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Evan and Suzanne Lewis run a highly productive integrated farming business at Werneth in Western Victoria. Initially starting with 240 ha, this enterprising couple has purchased, leased, sold, re-purchased and re-financed their way into a 1600 ha holding of six owned and leased blocks within a 10 km radius of their home property, ‘Westcott’.

“We’ve taken a lot of risks over the years,” Evan says. “Some worked out and some didn’t but we were determined to go farming our way.” 

‘Our way’ was to develop an integrated cropping-livestock operation that was compatible with their strong environmental and ethical values. Evan is passionate about min-till cropping, natural soil fertility and Landcare, while Suzanne is passionate about breeding high quality prime lambs in a low-stress environment.

“When we arrived 25 years ago, there was no money in farming and we realised we needed to chase higher margins,” Evan says. “We couldn’t see a future in wool and decided to cull the Merinos and get into cropping and composite ewes. At the time, farming around here was predominantly wool with a bit of oats. Now it’s all cropping and prime lambs.”

Finance has played a key role in their success. Evan and Suzanne were customers of a specialist agribank for many years. “We had the strange experience of working with the same bank manager for 10 years and then three in the next two,” Evan says. 

“We thought we were getting a raw deal. At one stage, we were paying up to 8% interest which left us a bit scarred. Our accountant told us we needed to shop around and that’s where we met Gus Pettitt, who was working with another bank at the time. 

“He arranged a complete refinancing package for us – and suddenly our existing bank offered us a nice two-year fixed rate package, so we didn’t end up changing. Two years later, we went straight back onto a high variable rate. 

“That was it. We were already unhappy with the service we were getting from our bank and now we were unhappy with the terms. By this time, Gus was with Nimbus and we had no hesitation about changing banks. 

“Once again, Gus did the hard yards and presented our situation in its best light. It made us realise how far we’d come over the past 30 years. Everything has come together in the past couple of years – good seasons, good prices and low interest rates.

“He negotiated hard on our behalf and got us a rate that was two percent lower than what we’d been paying. That’s a six-figure saving every year, which has allowed us to consolidate, purchase a 80 ha lambing block and update our machinery.

“Before we met Gus, we felt we didn’t have any leverage with our bank. We’re all guilty of getting too close to our bank manager to the point where you forget that their primary responsibility is to the bank, not you. The banks always tell you your risk position and that interest rates are going up – but you never seem to hear it the other way around. 

“It is quite intimidating as a farmer to confront a bank and say, ‘We’re leaving’. Switching banks is not as easy as say, switching fertilisers. Having an intermediatory in that process removes the emotion. 

“Plus, it’s about time efficiency. We don’t have the time to prepare all of this information and then shop around. We don’t know what the banks want to see. Our accountant used to say that we were a ‘dream customer’ for banks because we were in a high income, high debt situation.”

“What I like now is that we have leverage. Your bank reviews your loan every year – so why shouldn’t you review your bank every year? Our managers come and go but our relationship to our bank is now Gus.” 

Evan’s comments are even more poignant given he graduated as an accountant before returning to his first love, farming. 

Nimbus Partner, Gus Pettitt, says risk profile is far more than a set of financial reports. “We call it the three C’s – collateral, capacity and character,” he says. “Yes, the bank needs to know your assets and liabilities and your capacity to service the loan, but ultimately that comes down to the character of the people who are actually running the show.

“Evan and Suzanne were in a very strong position in terms of their historicals, their projections and their vision and I was able to show their interest cover ratio was increasing, not decreasing.”

Today, Evan supervises a 1000 ha of wheat, canola, faba beans and summer fodder crops each year, while Suzanne manages a highly-fertile flock of 1200 White Suffolk composite ewes.

“Every step of our management is geared towards keeping them as stress-free as possible,” Suzanne says. “We don’t use dogs and we try to minimise handling as much as possible. I want them to have a good day, every day, from lambing right up until they leave the farm.” 

The ewes are joined in three five-week periods to lamb in June, August and September. “Having three lambing groups spreads our work and minimises our risk to any changes in the weather, feed availability and markets – and any empty ewes get a second chance,” Suzanne says.

Lambs are shorn and weaned in January and then finished on stubble and break crops over summer without any supplementary feeding. “The faba beans provide a quality stubble for the sheep,” Suzanne says.

“The summer break crops are not only an important method of managing problem grass weeds in the cropping program but provide a welcome boost of high quality forage over summer.” 

All lambs are turned off to achieve a carcase weight of between 18 and 32 kg before the start of the winter cropping season, with the average of the sucker draft being 29 kg. Suzanne ultimately hopes to increase ewe numbers and one day to market her low-stress lamb through a network of boutique butchers in Melbourne.

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