Ten Minutes with Canola Farmer Tom Mac Smith
Can you share with The Cultivator a bit about your background?
I’m fortunate to have had a great childhood on the family farm near Cudal, NSW. I’d spend hours with Dad on the machinery – whether he was harvesting, seeding, or in the yards of our mixed operation in sheep, cattle and cropping. There was always that desire to come back, and finally – after travel, study and working in other states in different roles – I’m home on the family farm.
I’m also very fortunate to have a lovely family. My two younger brothers are both pursuing their own careers but we’ve all made a massive effort to get back and have an involvement, either on the farm itself or even just over the phone to talk about different directions we need to take.
You’ve crammed a lot into the decade since finishing school?
I was in Canada for a bit of a gap year, having a look around, and after Charles Sturt University, I worked on a Western Australian farm for two years in the cropping region of Esperance with a wonderful family. There, I got the chance to see farming on a really large scale and work with some of the newest technologies in cropping and livestock.
How crucial was that experience in WA?
The timing was pretty ironic, given I went from a marginal rainfall area of WA to a severe drought period in central NSW and a lot of the east coast; and from a really heavy focus on cropping into livestock – which is probably the main focus of our family farm.
We’re seeing the benefits in our pastures holding on where we’ve been able to really get away a decent amount of fodder cropping, which takes the pressure off our pastures. It also ensures we have a bit of feed ahead of us to keep us turning off livestock and, of course, to keep the ground cover to capture any moisture that (fingers crossed) we might get over summer months.
What is your favourite aspect of farming?
There’s an array of opportunities each day where I’m able to assess goals or tasks we’ve set ourselves each week or month. Obviously, things come up day-to-day as they do, and it’s just about prioritising and ticking those off methodically in working toward those objectives.
What advice would you give young farmers making their way?
As a young farmer myself, I’m always asking questions and I guess that’s the first bit of good advice — don’t be afraid to ask questions or ‘silly’ things. Otherwise, on the back of a couple of challenging years stressing and lying awake, you can’t control the weather, at the end of the day – you can only work with it and around it to do the best with the resources and tools you have.
What do you think the number one threat to farming?
The Australian climate — the droughts, floods and fires we have to work with – we’re seeing a lot of research and advances in farming to manage these. We’re still a fairly young country and the information just starting to come through is really going to benefit not just my generation, but generations to come.
Today’s farmers operate on a different level to 50 years ago. We’re now farming on a global scale with local farmers exporting their produce to restaurants in the United Kingdom and throughout Asia.
For on-farm issues, who do you ask for assistance?
I’m very fortunate to have a lot of resources at my disposal – agronomists, mechanics, metal fabricators, engineers – and to have my Dad involved.
Would you describe your farming methods as traditional or innovative?
On our farm, we’re pretty open to new technologies and being innovative. We’ll give absolutely everything a crack and sometimes it’s the older, traditional methods that work — but whatever works best for our business.
What would be the ideal situation on your farm?
Rain is the first and most obvious but I’d also love consistent prices for grain and meat; input costs at a minimum; and far more efficient fuel consumption and other business costs.
Is there a typical day in your life on the farm?
Every day is different but with livestock, water is the number one priority – so ensuring water gets to the stock is the first and most important part of every day. After that, it’s a variety of bits and pieces related mostly to stock.
What kind of support do you feel the government should offer young farmers?
You can’t talk about young farmers without talking about the older farming population, so it would be great to see a lot more focus and a lot more support given to forming joint ventures or partnerships – whatever suits individuals to benefit both generations.
What is the biggest lesson you have ever learned?
Shut the gate! But seriously, if you’re doing something that’s going to be there a while – such as infrastructure or crops – set it up once and set up properly. If you put the time and the effort into getting it right, you’re not going to have to come back and re-do a dodgy job, saving you time and effort.
What’s your favourite part of the day?
There are two – early-morning and late-afternoon. Early, I’m pretty optimistic and excited for the day and sunrise is always fantastic; and driving home in the afternoon watching the sunset, when you feel you’ve accomplished a bit for the day.
What’s your perspective on the future of farming?
Despite challenges, I think the outlook is good. Cropping is going to continue to be great because technologies are improving efficiencies to increase yields. For livestock, particularly after this outbreak of African swine flu, we will continue to see a strong demand for protein. It’s going to take a long time for national stocking numbers to return to normal after this drought breaks — which is usually a good year for cropping and livestock, so we should hopefully bounce back.
Off-farm, what do you do for a bit of fun?
It’s great to play a bit of footy and get around the boys in the local community. It’s been vital for blokes’ mental health to get off the farms and come together and talk through this particularly hard drought. In summer, I try and get away to the dam or beach to see a bit of water.