RETIRED second-generation farmer Mary Pace, 77, founded her turkey farm with husband Guido in Sydney’s south-west. All three of her children have followed her into farming.
My father, Joseph Attard, came to Australia from Gozo, a little island off Malta. He was only 20, but Gozo was a poor place with no education and he wanted a better life.
He began cutting sugar cane in Queensland for five years then came to Pendle Hill, NSW to start an egg farm. He grew lucerne and mixed his own feed and also had a tractor and ploughed for people with market gardens. He was a very hard worker. I’d help him collect and pack the eggs.
When I married my husband Guido in 1963, we both worked in factories but people kept asking why we didn’t get a farm ourselves, so in 1972 we bought five acres [two hectares] in West Hoxton, Greater Sydney, from a lovely English couple who had a shed full of rabbits. We lived with them for a month and they showed us what to do, but after a year we switched to growing chickens for a contractor instead.
Mary’s father Joseph Attard with hens at Pendle Hill in the 1930s.
It was very hard. Everything was second-hand and the company wasn’t very good. When the chickens were taken off to the processing plant, Guido had to follow to make sure none of our chickens were sold on the way or we’d get poor weights and be paid very badly, if at all.
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Guido had to continue working in the factory to make ends meet, so in the end we pulled out. However, we then saw Tegel [since bought out by Ingham’s] was advertising for new turkey farmers. We had nothing to lose so went with them and never looked back.
We bought a new farm in Catherine Field in Sydney’s south-west, and put up a new house and sheds, and Tegel was very good. They had a great service manager, Bob Love, and he was terrific. He’d come out when the turkeys were little and although we never had sickness sometimes you might lose a few, so he’d take them to a vet to make sure everything was okay. He’d let you know what was coming and when they’d be taken away.
We thought we were going to lose our first batch as they arrived in a heatwave. It was 45°C for five days and we were hosing the sides of the sheds down and putting big ice pieces in the water. Luckily a cool change came through.
Ours was only a small farm compared with today’s, but we’d still raise 28,000 turkeys at a time. One morning, one managed to put its head through a gap in the sliding door and open it. I had to keep the kids home from school so they could help me shoo them all back in. That was terrible.
The Pace family at Tony’s farm in Bargo, from left, Mary, Guido, Tony (back), Andrew with daughter Amelia, Sarah (back), Jessica and Rita.
We had three children, Tony, Pauline and Stephen. I wanted them to have a good education and get jobs as solicitors or accountants but they’re all turkey growers and I’m proud of what they’ve achieved.
My grandson Andrew, 30, is a fourth-generation grower but he’s been pretending he was a farmer since he was a baby. It was always in him.
There are a lot of differences in the way my children farm and the way we farmed. They have a lot more paperwork and the equipment and sheds are more modern and easier to manage.
Stephen and Pauline would like to farm down here but instead they’ve got six sheds each in Marulan [near Goulburn]. You need more land now so the neighbours don’t complain. They don’t like farms next to them.
Tony Pace, 54, is confident that no-one owns a bigger turkey farm than him in Australia. He has four children, Andrew, Mark, Sarah and Alison and, apart from Mark, they all love raising turkeys.
Tony at his property in Bargo where he runs eight turkey sheds.
When I was eight, I told my dad: “One day I’m going to have the biggest turkey farm in Australia”. He hit me round the head and told me to stop talking rubbish, but today I reckon I do have the biggest turkey farm in Australia, and probably in the Southern Hemisphere.
At school my favourite subject was commerce and I had dreams of being a solicitor or accountant. However after the careers adviser told me I wouldn’t graduate until I was 26, I thought, “there’s no way I want to be 26 with no money. By the time I’m 26 I want to own two properties”.
I started off growing chickens. Back then if you had 60,000 birds it was considered a big farm and you’d be making a good living. I was renting four farms and had 200,000 birds. I did that for about four years and then, when I was 22, I bought one of the farms for $336,000. Today a decent farm like that would cost $5 million plus.
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I carried on growing chickens and then there was an opening to grow turkeys. At the time I had three little sheds on five acres at Leppington but I knew I wanted to get bigger so we bought 45 acres at Bargo [in the Wollondilly Shire]. I’ve got eight sheds there now.
When I was building Bargo, Ingham’s let me run both it and Leppington for two years to help me get on my feet. I then had to sell Leppington because there were quarantine issues with me running between farms.
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I’ve seen dramatic changes in turkey growing. My dad took 20 weeks to grow a 13kg bird. Now they come onto the farm at one day old weighing 65g, and within 18 weeks they’re pushing 18-20kg. That’s 100% down to genetics.
The technology has changed things, too. We used to need hand winches to change the ventilation. Today you couldn’t manage a farm my size with hand winches. You’d need four people to open and close up. Instead, the sheds are controlled by computer 24/7, and my wife Rita and I can run them on our own.
