Sheep grazier Graeme Tonkin represents the latest generation in a century of his family’s farming in the Delungra district. At 59 he owns and operates “Vallyn” – an 1100 hectare property running around 3000 merino sheep, average micron 17.5, with New England rams.
With a lifetime’s experience behind him, Mr Tonkin has seen changes in his community, industry and even himself as a farmer: “You take more notice of politics as you get older and you worry less about buying new cars,” he laughs.
In the nearby township of Delungra, Mr Tonkin has seen the population diminish and the local bank close down; while across the district there’s been an increase in cropping but a drop in the number of sheep being raised: “There are certainly less shearers and less shed hands,” he said.
Of his own industry, Mr Tonkin said the challenges have got tougher with each generation.
“All our basic overheads have increased like the cost of wages, chemicals and insurance; but our returns have been diminishing,” he said. “Wool is a good price at the moment but we’ve had 18 years of pretty ordinary prices.”
Mr Tonkin sees the current prices as more of a “balancing out” after the difficult years: “It’s portrayed as an explosion of good fortune but it’s only just catching up.” For perspective, he said his father bought a new Studebaker during the 1952 wool boom “but I’m not going to buy myself a new Ford Mustang – that’s the difference”.
Recurring droughts in the region since 1988 have made survival in the industry more difficult. Today, Mr Tonkin sees marketing as critical for the future.
“Australia does need to clean up some of its act around animal welfare,” he said mentioning the mulesing issue but also adding that some claims by animal rights activists are “just plain wrong” or ”scaremongering”.
“We also need to promote more about the benefits of wool,” he said. “It’s natural, sustainable and it can be organic, it’s fire resistant and a natural UV protectant.”