Diversifying farm income was the best lesson Dad taught us

Published: February 2020 I By: Beverley Hadgraft, Photography: Steve Gonsalves

The Tongue family have been farming near Tamworth for more than 100 years. Through profitable farm diversification their businesses have thrived.

Three generations of the Tongue family at one of their properties in Loomberah, North West NSW, from left: Blake, Paul, Ryan, Karlie, Emily, Lara, Riley, Jake, Sarah, Kevin, Janelle, Rachel and Ben. Photography by Steve Gonsalves.
KEVIN Tongue is 69 but is still working 12-13 hours a day, seven days a week. His sons Paul and Ben have followed him onto the farm.

Kevin Tongue on his farm Glenwood, which he bought in 1971.

MY grandfather, George, drew the block here off Goonoo Goonoo Station in 1909 as a soldiers settlement [land leased at affordable rates to discharged service people]. It was a tough life, clearing his land, ringbarking and fencing – the rules stipulated they had to clear a certain number of acres and make it productive – although he always took Sundays off to play tennis. He was a big strong man. In his diaries he once proudly recorded that during one harvest they stripped 300 bags in 20 days. Today we’d do that in an hour. 

My father, Nelson, went on to buy that property and it’s where myself and my three sisters and brother were born and raised. We continued improving the land and grew crops and ran sheep. 

We kids all went to school in Loomberah, which was, and still is, a great community. The number of people at the opening night of Loomberah War Memorial Hall in 1957 was unbelievable. It’s still an important hub and has functions pretty much every week.  

I ended up at Tamworth Tech where I studied sheep husbandry and wool science and went on to do wool classing around the New England area for the next 15 years while also running my own 200-hectare farm, Glenwood, which I bought in 1971.  

Although I knew about wool, I initially only raised prime lambs. It was easier and our country is suited to prime lamb production. I also ran a few cows and grew grazing crops.

Kevin with his wife of 45 years, Janelle. The couple used to travel on the school bus together.

In 1974, I married Janelle. She lived down the road and I’d known her since we travelled on the school bus together. We had three boys. Paul is the eldest and he now runs the trucking side of our business. Ben the youngest is also on the farm looking after the livestock and our middle son, Alan, became a footballer and played NRL for the Canberra Raiders. He was captain for five years before he retired in 2011. He  owns a little 40-acre [16ha] property but does a lot of work with the NRL around domestic violence. He’s just been inducted into the ACT Sport Hall of Fame.

Over the years our family has bought four more properties and now farms 1,980ha. We have around 1,100 first-cross ewes plus 240 breeding cows – a mix of Murray Grey, Murray Grey-cross and Angus. We also have about 60 sows in an intensive piggery. We’ve always had pigs but expanded about five years ago and Janelle looks after that business. 
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Like most farmers we’ve adopted conservation farming and practise direct drill and stubble retention. We’ve also changed the way we sell our meat. I used to use the saleyard system but now we enjoy a good rapport with two meatworks in Tamworth and sell 90% of our stock directly to them. Most of our cattle go to Woolworths. Our lambs are sold locally and overseas. We still use agents occasionally but we’re not paying that 4-5% commission any more.

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Feedlots are another change. We finish our cattle on a grain and hay mix and get them up to the right weight for maximum return. Margins are tight but we’re lucky that commodity prices are so good. In dry times previously the price dropped, but because of the shortage and our overseas contracts we’re still doing OK. 

Sarah, Riley, Emily, Ryan, Jake and Lara with some of the cattle.

We sell wool now but it depends on prices where that goes. My sons and their wives have all the prices at their fingertips. They’re so good with technology – but it’s no use to me. I can’t even switch on a computer or send a text. If someone wants to talk to me they ring me. I see people in town on their phones and think why can’t anyone say, ‘G’day, how are you?’ any more? 

I’ve been chairman of the Tamworth branch of NSW Farmers for the past three years. With more than 100 members, it’s one of the largest branches. I thought long and hard about becoming chair. It is time-consuming, whether dealing with paperwork, talking to the media about issues like the new Dungowan Dam or directing drought donations. 

The drought has made it especially testing but it’s also made the job and the Association especially important. It does help to be part of an organisation that properly understands what it’s like to be farming in these dry times. Agriculture is changing constantly and having two sons in agriculture, I know we need a strong voice for the younger generations coming through. 
Like his father, Paul Tongue, 41, recognises the need for a farmer to diversify. He is driving the family business in a new direction with his truck and poultry manure enterprise.

