New England farmers, the van Eyk family, are preparing for success with investment into sustainability practices and succession planning to ensure their historic property, Yarrowyck Station, remains in the family for generations to come.
Running a family farm as a successful commercial enterprise requires talents and skills that only come from experience gained over many years. This experience often stretches into decades that become linked by generational transitions as a family farm changes hands from one generation to the next. These successions can be complicated and difficult, they sometimes fail to deliver for all stakeholders, often because a robust succession plan was not in place.
Whilst one family may run a farm over many generations, farming practices are forced to change. The forces of change come from many directions, from an ever-changing landscape of regulations, to breakthroughs in science, technology and innovation, to changes in consumer demand, seasonal variations and the unpredictable cycles of the environment. As farms evolve, many old practices and old mindsets that may have been the bedrock of success for past generations are let go. Acknowledging the importance of the continual refreshing of ideas and practices in this ever-evolving landscape of farming can help ensure a farms success continues for generations to come.
For the van Eyk family, their farming experience stretches back at least four generations in the Southern Hemisphere to the aftermath of ww2, when the family of Hein van Eyk, carrying the physical and emotional scars of living in the Netherlands and working with the Dutch resistance during German occupation of their homeland, immigrated to New Zealand in search of a new life in a land less scarred by the recent war in Europe.
The Netherlands had declared neutrality at the outbreak of WW2 and had been occupied by Germany early in the war. The Allies along with the Dutch resistance forces subsequently cut and held a path of allied controlled territory through the Netherlands until the end of the conflict. The post war disputes of reparations and resettlements went on for years, and in the uncertainty, many families of both Dutch and German origins chose to leave, often with only the belongings they could carry. Australia and New Zealand were favoured destinations.
Farming in New Zealand was good to Hein and his family, which grew to eight children (seven boys and one girl).
They worked in partnership together as dairy farmers in the Thames region of New Zealand where the van Eyk family still operate a number of farms to this day. Brothers Charles and John branched out to Australia in the early 1980’s, buying a cropping farm at Nyngan as well as Wirchilleba at Gilgunya. They had some difficulty running such a different enterprise and their brother Marius, his wife Faye and toddler Joe moved to Australia so Marius could help.
Marius, who was also known as Maurice, was the father of Joe, who today is the head of the family operations of van Eyk Family Farms.
Upon Marius’ arrival, brother John returned to New Zealand and Marius stayed at Wirchelleba – a 42,400 acre property that used to run about 15,000 Merinos and crop between 5000 and 7000 acres of wheat, depending on the season. Tragically his wife Faye died only months after being in Australia, leaving Marius to raise four-year-old son Joe and run a large farm. Charles sold the property at Nyngan and went back to dairy farming, relocating to southern NSW at Berrigan.
It was a bit of an adjustment moving from a high rainfall, relatively small but intensive dairy farm to a large, dry, broad-acre farm where all the Merinos needed to be anthrax vaccinated and the 450mm annual average rainfall meant it wasn’t a particularly secure cropping area. Joe remembers spending nights asleep on the floor of the Massey Ferguson 1135 tractor as Marius would sow or harvest all day and night.
In April 1988 Marius married Alison Blanch and Marius and Joe moved to Shalimar at Wollun – a 1400 acre property. The sale of Wirchilleba, including the plant and stock, funded the expansion of Shalimar, as the couple purchased a number of neighbouring properties to increase that block to 5,000 acres.
Joe joined the partnership when he left school and started working on the farm in 1994, which was also the year Marius and Alison bought Tarrilli, 1500 acres near Blue Mountain, Uralla.
Merinos had been the backbone of both Wirchilleba and Shalimar and, despite the wool market crash in the nineties, the van Eyks stuck with the commercial Merinos until about 2005 when they decreased sheep numbers and started building their cattle herd.
Despite the dramatic reduction in commercial sheep numbers, they maintained the Shalimar Park Merino Stud and Joe and Alison worked closely together to improve the superfine stud – they were thrilled to win the supreme exhibit at the 2012 Sydney Royal Easter Show.
In 2001, Marius and Alison purchased Yarrowyck Station, a 7000 acre farm located in Uralla NSW.
