It goes without saying that for someone to chair the board of a farmer-owned co-operative handling and marketing grain, an interest in crops is essential.
CBH’s new chairman Simon Stead is as passionate about livestock as he is about the wheat, barley and canola on his family’s farms in the Esperance Port Zone.
With 700 head of cattle and 8000 Merino sheep providing diversity to his cropping operation, Mr Stead has a genuine interest in all aspects of production.
The Stead family runs two properties near Esperance.
The first, Hargate Park, is the property Mr Stead grew up on at Dalyup, 40km west of Esperance, and the second is West Lort at Cascade, 80km north west of Esperance.
Born and raised in Dalyup, Mr Stead spent five years as a boarder at Hale School in Perth before starting accounting at Curtin University in Perth.
His first work experience placement, at an accounting firm in West Perth, made him realise accounting was not in his future.
More than a decade of travel and work overseas, combined with seasonal work with his father on the farm, eventually morphed into full-time farming, when Mr Stead returned to the family property in the early 1990s.
“I had a fantastic few years working with Dad where we took on various farm leases and contracting to accommodate my return,” he said.
“I think this rebooted Dad’s love of farming.”
Mr Stead said he believed farming was a “noble profession”, and while he said farmers could not operate without many other sectors of society, everyone needed to eat.
“Farming is a very rewarding occupation,” Mr Stead said.
“Although it does involve a lot of long-term planning, especially regarding livestock breeding where the gains are made over time, there are also times when the results of work are immediate and very satisfying, like when a crop comes up.”
Mr Stead met his wife Sue in Esperance, and the pair married in 1995, officially starting their farming journey together.
When the then-Esperance Rural Properties placed Lort River Station on the market, the Steads sold their original Cascade farm and invested in part-ownership of the former ERP property now called West Lort.
The property was bought in partnership with Mr Stead’s parents-in-law, Joe and Mary Cummings.
Over time, the Steads have increased their ownership of the property, and now lease the Cummings’ remaining portion.
The farm is very much a family affair, with Mr Stead’s parents Bob and Dawn Stead still very active on the home farm at Hargate Park.
Mr Stead and his wife operate West Lort with Mr Stead’s brother Jon, Jon’s wife Susie, and Jon and Susie’s two young children.
The family are joined in their on-farm endeavours by three staff members, and their families.
“Joe and Mary still love to get behind a mob of sheep or cows in the busy times,” Mr Stead said.
“The cropping operation usually sees a couple of Kiwis join the team at seeding, while harvest sees an influx of Europeans escaping the northern hemisphere winter.”
At the time of writing and in the midst of COVID-19 control measures, the presence of family on the farm is obvious.
The Steads’ children are home from boarding school, university and primary school as regional areas of WA draw in on themselves to control the viral outbreak.
The Steads’ eldest son Tom, 22, is working and living at Hargate Park, while their 20-year-old daughter Louisa recently returned home from Perth, where she is completing her University of Notre Dame Bachelor of Nursing.
The Steads’ younger children, 17-year-old Harry and 13-year-old Charlie, are home from boarding school in Perth.
The family’s focus is now divided between the needs of keeping everyone on the farm safe, and keeping the business functioning.
This year, depending on the arrival of much-needed rain, the cropping program will include canola, wheat, barley and some oats for hay.
Trophy, Trident and Bonito canola, Sceptre wheat and Planet barley will soon be seeded, but rain is the critical factor.
Grazing areas have been under pressure, with dry dams limiting access to paddocks, a negative balanced slightly by making the most of dam cleaning.
“We desperately need some rain, not only to grow feed but to fill the dams,” Mr Stead said.
The difficulties of managing a mixed enterprise property are dealt with by compromise — the mix of livestock and cropping suits the family and allows Mr Stead to develop his interest in all aspects of farming.
“The livestock provide diversity, and pastures such as sub-clover, biserrula and serradella pastures are the legume phase in the cropping rotation,” he said.
With plenty to occupy his time on the farm and within his own boundaries, Mr Stead is like many others who rise to the challenge of leadership.
He is proof of the old adage that tells us if you want something to get done, you should ask a busy person to do it.
When asked why he had accepted the task of leading the CBH board, Mr Stead said he was committed to ensuring the organisation continued to serve growers in the best way possible.
“I recognise the importance of CBH to growers. I also think it is best for farmers that it remains in their control as a co-operative,” he said.
“I think that the best way to protect CBH, as a co-operative, is to make sure that it performs.”
Mr Stead said he had been on the CBH board for five years, including a year as deputy chair, and succession plans for the chair position had been discussed for 18 months.
He said he was not daunted by the task ahead and was “ready for the challenge”.
He said he aimed to be a consultative leader — one who managed meetings effectively and efficiently while allowing for all voices to be heard and all input to be considered.
So how will Mr Stead cope with the pressure already on him as a farmer with dry dams, a family in self-isolation and a new role in a crucial industry?
“Most people in the community realise we are all in the same predicament, we all feel pretty lucky to be involved in agriculture, and it’s all about doing what you love,” Mr Stead said.
“From a CBH perspective, the long hours of reading continue, with travel swapped for Skype for the foreseeable future.”
And as for keeping sane and well during a busy period married with isolation?
“Farmers are generally quite accustomed to isolation; however, I do have concerns for the mental health of everyone as many of the outlets for connecting with people and disconnecting from work are shut down,” Mr Stead said.
“Outside of all things work, I usually live sport vicariously through our children.”
But that is one of the many things not happening now.
“We need to understand we face the current crisis together,” he said.
“It will require patience and tolerance for the foreseeable future and perhaps a greater appreciation of how lucky we are to live and farm in Australia.”
Mr Stead is not the first grain grower from the Esperance Port Zone to take on the duty of CBH chair, with Neil Wandel having chaired the board for five years before retiring from the position in 2014.