Testing times for ag pioneers

02 Jan, 2015 01:00 AM
Charles Prell,
Family farming is a fantastic lifestyle but at the moment it’s a pretty crappy business
Charles Prell, "Gundowringa", Crookwell, NSW.

THE Prell family is famous for pioneering the use of superphosphates to energise soils and stimulate pasture growth for improved livestock production, namely Corriedale sheep.

These days, they're still on the land, although the next generation will test the family legend.

It all started in the late 1800s when Charles Ernest Prell risked everything to drill two bores on a struggling cattle station “Savannah Downs” in Queensland.

His enterprising gamble paid off once he struck water, which converted the modest property into a highly profitable enterprise that generated rich returns from marketing fat cattle.

After selling for a handsome profit, Charles Prell Senior moved his young wife and family to the southern NSW tablelands after buying “Gundowringa” in 1904.

Over time, he merged several properties into one farm of about 10,000 acres (4046 hectares) which has since sustained several generations of Prells.

Challenges to family farming

Despite the 110-year family tradition, a great grandson of the same name - Charles Prell - remains sceptical about the future of family farming.

Mr Prell believes family farms will struggle to survive in future, unless passive off-farm income can be secured through other means, such as wind turbines.

The 56-year-old said a Federation homestead on his property also provided an opportunity to earn additional revenue from tourism.

According to Mr Prell, unless the wind farm income is secured long-term, along with revenue from the converted homestead, the Prell family’s history at “Gundowringa” could end in 10 years or so, if his children decide agriculture is not their future.

“The traditional family farming system that our family has been using for 100 years is failing, and we live on some of the most fertile soils in some of the climatically safest land in Australia,” he said, reflecting on the end of International Year of the Family Farm.

“It’s getting tougher here but I’d hate to think what it’s like in the marginal areas.

“Family farming is a fantastic lifestyle but at the moment it’s a pretty crappy business.

“Without some passive income stream - whether it’s from wind farms, off-farm income, investments or whatever - I don’t see traditional family farming - where 100 per cent of the income comes from agriculture - as being a viable proposition into the long term.

“I’ve got two kids and neither of them is interested in a career in agriculture because they’ve seen the hard slog their parents have done, especially in the 10-year drought,” he said.

“I totally understand my kids not wanting to return to the farm, so I’m encouraging them to get a degree and earn a living somewhere else and come back to the farm and use that business to sustain the farm.”

Mr Prell said the profit margins from farm produce are getting smaller, while input and operating costs are increasing.

“We’re getting the same for lambs as we were 10 years ago but the cost of fuel has doubled,” he said.

Passionate about Crookwell

What Mr Prell loves most about living and working on the land can’t be bought and sold.

“I love the interaction with animals, especially the dogs; working in the open air; the variability of the work; and being my own boss,” he said.

“I’m also really passionate about Crookwell and the local community – it’s a fantastic solid community.”

Mr Prell said Corriedale sheep have been “the signature of our property for 100 years”, which is the oldest stud of its kind on mainland Australia, exporting to about 20 different countries.

Leading up to the First World War, he said they ran dairy cattle and over the years have also tried cropping but to no avail, given the region’s climate restrictions and topography.

In the 1920s Charles Prell Senior also gained a reputation for growing potatoes on the property using a mechanised operation, including a potato digger and potato grader which he invented.

Gundowringa's evolution

Mr Prell said he and his wife still run about 3.5 to four sheep per acre at “Gundowringa” but don’t apply much superphosphate to their pastures now because the phosphate levels in the soil, due to the application history, are “pretty good”.

Over the years, the original “Gundowringa” has been divided up and partly sold off due to various social and economic challenges, in particular after one of Charles Prell Senior’s sons suffered terrible mental health problems after the Second World War.

Mr Prell’s father Jeff and his brother Tony took over running the property in 1964 after their father died.

He and his dad worked in partnership from 1986 until Jeff Prell ‘retired’ in the mid-2000s, although he still lives on the property.

Mr Prell and his wife now run about 2000 acres (810ha) at “Gundowringa” and his cousin has 3000 acres (1214ha) of the original property across the road.

The pasture improvement germ

An article on Charles Prell Senior, published in the Australian Dictionary of Biography in 1988, said the land at “Gundowringa” in 1904 was mainly uncleared, with native grasses.