Paul has always preferred machinery to livestock but still tries to put in a day a week on the farm. 

Growing up, my brother Ben and I both had our separate interests. I always preferred machinery whereas Ben preferred livestock and farming. My boys are the same. Blake is 13 and he’s a diesel burner through and through. He loves tractors and trucks whereas Ryan is only eight and he’s all about animals. I’ve also got a daughter, Emily.  

Initially I spent my summers on the farm doing irrigation and hay production and my winters contract shearing. I could shear a few – I did 200 a few times – but as our farm got bigger and I got older it became harder to get back into the shearing and I now run the trucking side of the business.
Farmer diversifies into livestock transportation to create new income stream

That started with me trucking a couple of loads of wool for a bloke I was shearing for and then about 17 years ago, we were looking for poultry manure for our place. We heard about someone who couldn’t shift theirs so I started taking it.

We just put it on our farm at first but when neighbours saw the results we were getting, they started talking about it and using it and then their neighbours started talking about it and that’s how things happen in the bush – it just grew and grew.

We had more farmers asking us to clean out their sheds and we now work with a local poultry producer, cleaning out all their sheds in our area. They’re a good family business and as they’ve grown, we’ve grown.

Ben, Kevin and Paul inspecting barley seed.

Everything progressed in little steps but we went from one old truck that was going day and night to what we’ve got today – six trucks including four B-doubles going to any farm within a 400km radius. 

One of the best things about this trucking business is the contacts we’ve made – good people business-wise and socially. As well as the manure, we’ll truck grain or cotton seed or just pick up a part for someone. 

I still try to put in a day a week on our farm but Dad and Ben do most of it. Ben does what he always loved and runs the feedlots with the cattle and lambs and also does the hay so we don’t tread on each other’s toes.

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The thing I’ve always enjoyed about farming is putting the effort in and seeing what reward you get but this drought has been tough. Hopefully it will make us better farmers in the long run. We’ve already got lamb pens set up and in the future we’ll probably go with underground silage in big years and try to have feed put away.  

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What’s the best lesson Dad taught us? He always diversified. He never relied on one thing and it didn’t matter how small the job, he’d always do it right. He’d never skimp. He and Mum have always done a lot in the community as well. They’re both the kind of people who help out so that’s helped us. Everyone respects them and thinks they’re good people so they say, ‘Well their boys must be all right too!’

Blake Tongue, 13, is Paul’s eldest child. He’s already a hard worker but found time to talk to The Farmer in between loading chook manure, feeding stock and training his kelpie Fred. 

Ben, Blake and Paul with kelpies Ruby, Fred and Spud. Blake is training Fred to work with the sheep and thinks he’s a pretty quick learner.

My earliest memory is of sitting on someone’s lap and driving the tractor when I was about three. I’ve always liked the mechanics side of the business. I like helping Dad fix the trucks and tractors and I’m looking to be a mechanic when I grow up.

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I do enjoy the animal side too though and my favourite animals to work with at the moment are cows. Last year I broke a two-year-old and won third place in the Paraders category at the Tamworth Show. That was my first go and I might do more depending on how the drought goes and whether we get enough stock.

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The thing I’m proudest of on the farm is how much I’ve helped feeding stock. I do that most days if I don’t have homework. I ride on the back of the ute and help Uncle Ben feed the sheep and check their water. I also help Grandma and Uncle Ben feed the pigs although I’m not really into the pigs. They stink so they’re not my favourite, not at the minute anyway.

Blake trains his kelpie Fred. 

Recently I got a dog of my own which I’m training to work with the sheep. He’s a kelpie and I got him after our family dog had pups. I named one Fred and when he didn’t get sold, I got to keep him, which made me happy. 

It can take a long time to train a dog to work with sheep. You have to get it to come to you and then get it used to other dogs so it will work with them. We’re still training some dogs that are four to five years old but the rate Fred is going, I think he’ll only take a couple of years. Mind you, it depends how often you work them and we’re not really working any of the dogs often now because we haven’t got enough stock. 

I think when you grow up on a farm you know how to do a lot of things other kids don’t. I don’t reckon many other kids my age could drive a machine or fix a tractor for instance.

I can see myself working this farm with my brother and sister when I’m older. What are my plans? Go bigger probably. 

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