Family farms for the future
Breakfast is a busy time in the Connor household.
That’s when three generations of dairy farmers – plus a handful of young farmhands – gather around the table to kick-start the day at Nangkita Hills Dairy, the family’s Mount Compass property, 60 kilometres south of Adelaide on the Fleurieu Peninsula.
It’s a ritual that’s become vital to the success of the business.
“There’s nothing we don’t talk about with our team,” said Michael Connor, who runs Nangkita Hills with wife Jodie and children, Chelsea and Jake, together with a helping hand from mother Glenda who feeds the calves.
550 Friesian cows roam the scenic Mount Compass hills under the watchful eyes of the Nangkita Hills team, which has built its operation around the strengths of its staff.
“We’re very people-focused. We try to go with everyone’s interests first, then we expand on our education depending on our areas of expertise,” said Chelsea, 24, who studied a Bachelor of Animal Science before returning to the farm as herd manager.
“I love working directly with the cows: seeing how they develop, choosing their genetics and keeping a close eye on the performance indicators around their health. That’s really rewarding.”
Jake, 22, is in charge of pasture management and feeding.
“We work together as a family to make business decisions but then make the individual day-to-day decisions in our area of responsibility,” Jake said.
That structure has been helped by Chelsea and Jake’s decision to join the family business.
“In the years before the kids came home we incurred a bit of debt,” said Michael, who managed the business with a large casual staff, at one point milking 1000 cows. It proved unsustainable, and challenges over the last decade led the family to review their approach.
“We had to implement changes to get through some rough patches with dry years and milk prices,” Michael said. “Jodie and I are trying our very best to bring that debt down so that it stays sustainable for the kids to give it a go.”
It’s an ongoing process, and they’ve halved the number of cows over the last decade.
“We’ve shifted from a pure focus on milk production volume because we found we were spending far too much money to get that milk,” Chelsea explained.
“We look closely at stock rates and how that impacts profitability, and the amount of bought-in feed and how that affects the milk volume. The aim is a more sustainable long-term model.”
It’s an approach Michael welcomes.
“The kids’ interest really keeps me going. It’s such a good lifestyle to grow up in. You learn multiple skills, and meet so many different people. Ten years ago, it was a good business to be in; good asset growth and good money to buy more land or equipment. In the last 10 years it’s let me down a little, but the kids are keen and I just love seeing what they get out of it.”
Michael and Jodie’s two younger children also live on the farm; Tegan is studying midwifery at university, while youngest Brad, 15, is doing a school traineeship in agriculture.
But, it’s not just the Connor kids who are getting the buzz from the farm lifestyle.
Locals Tom Vitkunas, 20, and Joss Davis, 19, started on the farm as teenagers to earn some pocket money. Five years later they’re both valued full-timers.
Leaving much of the responsibility in the hands of such a young group could be seen as a risk, but Michael and Jodie believe it’s a ‘massive strength’.
“I don’t think we’ve had a team as good as the one we have now,” Jodie said.
“It helps that we’re all about the same age,” Chelsea said. “We work really well together. It seems like we come to work, have some fun and then get to do it again the next day. It’s definitely a positive for our business. I don’t think you ever work as hard or with as much motivation as you do on your own farm. We’ve all got the same common goal.”
Maintaining that enthusiasm also means encouraging work-life balance, and the Connors are active in the local community through a laundry list of clubs and committees.
“I think it’s important to give back to the community. It’s a good community in a small town, and you’re always doing things with people you enjoy spending time with,” Jake said.
Jake, Chelsea jokes, ‘is part of every committee ever founded’. It’s not far from the truth, as the 22-year-old fills his free time by volunteering for Neighbourhood Watch, the Country Fire Service and the local Farm Safety Board, among others.
Chelsea is no slouch either, working part-time at the nearby Alexandrina Cheese Company.
“I like to see the other side of the industry and if you’re just working on the farm you don’t always get that firsthand exposure to the public. I do eat my fair share of cheese, but I enjoy selling it and telling people about it, because we make a great product.
In fact, Chelsea recruited the Connors’ current relief milker, Adelaide-native Hannah Barkley, at Alexandrina.
“Hannah knew nothing about the industry. Customers were asking her about cows and milk production, so she’d come to me. She became more and more interested until I finally told her ‘I’m not answering any more questions. You can come to the farm and have a look on the weekend’. And she’s never left!”
That educational opportunity is an important one, Chelsea said.
“We try to help out with education. The local school has a very good agriculture course, so we take students for work experience and host TAFE courses and university vet students. The on-farm experience is one of the best ways to bring quality people into the industry.”
It’s safe to say the Connors have set themselves up well for the long-term with a talented and enthusiastic group of young staff.
“It’s an industry with a lot of opportunity in it, and I think it’s important to do a job that you want to do,” Jake said.
“Having a background in dairy gives you such a broad skillset and can lead to a lot of places, not necessarily just working on a farm.
“We all know how it works, which is a real strength. We’re keen to keep it going.”