The farm carried less than one sheep to the acre and clipped three kilograms of wool per sheep, until the visionary pastoralist began experimenting with subterranean clover and, acting on Department of Agriculture advice, fertilised it with superphosphate.

“Prell carefully costed every process and sought the assistance of departmental experts in monitoring flocks grazed on improved and natural pastures,” the article said.

“The results were widely publicised in the rural press: by the late 1920s he had increased the carrying capacity of his land almost threefold and wool production to about 5.4 kilograms a sheep.

“Excess pasture was harvested for silage and erosion was retarded.

“He successfully competed in pasture competitions and wrote and spoke on the topic: the book, Pasture Improvement in Australia (1926) had been dedicated to him.”

A book on Charles Prell Senior’s life, written by William A. Bayley and published in 1951, quotes an article published on October 3 1940 in the Farmer and Settler where the pastoralist claims he swallowed the “pasture improvement germ” during a trip to England and France, after buying “Gundowringa”.

On that trip he saw how the European land was being worked and realised something like it could be done in Australia.

Charles Prell Senior also made valuable contributions to farming groups and committees, including serving as president of the Goulburn Agricultural, Pastoral and Horticultural Society for seventeen years and a director of the Goulburn Pastures Protection Board.

Visionary pastoralist

Mr Prell said he runs cattle and Corriedale sheep at “Gundowringa” today and continues to yield benefits from his grandfather’s intuitive approach to pasture advancements.

“My great grandfather Charlie Prell was a visionary,” he said.

“He started the family tradition here at Gundowringa in 1904, and was awarded an OBE in 1937 for services to agriculture through pasture improvement.

“He was the first sheep farmer in Australia to use superphosphates on pastures in any commercial way and worked closely with the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) in the 1920s and 1930s conducting trials and benchmarking the results.

“There’s been a lot of superphosphate and fertiliser put onto phalaris, subterranean clover and ryegrass to improve our pastures.

“A lot of the pastures are a bit degraded now after 10 years of drought but some of the phalaris pastures my great grandfather planted 100 years ago are still viable,” he said.

Mr Prell said during the Depression years his grandfather strongly advocated the closer settlement scheme and wrote a proposal that was taken all the way to federal cabinet under then Prime Minister Joseph Lyons.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography says the pioneering pastoralist urged State and federal governments to settle groups of young men on 200-acre (81ha) blocks for five years to improve the pasture and learn progressive farming methods.

“They should then be offered individual ownership on 30-year terms”, the article said.

But Mr Prell said his grandfather’s idea was shelved when the Second World War started, signalling the end of the Depression years.

“I’ve often wondered in the last 10 or 15 years whether there’s an opportunity to do a similar thing today,” he said.

“The mantra these days is for farms to get bigger but maybe we can be looking at more community-oriented farms.

“However, that may not be a realistic proposition with today’s business practices and the size of agribusiness.

“But that’ll break down one day; maybe when we have our next Depression,” he said.

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


KA S/West Vic
2/01/2015 10:52:42 AM

only when people realize that corporate farms or foreign owned are less profitable in so many ways that the penny will drop' Farmers need more co-ops, farmer owned and controlled,less leeches controlling our produce and communities less tax sink holes for the rich and shameless, as an European man told me just recently (the only thing wrong with your country is you've never been hungry)they are tort the importance of profitable ,sustainable and passion that is required, in school,we have been manipulated into price takers by clever bean counters profiteering and govt requiring cheap food.
3/01/2015 8:04:42 AM

It is sad to see old properties sold off and cut up. It is also sad to see multinational organisations using wind farms to destroy our rural landscapes. If farming on marginal land is not viable change your methodology and practices. If wind turbines are so safe why are they no around large cities? Possibly need to look at converting the property to a solar farm. Foreign ownership of our land is only possible because the investors are looking long term. unlike Australian Governments and local investors.
Vic Trotter
21/03/2015 7:13:16 AM

Using farming practices from 100 years ago, I understand why the gentleman supports wind farming. DDT and wind farming go hand in hand. DDT was held out as a safe product. History has proven differently. Wind farms are "safe". The health problems people suffer from turbines are "not founded". I remember there was a similar story from the tobacco industry in the not too distant past. Maybe it is time for more use of solar power to generate electricity. it appears to have less side effects.


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