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  • The Walkers overcame drought, depression and debt to start their own paddock-to-plate organic grain business. (Supplied)
The Walkers bounced back from drought and depression to launch their family business, Whispering Pines Organics.
By
Sana Qadar, Presented by
SBS Small Business Secrets

Source:
SBS Small Business Secrets
20 Nov 2016 - 5:05 PM  UPDATED 19 Jan 2017 - 3:03 PM

It's been a roller coaster few years for wheat farmers Betina and Robert Walker. Their family business, Whispering Pines Organics, is booming these days, but six years ago, it was a very different story.

"Mentally and physically, my husband and I had had enough," Betina says, referring to the years of drought that left her family financially drained and emotionally depressed. "In the Riverina, which the media won't report about, there were lots of suicides, both men, women and children."

Searching for a fresh start, the family uprooted to Sydney, and got jobs running a caravan park on the Hawkesbury River. But it would be a short-lived relocation - major floods soon swept through the Riverina, devastating the Walker's farm.

"A friend of ours flew over the property in an airplane and took photos," Betina recalls. "We took one look at those photos and within two months we came home."

Their time away, though shorter than expected, was enough to re-energise them. They decided to restart the farm - but this time with a twist.

"We met lots of people in Sydney that were in the food industry who kept saying to us, 'why aren't you value adding?' Well Robert and I had no idea what that meant."

It meant they'd need to start milling their own wheat on site - providing a paddock-to-plate, premium product. The Walkers spent a quarter of a million dollars starting their business.

But first there was the issue of financing.

"The initial cost in total [was] about a quarter of a million dollars to start," Betina says. "We have had trouble getting a loan from the bank, because banks are not interested in farmers that want to do what we want to do."

They survived by going without, cutting back and scrapping holidays. The generosity of others also helped: "We were very lucky, the people we bought the shed from let us pay it off ... instead of [us] having to borrow money from the bank."

In a few years, they've grown from a using a small mill and hand-operated rolled oat machine that could be carted around to farmers markets, to a two-story mill on their property. Production has grown from 3 tonne a year, to 250 tonnes. And this year is the first where they've finally been profitable.

Farmhouse Factor

One factor that's helped grow the business is selling online via the Farmhouse website, which allows the public to buy products straight from farmers.  Betina credits the site with giving her brand national exposure. "I reckon at least 8 per cent of our income is from Farmhouse Direct ... the orders are coming in daily."

Now the biggest challenge the Walkers face is trying to grow the business, without proper access to the internet. "It's satellite internet and it's so slow, we get 30 gig a month. That is gone within a week or so," Betina says with a sigh of frustration.

"In February this year we applied for the NBN to be put onto the house, and they just tell you we're going to be out to connect it and no one ever shows up. It takes a long time to get orders off the internet, we can't grow with our website and stuff like that."

Having faced drought and floods though, the Walkers are taking it all in stride.

"It doesn't matter what life throws at us now, we are survivors."

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