The history of Yarrowyck is quite interesting. Yarrowyck Station had been held by the Dangar family from 1850 to the 1880s. Henry Dangar amassed over 300,000 acres by the 1850’s and held many prime properties in the region, including 48,000 acres at Gostwyck Station. By 1884 Yarrowyck changed hands to the Manuel brothers, who were originally selectors. The term ‘selector’ refers to farmers who arrived many years after squatters had opened up the country and were legally able to ‘select’ parcels of land previously controlled by squatters. It was this family who, in the early 1870s, established a boarding house at the northern end of the station around which the township of Yarrowyck grew. In the 1884 Act more than 10,000 acres of Yarrowyck was resumed and open to selection. A selector, Josias Moffatt, who, in the 1870s, had already taken land at Saumarez Ponds and Boorolong, then began to take up a series of selection blocks on Yarrowyck. By 1890 he held over 5,000 acres and by 1900 he had 14,000 acres of the original run with 420 cattle and 16,200 sheep stocked on it. Yarrowyck was held by the Moffatt family up to the 1970s.
In 2015 the farm was extended to 10,000 acres with the purchase of the neighbouring property Cherry Hill. Yarrowyck was a big step forward for Marius and the van Eyk family. This acquisition more than doubled the family’s holdings and allowed the expansion of their beef enterprise. The property was mainly used as breeding country with weaners and young stock taken to Walcha to be finished on grain or crops. The property was run by the partnership until 2019, some time after Marius’s death in 2017.
Splitting the family business after Marius died was a difficult time – made worse by the terrible drought conditions in 2018 and 2019. By the end of negotiations, Joe and Steph van Eyk became the owners of Yarrowyck and Tarrilli, with other family holdings allocated to other family beneficiaries.
–Joe and Steph van Eyk–
Joe was born at home on the dairy farm at Oronga Road, Turua, in New Zealand and then raised on a sheep and cropping farm, before moving to the grazing property near Walcha when he was 10.
Steph grew up on a hobby farm at Arding, between Armidale and Uralla, with only enough room for a few horses and a couple of poddies that ended up in the freezer. When she married Joe in 2000, she worked as a rural journalist with Fairfax Media while helping on the farm around her work commitments.
Talking to Joe and Steph for this article was an education in best practice for a modern farming family. They talked easily across a wide range of topics that these days a family farm is required to master to ensure success. Topics such as sustainability and their responsibility to both animal welfare and the environment, to infrastructure improvements required to maximise profit. These go hand in hand with their stewardship responsibilities on the land and to also increase on farm safety, to embracing innovation and technology and the importance of understanding both consumer demand and managing key relationships on and off farm, including the critical skill of relationship management with key customers, suppliers and staff. Of course, a steady eye on the budget, profitability and forecasting are paramount, a role which Steph has taken on as a core responsibility for the management of the farms’ operations.
In 2007 Joe and Steph purchased their first farm together, ‘Parmly’, which was a 1500-acre farm to the South East of Uralla.
Parmly neigbours Tarrilli, which was a property acquired by Marius, and the two farms make a 3000 acre block. In addition, they lease another adjacent property ‘Eastlake’ from Gordon and Wendy Williams.
In 2019 they took ownership of Yarrowyck and in 2020 they acquired Windee, a prime 348 acre hilltop farm with sweeping views of Uralla that sits between their primary farm holdings. Windee is the location of the family residence and also of their boutique sheep stud operations Windee Poll Merinos and Shalimar White Suffolks.
–The Business of Farming–
Joe and Steph have purposely taken a strong position in the premium end of the supply market as their passion for farming is driven by a desire to achieve high standards. Concentrating on the premium end has allowed them to develop product which is in demand by consumers.
In turn, this has created an opportunity to reinvest profits back into the farm in areas such as sustainability, infrastructure and the environment. These are also increasingly areas of high importance to consumers and suppliers at the premium end of the marketplace.
This cycle has set up a positive feedback loop, which by design, reinforces the continual focus on developing a premium farm that produces premium product.
Of course, not all of the sheep and cattle that are produced meet the high standards of the premium end of the market. By necessity these are sold into their respective market supply categories, but the overall objective of operations is premium supply, with a keen eye on the consumers increasing interest in paddock to plate transparency.
Joe and Steph’s view, that farming is best done to meet consumer demand, acknowledges that consumers increasingly want to know that the product they are buying is developed sustainably and ethically. There is an increasing interest by consumers to understand an animal’s welfare, and this is starting to include areas such as animal health, even including areas such as pain management.
Documenting the ‘paddock to plate’ traceability of each animal will become increasingly important, and new technology such as blockchain, will likely be a future end point for the transparency of these records. Today, customers and suppliers are already asking for compliance and documentation for practices such as a documented euthanasia program.
