John ‘Hampo’ Hamparsum is a farmer at Breeza on the Liverpool Plains. Chances are that if you eat, you can be pretty sure you have consumed something grown in this area – the food bowl of Australia.
But life in Breeza isn’t always breezy and growing food for a nation, isn’t always easy.
John’s father Ian was born in Geelong. Ian’s father, George Hamparsum, escaped from Armenia as a refugee during the Turkish massacres of the Armenian race during the start of the First World War. He was a textile importer and travelled the world buying cotton and wool yarn as well as fabric to bring back to the textile industry in Australia.
Although Ian grew up in the city and went to school in North Sydney he always knew that he wanted to be a farmer and at the age of sixteen went to Hawkesbury Agricultural College at Richmond.
During his college holidays, he drove his Model A Ford utility from Richmond up to Baan Baa to work on a farming property.
When the weather allowed he would take the short cut from Breeza to Gunnedah via the Black Soil track, which went across the Pullaming stock route. This road is now called the Pullaming Road. It was during these early trips that he formed a love for the area and in particular the black soil plains.
Making a home at Breeza
Hampo’s father Ian was drawn to the Breeza area and he eventually he returned a bought a farm called ‘Drayton’ on January 1, 1961.
He couldn’t wait to get his hands on the beautiful black soils of the Liverpool Plains. He’d seen similar soils in the Brazos Valley, Texas USA, and was aware of the hidden potential these fertile soils held.
Not long after, Ian married Loral Cooper and together they grew a family and converted the property from a sheep and dryland wheat operation to intensive row cropping of cereals and coarse grains.
A new cropping revolution
Ian found water underground and started irrigating from the bores in 1965. He quickly implemented new farming techniques he’d learnt from America to grow irrigated corn, sorghum and soybeans. This new cropping revolution gained pace as more and more farmers adopted row cropping farming techniques. By the mid-nineties, cotton became the main crop grown on Drayton and still is today.
John and his wife Nicole have two children, Sarah and Ben, who love the farm life. Both children have a love of the land and will almost certainly continue to live a rural life.
The droughts from 2001 – 2010 were followed by the millennium drought that went from 2016 to 2020 – the worst drought since white man came to Australia
While their love of the land is strong the whole family are aware of the many challenges that are thrown at you in farming.
In Sarah and Ben’s short lives they have experienced floods – 5 in 1998 and one disastrous flood in November 2000 that destroyed the wheat crop ready to be harvested and the newly planted cotton crop. This was followed by droughts, from 2001-2010, followed by the millennium drought that went from 2016 to 2020. This has been the worst drought since white man came to Australia – sand storms saw winds in excess of 120km/hr that sandblasted the little plants almost to death.
Hail storms have destroyed entire cotton crops, and insect plagues have attacked various crops too. These are just the ‘natural’ challenges that they have seen in the last 20 years.
Then there are the government-inflicted challenges that have also been faced in the last 15 years. The NSW water reform process saw 69% of Drayton’s groundwater license permanently removed because the NSW Government had over-allocated the resource by 400%.
‘Just when we had gone through that process we thought there couldn’t be anything else as bad, however, the NSW Government then actively opened up the Liverpool Plains for coal and coal seam gas exploration,’ says John.
‘Drayton now has a new neighbour with the Chinese Government-owned Shenhua Coal mine less than 2.5km from the southern Drayton boundary. With the proposed Coal mine and the extraction of coal seam gas in the area, there will be even greater threats on the groundwater resource’
‘The new coal mines have already drained the skilled labour from the farming industry and they are a constant threat to the fragile Liverpool Plains future agricultural productivity.
‘The Liverpool Plains has some of the most productive soils in the world and we see a time when the demand for food to feed the world will place extreme pressure on the landholders of the Liverpool Plains to fill the bellies of the world. It is a challenge but one that the farmers of the region will ably tackle.’
Breeza and the Liverpool Plains is definitely the food bowl of Australia and many parts of the world. Yet, people just don’t seem to understand what ‘food bowl’ means until they see the numbers. So here’s a few.
