Youth and enthusiasm driving a strong Cotton future
- By: "Prime" Ag News
- US & World News
- Jul 27, 2020
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Dalby cotton farmer Alexander Stephens credits his burgeoning career success so far to ‘right time, right place’, but a recent accolade, the 2020 Rabobank Young Cotton Grower of The Year Award, suggests otherwise.
An unwavering work ethic and thirst for knowledge were just some of the qualities identified by the judging panel that earned the 29-year-old this year’s coveted title.
Employed by Dalby’s McVeigh family, and heavily involved in the family’s contract cotton- picking business, cotton has been a constant throughout the young professional’s journey.
From his introduction to cotton from a very young age, Alexander admits he was ‘hooked’, and growing up would work weekends and school holidays at home, on the Darling Down cotton and grain property his father managed, or for Goondiwindi’s Corish family.
“I was keen to do anything I could just to be involved with growing the cotton crops, I’ve always been passionate about how well a crop performs and behaves, particularly in our conditions here on the Darling Downs,” Mr Stephens said.
His dedication to the contract picking business has expanded its client base from Dalby through to Miles, Jimbour, Georgetown and Cunnamulla in Qld, to Coleambally, Boomi and Hay in NSW, and all the way to Kununurra in WA.
It’s this passion and commitment that Rabobank senior rural manager Geoff Tyrrell said immediately impressed the judges.
“It’s evident Alexander has always taken a hands-on approach to growing cotton, opening up opportunities for him well beyond the Darling Downs, into to southern NSW, Western Australia, western and far north Queensland,” Mr Tyrrell said.
“Rabobank is supportive of the young cotton grower of the year award to acknowledge the role that our future generation play in the industry, and enabling them the opportunity to participate in industry events to develop their personal and business skills, as well as supporting them as they continue to make a positive contribution to the cotton industry.”
The fact this former Dalby Agricultural College graduate, Monsanto Scholarship recipient and Cotton Australia ‘Young Farming Champion’ has worked for some of Queensland’s most prominent cotton growers, is also no co-incidence.
“I’ve always been eager to learn, so have tended to gravitate towards people who are knowledgeable within the industry – I guess they could identify my enthusiasm and I am forever grateful to the McVeigh family, and Nigel Corish who have all been important mentors to me,” Mr Stephens said.
“The industry is very innovative, from breeding new cotton varieties, to increasing crop yields, to developing more pest and disease protection characteristics, to developing new irrigation and farming techniques to improve water use efficiency – the industry is never idle or complacent and it’s an exciting space to be in.”
He believed there were myriad entry points into cotton farming for young professionals such as himself, thanks to the welcoming culture within the industry.
“This is, perhaps, the one thing I enjoy most about the industry – the pride that cotton producers and the people involved within the industry have for the high-quality and highly-regarded cotton Australia produces, and its willingness to embrace those just starting out, be it young farmers, or people embarking on a new career path in cotton.”
With much of rural Australia having endured a challenging 12 months, he said the award, while unexpected, couldn’t have come at a better time.
“Personally, it’s a real morale booster. We had the quietest summer season ever, with no crop bar 90 hectares of double skip semi-irrigated cotton – it was a very strange scenario but this award is a great reminder of why we do what we do,” Mr Stephens said.
And while the 2019/2020 season may have been small, timely rainfall in February drove a miraculous recovery, with the recently picked crop expected to gin 8.5 to nine bales to the hectare.
Mr Stephens said the season had thankfully turned for the McVeigh’s family farming operation, which comprises approximately 6,500 hectares of owned/leased and share farmed cropping country, both irrigated and dryland.
Late planted sorghum was currently being harvested with strong yields, while late planted corn would be harvested next month.
He said 95 per cent of the dryland winter planting program was complete, thanks to recent rainfall, however areas north and west of Dalby were still too dry to sow.
Mr Stephens knows first-hand how heavy the weight these constant climatic challenges can be on farmers’ mental health, and is a proud advocate for mental health services, particularly in rural Australia.
“Mental health among men and women – although particularly men – within the industry is a significant and unrecognised issue,” Mr Stephens said. “Cotton Australia does do its part in supporting programs such ‘Are you bogged mate’ and ‘R U OK’, but I do believe more could be done for mental health awareness and to combat the stigma associated with seeking help, we still have a lot of denial across industry with people not recognising mental health as a real issue.”
“Men and women work hard doing what they do, and it does take its toll – usually the smallest thing can ‘break the camel’s back’, which can lead to a very dark path.”
With the McVeigh dams now at 85 to 90 per cent capacity, and all signs pointing to a favourable 2020/21 cotton season, Mr Stephens is relieved the industry can once again look to the future with confidence as weather conditions improve.
And it’s thanks to bright young achievers such as himself, that there is certainly much to look forward to.
“I was always so keen to be on-farm working with cotton, but I never thought I’d get to do so much, and be so involved in the industry, the opportunities I’ve had are beyond all expectations but I’m extremely proud to be part of the next generation of Australian cotton farmers, and help shape and showcase what a fantastic industry we have.”
President of the Darling Downs Cotton Growers Inc Georgie Krieg said it was wonderful to see Rabobank recognise the next generation of farmers, and their contribution within the industry.
“The support young farmers such as Alexander receive through this initiative is fantastic,” Mrs Krieg said.
“This award represents a unique opportunity for young cotton growers to develop their personal and business skills and meet like-minded farmers in the cotton industry – I strongly recommend young cotton producers, both male and female, nominate for the award.”
As part of Mr Stephens’ award, he will be a guest of Rabobank at the Australian Cotton Conference, which has now been postponed until 2021.