Years of hard work and sacrifice has set up the Sandersons’ wheat-growing operation for generations to come.
It’s coming up to seeding time on the Sanderson’s property, just west of Grass Patch in Western Australia’s Mallee region. It’s not a job that John Sanderson, a third generation farmer, relishes. The work runs round the clock and, before the weak Autumn sun rises, it grows bitterly cold.
“There’s always something happening so you never get a full night’s sleep,” John says. “Seeding can be a stressful time, especially when you’ve got to get everything sprayed and keep the machines rolling.”
Not that he’s complaining. After a crippling illness put him out of action for years, John counts being able to contribute to the farm as a blessing, and he learnt the value of hard work from his father, Dan Sanderson.
“He’s just a machine,” John says. “Even now, he’s in his mid-to-late fifties and he just goes and goes; he doesn’t stop.”
John, 28, grew up on the Grass Patch property. His parents, Dan and Judy, took out a lease on the 2200 hectares back in ’94. Those were lean times. “I think dad had $5000 in the bank and an old Toyota ute, and that was it,” John says.
A diesel mechanic by trade, Dan was forced to take contract work on the Goldfields to keep the farm afloat. As his ute rumbled down the driveway, his family would watch from the verandah. There were tears, as you’d expect – Dan could be gone for two weeks or two months, depending on the work he found.
Once John broke free from his mother’s arms and chased the ute as it headed for the front gate. “I was a bit too young to realise what he was doing it for and I absolutely hated it,” he recalls. “For the first ten years of my life he was only there in bits and pieces.”
Judy was left in charge of the farm, with 2000 head of leased sheep, while raising John and his sister, Denise, in a rundown farmhouse. “In the middle of summer it would be 40 degrees and we’d have the fire going to have enough water to do the cooking and run the bath,” John remembers. “Mum did an amazing job.”
He’s also full of admiration for his father’s determination, though it meant he was away from the family: “Now I look at how we’re set up and I appreciate it completely; it was the best thing he could have done.”
And for all the painful farewells, John and Denise had countless good times on the property: roaring around in a Suzuki four-wheeler Dan had fixed up, building cubby houses in the bush, hunting rabbits and racing motorcross. “Me and my sister had a ball,” John says. “It was a perfect childhood.”
When his old man was home, they would drive around the Wheatbelt, looking to buy clapped-out machinery nobody wanted. Together they would repair it, then put it to work on the Grass Patch property.
Dan did all he could to increase the productivity of the farm, which he and Judy bought out in 1998. He improved soils, digging clay pits and spreading the subsoil through infertile sandy topsoils; he took part in grain trials, researching the best crop varieties for the region; he embraced innovations, such as auto-steer for tractors and liquid nitrogen fertiliser.
John would have loved to have worked side-by-side with his dad but Dan insisted he have a job to fall back on. It was no surprise, considering the tough start he’d had. Even less of a surprise: John decided to become a diesel mechanic like his old man.
After learning his trade in the Goldfields, John worked in the Pilbara. He thinks it might have been a stint in Port Hedland, working in the crushing heat, that knocked him about: coming back to the Goldfields, at 20-years-old, his health wasn’t the same.
“I was 85 kilos playing football in Kalgoorlie, working and as fit as you could be,” he says. Then his illness struck: “Within three months I was a skeleton and I couldn’t hold down a job. I was a mess.”
John was battered by an autoimmune disorder that doctors struggled to diagnose. Suffering symptoms of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, he wasted away as his own immune system attacked the lining of his intestines. His face was drawn, his ribs and hipbones jutted through his skin, and he lost close to 30 kilos.
Where Dan had left his wife and the farm to work in the Goldfields, John was forced to leave his girlfriend, Desiree, in the Goldfields and return to the farm, unable to work.
It wasn’t the homecoming he hoped for, but there was no place he’d rather be. Once he was back, he discovered that the property his parents had sacrificed so much for repaid their efforts in a way they never would have anticipated.
“Around the homestead, that’s where all my memories are; it’s like the holy land for me,” says John. “It was a huge tonic to come home and relax. I’d sleep for 30 hours at a time and it was no stress, knowing mum was looking after me.”
Weakened though he was, John was keen to earn his keep. He spent more time in the office, the only place he could work most of the time, searching for and adapting farm management programs – the new passion led to the business adopting AgriWebb. He organised seasonal workers and put in and took off one crop at a time. The work gave him focus, and slowly but surely he recuperated.
Today, John’s health has greatly improved and he’s become a partner in the family business, which has grown to take in 3400 hectares with another 1800 hectares share farmed. Desiree, now his wife, joined him on the property and, along with taking on the office work with John’s mum, is carving out her own career, running a horse-breeding business out of a former shearing shed.
The farming operations continue to evolve, with the Sandersons investing heavily in AgTech. They recently put in a 4G tower to link their farm offices; all the machines have tablets running AgriTrack, with GPS tracking that communicates back to the offices; John uses AgriWebb to manage everything from his diesel inventory to cropping rotations.
There’s a feeling of excitement around what the future holds, but it’s not just related to wheat yields and increased productivity. This month, John and Desiree welcomed their first child into the world – a baby girl.
“I absolutely loved growing up here and I can’t wait to see her have the same childhood,” he says. “And if she wants to be a part of it in the future there’s a spot here for sure.”
The grit that Dan and Judy showed when they were just starting out at Grass Patch, and the sacrifices they made, look like paying dividends for generations to come.