The Yanderra Turkey Farm, Bargo NSW.
That temperature control is crucial because margins are so fine. If it’s really cold and the birds are freezing they’re going to eat and waste feed just to keep warm. However, the technology does mean the investment is higher.
The cost of building sheds has increased fivefold and the cost of land has also increased. In 20 or 30 years time there won’t be any more farms round here. They’ll all be sold to developers.
My wife comes from a family of market gardeners and has Maltese heritage. She’s ambitious like me. Our son Andrew has gone into turkeys and daughters Sarah and Alison love turkey farming, too, but aren’t in the business yet. Alison looks after the farm when I go away.
When I met Andrew’s wife Jessica for the first time, I thought she looked like a model, gorgeous with beautiful long fingernails. I told him, ‘She’s good looking but do you think she’ll handle it?’ He said, ‘She will’, and she does. She’s knee-deep in manure some days and couldn’t care less. She’s surprised me a lot.
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This is my 36th year as a farmer. I’ve seen a lot of people without farming backgrounds come into the industry and they rarely last. They can’t handle the seven-day week and the smell – I love the smell – and they take a while to come round to being told by the processor how to run their farm.
Well you have to be told. It’s your farm, but the birds belong to the company [Ingham’s], and if the boss says the birds need this or that, you do what they say.
Andrew Pace checking on the turkeys at his farm.
I think Maltese people must be good at understanding that. It’s amazing how many of us grow poultry. Of the 20 people growing turkeys for Ingham’s, 19 are Maltese. Five are my family – my brother, sister, son and two cousins all grow turkeys for Ingham’s. Everyone working for Ingham’s is from a farming background.
Funnily enough, we only ate our first Christmas turkey two years ago. We loved it. It’s not that turkeys are pets but they follow you all around all day in the shed. They’re very inquisitive. I can’t eat what I grow!
From the age of four, Andrew Pace, 30, was asking for his own turkey grower’s contract. His wish came true, and he now farms in Greater Sydney alongside his wife Jessica.
Jessica and Andrew and daughter Amelia at their Lakesland farm.
Growing up, turkey farming was a way of life. Mum and Dad are turkey growers, my grandfather was still farming and Dad’s brother and sister were both turkey growers.
It wasn’t presumed I’d do the same, but I took a massive liking to it from day dot. I loved seeing the first young poults coming in, loved getting them off to a good start, I just loved working with the birds. I was like Dad’s shadow and would do anything to help.
I was only four when I showed the Ingham’s service manager, Bob Love, the farm I was making in my sandpit and asked, “Will I get a contract when I grow up?”
I’ve been with them for four years now so that means, combined, our three generations have had close to 70 years of service for the same company. Grandfather grew for them for 30 years and Mum and Dad have been growing with them for 36 years.
Turkey growing has changed a lot over the generations. My grandfather had a two-shed farm with 3,000sqm of growing area. That was considered average, but today you wouldn’t make a living out of a farm that size, you need 9,000-10,000sqm to make it viable.
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Although I always had the ambition to have my own farm and be the best turkey grower possible, I needed money behind me. I had a passion for electrical, so I did my apprenticeship. I worked day and night – literally – for 10 years and saved the deposit. I bought a block of land and then the place I’ve got now in Lakesland [Wollondilly Shire] came up. It already had a contract with Ingham’s, so I could buy it as a going concern.
Andrew checks the ventilation controls in a shed.
It was a big jump for me but Ingham’s was very supportive and reassuring that the future of turkeys is strong and I feel confident growing for them. Their service managers have always been great, I can ring and talk to them any time. They don’t take any short cuts and they’re always inspecting your sheds and ensuring you’re doing the right thing which is good. I’m really proud to be continuing the family tradition and am happy both my parents and grandparents were around to see it.
We’re a six-shed farm so Ingham’s typically delivers two sheds of poults at a time over a week – about 55,000 to 60,000 in all. We raise them for 18 weeks and then we clean out and have a two to five week break before they send a new lot of birds.
My wife Jessica trained as an interior designer but I always made it clear turkey growing was where I was heading. She’s taken to it like a duck to water; I couldn’t do it without her. Now we have a young daughter, Amelia, she appreciates the fact she can work from home and raise a family.
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Dad and I are very competitive people but he’s given me lots of guidance and tips. The best advice though was not to let my debt get to me. Sometimes it seems there’s no light at the end of the tunnel but he encourages me that it will get easier as I keep going and it does.
I’ve seen lots of poultry farms all over the state and there are some nice ones but I reckon Dad’s is one of the nicest. He’d have to be one of the fussiest growers I know and I’m super fussy, just like him. After we’ve cleaned the sheds between batches I want to be able to eat off the floor.