Returning to the family property is never a forgone conclusion for the younger generation, but the pull can be strong, especially for a family which has had an unbroken connection with the land and Merino sheep for 150 years.
Jock Fletcher and his younger brother Ross, with their father Warwick, are the latest of the Fletcher family to operate “Cairnie”, a 1670 hectare property in the heart of NSW’s New England, near Walcha.
“It is pretty important and really special for us to be able to come home,” Jock said.
“Our family has been here for a long time and we are proud of our family heritage and to be able to continue the line.”
Mr Fletcher said he and Ross were encouraged when younger to take the chance to experience a career other than being on the family property.
“We always knew the farm was there for us, and Ross spent some time working in the mines, and I did a three year course at Marcus Oldham along with farm contracting,” he said.
“But farming on “Cairnie” was always our passion.”
With the brothers returning home, a change in production dynamics is seeing the spotlight on increasing wool production.
“We had been focused on growing wool as fine as we could, but we lost the frame of our ewes because we selected the smaller animals,” Mr Fletcher said. “Now we are trying to increase ewe size and lift lambing percentage with more robust lambs.”
Merinos have always been the focus of Cairnie and Warwick Fletcher said the flock had been bred along the traditional superfine lines aimed at the Italian spinners’ market.
“We sourced Merryville-blood rams and they were very successful but with the change in the wool market we are focusing on increasing production,” Warwick said.
The annual shearing on “Cairnie” has just been completed with 6200 sheep shorn for an overall flock micron of 16.3 to 16.4.
“The last 10 years have been very difficult and a lot of sheep have disappeared. I wonder if 25 million Merino ewes is really enough,” he said.
“Sheep prices were phenomenal last year, the best I have ever seen and I think it looks good in the short term.”
Warwick Fletcher said he was encouraged by his sons’ interest in continuing to grow superfine wool on the New England.
“It is good for the young people to be getting these returns and I think there is a great future for them,” he said.
Jock Fletcher is equally enthusiastic, pointing out Merino wool is a quality product produced under sustainable conditions.
Tough for wool on historic property
The 1670 hectare property, Cairnie, near Walcha, owned by the Fletcher family for the past 150 years, was named for the locality in Perthshire, Scotland, which was the home of the original owner, John Morrison.
“Our family came out from Lanarkshire in the mid-1850s, when one brother worked at Port Macquarie for Major Innes, and the other, who was our ancestor, came to Walcha,” Warwick Fletcher said.
“Wool prices are good now and wool has been good for us but it hasn’t always been easy.”
Mr Fletcher remembers his father talking about the tough times during the Great Depression, and he recalls the debate over the introduction of the reserve price scheme led by Sir William Gunn in 1965-66.
“I had just returned from school and there was a lot of turmoil,” he said.
“In the 1970s the market dropped and we went through another tough time until the late 1980s, when it was thought growing wool was a licence to print money.”
But it was inevitable the demand for wool would decline, Warwick Fletcher said: and with the demise of the Reserve Price Scheme many wool growers and manufacturers have dropped out of the system.
“All we have done since is squabble about the direction the industry should take to become more profitable, and there is still a lot of kicking and screaming dragging growers to adopt new methods and technology,” he said.
The industry is surviving, but Mr Fletcher wonders if 25 million Merino ewes are really enough to sustain the entire Australian sheep industry.
With shearing just completed at “Cairnie”, wool is still to be sold: however the market is going through one of its periodical bouts of high prices and the Fletcher family are hopeful of very good returns from this current clip which exhibited all the style and strength, wool grown on the New England is renowned for.