-vendor Hereford Show & Sale many times and outlaying $25,000 for a Te Mania Angus bull nearly 25 years ago.

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Nanni says they first introduced Angus into their Hereford herd in the mid-1980s because of their perceived greater calving ease and says the resulting cross, the black baldy, was particularly good.

We don't chase specific traits other than performance - our main focus is on growing functional commercial cattle. - Nanni DiGiorgio

But it was the market premium that convinced them to switch to Angus.

"Herefords are great cattle but the black hide is worth 20 cents a kilogram as a minimum," Nanni said.

For close to 20 years the noted weaner producers have had an outstanding reputation for their calves offered in the first Naracoorte weaner sale of the season.

In early December, their heaviest pen weighed 440 kilograms at nine to 10 months of age.

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Nanni says the stud was a natural progression with the family breeding bulls for their commercial herd for many years, and so in 2002 Sterita Park was born.

It has grown to 450 stud cows, which are run under the same management as their 1500 commercial females.

'We don't chase specific traits other than performance - our main focus is on growing functional commercial cattle," he said.

This philosophy has paid off with Sterita Park one of only two studs to enjoy a total clearance during the 2019 Angus Week, averaging $6950 for 90 bulls.

The catalogue each year features AI and ET-bred bulls from top Australian and United States genetics, with the stud having a long-term association with Sydenstricker, Missouri.

DIVERSIFICATION: DiGiorgio Family Wines has 126 hectares of vines at Lucindale and another 227ha in Coonawarra.

DIVERSIFICATION: DiGiorgio Family Wines has 126 hectares of vines at Lucindale and another 227ha in Coonawarra.

Fine time to plant vines

The fruits of the DiGiorgios' labour has also paid off in their viticultural enterprise.

It is 30 years since they planted the first vineyard in the Lucindale area with two hectares each of cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.

And although this was only two years after the end of the vine pull scheme, Frank says it was perfect timing, being ahead of a wave of other plantings.

At the time he was working as a lawyer but says wine was a way of diversifying the family business. He began working in the winery full-time in 2002.

"Nanni and I could continue to work in partnership but not be in each other's pockets," he said.

"It was interesting our grandfather always wanted to plant grapevines but Dad saw it as a distraction," he said.

With the machinery they had accumulated they were able to dig and plant the vineyards largely themselves.

GRAPE SUCCESS: Frank and Nanni (right) DiGiorgio and their mother Rita in the family’s first vineyard block at Sterita Park, planted in 1989.

GRAPE SUCCESS: Frank and Nanni (right) DiGiorgio and their mother Rita in the family’s first vineyard block at Sterita Park, planted in 1989.

The first vintage in 1992 was a success, with the fruit sold to Mildara's Coonawarra winery and the pinot noir finding its way into Yellowglen Vintage sparkling wine.

The same year they planted another 10ha and by 1998 had grown their vineyard to its current 126ha.

For many years the hand pruning was undertaken by Rita and Frank's wife Margot and a group of Lucindale ladies.

From 1998 to 2001 an increasing portion of the DiGiorgios' grapes were crushed at Heathfield Ridge winery, near Naracoorte, enabling them to value-add grapes into bulk wine.

In fortunate timing, the second oldest winery in Coonawarra, Rouge Homme, came up for sale at the time the Heathfield Ridge winery closed.

The DiGiorgios snapped it up and less than a fortnight later started their first vintage in April 2002.

Included in the sale were some of the first shiraz vines planted in the Coonawarra Fruit Growing Colony days.

DiGiorgio Family Wines has since expanded its area in the famed Coonawarra wine region to 227ha and won many awards, especially for its premium reds.

It has also expanded its range by contracting montepulciano and dolcetto grapes from the Upper South East and riesling from cooler climate Kongorong.

Frank says they have been blessed by the local support and the wider SA and Vic market but are also excited about growing sales into the Asia-Pacific region as their population's wealth grows.

Looking to the future

LAND DEVELOPMENT: A 1965 BTD20 International bulldozer and Majestic plough which the DiGiorgio family donated in 2015 for a display commemorating Lucindale’s soldier settlement scheme. The DiGiorgios were contracted by local farmers to develop large areas of land in the area.

LAND DEVELOPMENT: A 1965 BTD20 International bulldozer and Majestic plough which the DiGiorgio family donated in 2015 for a display commemorating Lucindale’s soldier settlement scheme. The DiGiorgios were contracted by local farmers to develop large areas of land in the area.

Frank and Nanni say they have been fortunate to have good staff, but going forward they see Australian agriculture facing a huge challenge to find enough labour.

"There are plenty of competent people prepared to give advice and that understand the theory but to get young people to go out and put a fence post in or fix a trough is getting harder and harder," Frank said.

"We are already seeing overseas workers needed for market gardens and fruit picking but the need is increasing for more skilled migrant labour across agriculture. "

The brothers also believe the federal government should consider offering incentives to get young people to work in rural Australia, such as having their HECS debt cancelled after a certain number of years.

"The government should also be looking at zero interest rate loans for the son or daughter to take on the farm or it will be lost," Nanni said.

Frank and Nanni are adamant the family's success would not have been possible without the whole family, including their sisters Nicky and Anna, who live in Melbourne.

"Our Dad achieved everything he did and had a vision but everyone put their heart and soul in too and not one individual could have done all of that on their own - whether it is the financial resources or the physical resources - that is the strength of family businesses," Frank said.

They are hopeful at some point the business may include another generation of DiGiorgios, but insist it is up to Steve and Rita's eight grandchildren to decide.

"We were never forced into anything but there are plenty of gaps if they want to be involved," he said.

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