These five crops will be grown this year at Drayton:
- Durum Wheat – 1.4 million 500gm bags of pasta
- Bread Wheat – 1.5 million Loaves of bread
- Canola – 120,000 litres of Canola Oil
- Sorghum – as feed to become 800,000 kg of chicken, or 490,000 litres of Baijiu Whiskey (Chinese whiskey)
- Cotton – 1.4 million pairs of jeans or 3.6 million t-shirts
That’s a lot of food for bellies and fibre for bums.
If the price is right, John will also grow sunflowers, mung beans, chickpeas and corn.
[‘Oh cotton’ I hear you say as you roll your eyes.
Most cotton is grown for seed as well as fibre. Only 40 per cent of what is produced from the cotton plant is for fibre. The rest is for food. Hampo says that if it wasn’t for the cotton seed available during the drought, many cattle would have died – farmers were buying cottonseed by the tonne to feed their animals. The seed is 19 to 20 per cent protein.
BUT WAIT the seed is also very high in oil – if you go out the back of pretty much any fish and chip shop, you will see cottonseed oil – it has a high smoke point and takes much longer to go rancid, so there’s a very good chance your food has been cooked in it.]
Hampo’s farm produced 1,400 tonnes of cotton seed for farmers to feed to their cows – enough seed to produce 260,000 litres of cottonseed oil for frying up your chippies. That’s a hell of a lot of chippies.
Improving the soil
John recently grew a cover crop of Daikon radish – he grew 750,000 radish and ploughed them back into the soil to improve it.
‘Our farm produces a lot of food and fibre for all of those people out there that don’t farm or can’t, so in essence, we farm so that others don’t have to, allowing them to be doctors, nurses, builders, shop attendants and so on.
‘We run our farm in a highly sustainable manner – we use many forms of organic fertilisers – natural not “organic” fertilisers – we use our water as efficiently as possible, (Australian cotton farmers produce the most amount of cotton per litre compared to anybody in the world) we run our farm aiming to continually improve our soils so that they are in better shape each year than they were before.
Breeza soils are some of the best in the world
John says Drayton’s soils are some of the best in the world and can, if looked after, grow nearly any plant or vegetable you can name. ‘If we continue to look after our soils we can do this forever!
‘Unfortunately, trees don’t grow very well on the black soils due to its cracking nature, which makes it hard for trees to establish, hence they are naturally treeless plains.’
Breeza is a stunningly beautiful place. In the Breeza valley, the area from Breeza to Gunnedah, there are approximately 25 families, most producing similar crops and amounts to what John’s farm does.
John is very happy that after such a long and devastating drought, he has been able to sow and to prepare to harvest a canola crop.
‘To harvest this crop will mean a huge amount,’ he says. ‘We haven’t had a positive income for three years, we’ve have had to borrow money to pay our staff wages, put food on our own table and run the farm. So to get an income this year will put a BIG smile on everyone’s face (including the bank manager).
‘The economic damage that COVID-19 has caused many other people has given them a taste of what farmers experience in droughts and floods when everything is taken away from you.’
Future generations can access this water for many years to come
John says Drayton lost access to 69% of its Groundwater License even though they had borrowed money and spent money developing the farm to 100% of the water license. ’This cut-back was needed if future generations wish to access the water resource, which is a renewable resource when managed sustainably. Now future generations can access this water for many years to come.
‘Our soil profiles are now full and we can grow a reasonable crop on the water stored in the soil alone, however, we hope more rain will come and we will help the crops with our irrigation water if required,’ he said.
The Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting a la Nina which is a wetter period for the coming summer, this is positive news for farmers, however, Breeza is a flood plain and John’s entire farm can go underwater in a flood, taking away his crops. ‘So, fingers crossed the la Nina doesn’t give us a flood to contend with!’ he said.
John loves Breeza, he loves Drayton – you can see it in his face and hear it in his voice. ‘I love our land, our soils and our sense of place,’ he said. ‘It is part of my soul and I will do everything I can to protect is so that we can continue to feed the masses forever.’
Worth fighting for
Once you realise how much of our food is grown on the Liverpool Plains, it’s actually surreal to think that the government could even contemplate destroying this area with a coal mine.
The people of the Plains have been fighting against the Shenhua Watermark coal mine for many years.
The fight is not over…