Joe and Steph are supported in the daily operations of the farms with a total of seven employees, including son Hain. They also work very closely with the owners of ‘Eastlake’ Gordon and Wendy Williams in their lease operations on that property.
–Hard Lessons from Drought–
The unprecedented drought of 2018-19 hit the farming community of Uralla harder than they could have imagined. The previous years of developing allocated infrastructure and setting aside enough feed and water to straddle the next inevitable drought that was sure to come, had always been based on previous droughts in the region. By 2018/19 Everyone had run out of feed and water.
Joe and Steph have embarked on an ambitious infrastructure development program across all farm holdings to ensure that they are not only prepared for the next drought to come, but that they can farm more safely and sustainability today and long into the future, despite variability in the climate.
The emphasis on safety is for the wellbeing of both livestock and staff. Getting people out of the danger zone when handling livestock is a priority as is the desire to decrease stress on the animals at the same time.
Pasture improvement, fencing and water infrastructure are large projects currently underway, and the next project will be the cattle yards, where amongst other jobs, they are Investing in a hydraulic cattle crush, which is both quieter and safer.
All cropping on farm is solely for feed production to meet the needs of the farm’s operations. The goal is to store 12 months worth of feed on farm at all times. The current capacity allows storage of 1000 square bales on farm but there are plans in place to increase this significantly, with four new silos on the drawing board, along with additional storage.
The operation is still rebuilding the herd coming out of the last drought, but currently run 1800 breeding cows, with a plan in place to increase this 2500 in the next 5 years, subject to favourable conditions. The objective with cattle is to turn them off as young as possible to reduce carbon footprint and increase carrying size of the operation.
Normally spring calves are weaned coming into winter but this year they were weaned a month early and this seemed to show overall benefit. Next summer a selection of these cattle will go off to market and the remaining herd will be finished on oats and rye to get to 520kg prior to slaughter. The cattle breeding cycle is run annually to the above cycle and the farm also carries an average of 100 bulls.
In addition to the cattle is the sheep operation.
The farms are currently carrying 2000 merino wethers as trade stock, that have been shorn this season. Merinos are very good for pasture and weed control, they help reduce bloat in cattle on clover rich pasture and are also good for blackberry control.
Joe started the Shalimar White Suffolk Stud in 2016 as the White Suffolks are a good terminal sire for Merinos that produce high-yielding carcasses that provide excellent eating quality. When seasons are good, as they have been in 2022 and 2023, the stud ewes are joined twice a year to boost lambing percentages far higher than a single joining allows.
Windee Poll Merinos was registered last year to indulge the van Eyk family’s passion for Merinos, even though it only makes a tiny proportion of their business as beef production is the main focus and makes up the largest portion of the enterprise.
Joe and Steph’s children are particularly keen on Merinos and both enjoy showing them and participating in junior judging events. The first drop of stud lambs looks promising and there might be a couple that make it to shows in 2024.
Cross bred lambs are traded depending on the season and can account for up to 5000 head seasonally traded. This year they were grazed ahead of the young cattle to help with bloating from clover, which was a much more effective strategy than using bloat oil and blocks.
Optimising carry capacity requires a pragmatic approach to pasture development that is a balance of economic cost and return. The van Eyks engaged the services of Pursehouse Rural Agronomist, Lucy Powell, to achieve their objectives.
In Lucy’s words, “their overall pragmatic approach to decisions has made the implementation of agronomy services not only simple but effective, allowing us to achieve high levels of productivity and sustainability. Through providing them with farm plans and recommendations for a range of areas within the business, we have been able to increase the productiveness of their land today and ensure we are able to meet their requirements moving into the future.”
–‘Viable Succession’: Working today for the next Generation–
Joe and Steph have a son, Hain (19), named in honour of his great grandfather, and a daughter, Abigail (15). Whilst both have shown interest in the family farm, Hain is currently the most eager of the two. He currently works full time on the farm and next year will be going to Marcus Oldham for a three-year degree.
Abigail is currently doing accelerated agriculture for the HSC. She loves junior judging and is very academically minded.
Whilst Joe and Steph hope that both children want to take a hand in running the future operations, neither are obligated to. However, the passion is clearly there, and they talk regularly of “viable succession” – developing the farm to a level where both Hain and Abigail can comfortably return to and develop careers working on the van Eyk family farms.
Article by Andrew Maughan
Photography by Jessica Rea