Working for a non-profit organisation in Uganda saw Jack O’Connor more driven than ever when he came home to Harden.
Jack O’Connor’s roots run deep in Oxton Park. Come next year, his family will have worked the land just outside of Harden, in southwest New South Wales, for a century.
But it was half a world away, in the rich soils of Uganda, that the 26-year-old learnt some of his most valuable lessons in farming.
Jack had gone to Uganda to help with the Manjeri School Project. Sydneysider Nick Harrington founded the non-profit organisation to help Ugandan children get an education. “He’d raise money in Australia to help them buy and develop businesses that would subsidise the cost of school,” says Jack. “It was all about social enterprise.”
“After a while he bought a farm, except he was from Lane Cove in Sydney so he didn’t know much about running farms,” Jack says with a laugh. “He called me up and said, ‘Can you give me a hand?’ I volunteered for a couple of years, and in 2017 I moved over there full time.”
“There” was in Buikwe, a two-hour drive east of Uganda’s capital, Kampala, and an hour southwest of Jinja, where the Nile River meets Lake Victoria. The six-hectare farm Jack was enlisted to manage was a far cry from the 7800-hectare Oxton Park property where he grew up.
In place of working with sheep, rams and wheat and canola crops, he was raising a herd of goats, growing cash crops of watermelons and corn, and bringing thousands of tilapia fish to market. On the side, he managed the matatu – a minibus that operates as a taxi – that also ferried local kids to school.
While Jack passed on his knowledge around business management and marketing, he found himself inspired by the know-how and determination of Ugandan farm workers. “I learnt more off them than they did off me,” Jack admits. “The production mix we were running was nothing I’d ever had experience in.”
“We’re always talking about how powerful the story of Australian producers is,” he says, “but I tell you, some of the stories you’ll hear about producers in Uganda and Kenya and Tanzania: it’ll make your spine shiver, the love and the passion for what they’ve been doing, for so much longer than a lot of us.”
The world-class produce coming out of the region also blew Jack away. “It’s just a matter of time until Africa becomes, as a continent, a real superpower in the agricultural space,” he predicts.
Seeing locals working to develop their industry reinforced how fortunate Australian producers are, with the access to market and support through the value chain that they already have. “The reputation we have as Australian producers all over the world is something we have to take a lot of pride in,” he says, “but you can never forget that it can be quickly lost.”
Jack is determined not to become complacent, and is a great advocate for innovation in agriculture. He’s glad to have found support from the older generation at Oxton Park.
“I’ve been lucky with my dad and my three uncles, who are the four directors of the business,” he says. “They’ve been open to change and that’s 90 per cent of the challenge – having people who are open to adopting new technology, or at least trying it.”
On the livestock side, Jack says Oxton Park is always looking for innovative ways to raise animals as organically as possible, in a low-stress environment. “Whether it’s automated handlers when we’re drenching and vaccinating, or an auto-weighing system, we want to make sure those animals are passing through as comfortably as possible – and that comes to yard set up and laneway design.”
Decisions aren’t made on the fly or taken lightly. “We always look at those investments in terms of, ‘What return do we get on that investment down the track?’”
That all-important return on investment has been seen through the farm’s involvement with AgriWebb. “We’ve been able to lower our cost of production because it’s made us more efficient as operators,” Jack says. “When you’re working with resources as valuable as $500 a tonne, you want to make sure that resource is allocated as efficiently as possible.”
AgriWebb has allowed Oxton Park to monitor inventory levels as they change, and make adjustments on the spot. “There’s no point leaving it to the end of the day or the end of the week,” says Jack, “because you’ve missed the boat and that window for error opens up.”
While he’s proud to pitch new technologies to the older generation at Oxton Park, Jack isn’t one to get ahead of himself. “I still have so much to learn – and that was one of the reasons I wanted to come back to the farm,” he says. “I had a fantastic life experience overseas and it opened my eyes up, but by no means did I think I had it all worked out. I was keen to come back as the youngest in the team and really sink my teeth in, and keep learning every day.”
From the sheep-grazing country outside Harden to a school farm in Uganda and back again, the education continues.