Business diversity straddles both sides of the farmgate
For most grain growers, farming is already more than a full-time job, work running into weekends and evenings being par for the course. Russell Belling, however, is trying the opposite approach, taking on as little of the operational farm work as possible to allow time for his other established income stream.
Russell crops at Grong Grong in southern New South Wales and owns a seed business, Seedcorp, 85 kilometres away in Wagga Wagga. Because of the commitment required by the seed business, Russell has designed his farming operation in such a way that it requires very little of his time: he estimates about 10 per cent of his working hours.
“All I do on the farm is make decisions,” Russell says. “Then I pay a contractor. It takes a lot of complexity out of the operation, although you have to have good contractors.”
The purchase and operation of ‘Mount Bogolong’ has fulfilled Russell’s ambition to farm his own land, but that was not always the case.
Growing up in a farming family in Marrar, about 60km away, Russell worked for three years on the family property after leaving school before striking out on his own.
He tried a range of different jobs before going to work in a seed business. In 1998, after 14 years as an employee, he again branched out and started his own seed business. In 2005, he bought his farm.
Today, Russell crops wheat, canola, barley and oats. “I used to grow milling oats for Uncle Tobys,” he says, “but it was hard to get the specs right in dry years, and black oats were a problem.”
Russell is on top of the black oats problem now, but as is the case for so many in this part of the country, herbicide-resistant annual ryegrass is his main issue. He has Group B and Group A-resistant (fops and dims) populations but no evidence of glyphosate resistance yet.
Although he mostly practises minimum-till, he will cultivate if he believes it necessary. In 2011, he used cultivation to tackle wireweed and mice (together with baiting) and came through the mouse plague unscathed. Many in the region that season had to re-sow two or three times due to mouse damage.
Down the track, Russell says he may bring field peas or sunflowers into his rotations, but for now is satisfied with wheat, barley, canola and oats.
“I tend to over-rotate,” he says. “I try not to grow the same thing in the same paddock two years in a row.”
Russell has had extensive experience with canola through his trial work and is enthusiastic about the crop. He grows hybrid Clearfield® canola every year and considers it less risky than wheat.
“I don’t believe you can grow good enough wheat without canola. It helps fungal diseases, water penetration and weed control. It’s a good break crop and it gives good returns.
“My rule is to grow as much canola as I possibly can,” Russell says. “You’re out of it early, you’ve got cash in early, there are no wet-weather problems and you avoid the hot, dry months. Being early, we finish harvest by the end of October and [in some years] that means a good price.
“Getting the money in early also gives you options for marketing your wheat and barley.”
Through his seed sales and his later farming experience, Russell’s relationship with Pioneer Seeds, which began in the early 1990s, has continued and he now acts as a Pioneer agent. Russell’s seed business has grown year on year since he established it and he has seen big changes in that time, driven by changes to farming practices.
“These days I’m more focused on crop seed, whereas in the early days it was mainly small pasture seeds and forage crops. Pioneer got out of lucerne and I swung along with them because they were a major part of my business,” he says.
“The canola part of the business has increased significantly over the past few years.”
A component of his business model involves running on-farm trials for DuPont Pioneer. In the early days he did it on clients’ properties, and now he runs them on his own farm.
Seed integrity is a crucial part of the business. Canola grown for seed is segregated by variety from the time it is planted through to its delivery to Pioneer’s facility in Narromine, NSW, and subsequent packaging. Pioneer’s inventory system receives the seed and creates a batch number, which if necessary could allow the seed to be traced right back to the individual paddock in which it was grown.
“Their trialling process is very involved. It can take four to seven years for a new variety to get to market and part of that is paddock trials, for which I am responsible. It has to go into a commercial paddock, up against varieties that are already on the market. This occurs all around the country, because they have to make sure those varieties will perform in a range of soils and conditions.
“It also gives you an idea of what’s going to work in your area,” he says. “I look out for the varieties that perform in a dry year and for varieties that yield well.”
In the medium to long-term, Russell wants to expand the farm size to about 4000ha. This will allow him to achieve better economies of scale without pushing to the limit. But even with a larger farm, he still has no interest in buying his own cropping equipment.
“The only machinery on this property is a broken-down motorbike!” Russell laughs. “I’d rather own land than machinery. Machinery depreciates in value; land appreciates. Plus I just don’t have time to operate or maintain equipment.”
As for plans for his seed business, ultimately he would like to run it without a shopfront, just doing business on the phone, and have the farm business transition into being the major income-earning vehicle. But not just yet: “The seed business provides certainty in the bad years,” Russell says.
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