Their Stories

A leadership experience for life

26 September 2018

From succession planning, to dryland cotton farming, to a kidney transplant – the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) has been a source of strength and direction for Scott McCalman since graduating from Course 7 in 2001.

“It is such a subtle thing in your life once you’ve done the ARLP. You’re probably not even aware that you’re doing things so much better than you otherwise would have. You’ve got that resilience and the platform that the course gives you – it’s just part of your life now.”

Course 7 of the ARLP came along for Scott – growing cotton and grain on his family farm at Warren – as his leadership duties were expanding.

“Adam Kay [graduate of ARLP Course 2 and Cotton Australia CEO] was our district agronomist at the time, and he urged me to have a think about it,” Scott says.

“I was one of the younger people sitting on the Macquarie Cotton Growers Association. We had a lot of political pressure on us as irrigators and were trying to stay on the front foot. As a farmer it was quite a young age to be thrown in the deep end.”

Scott applied for the ARLP in his mid-thirties, drawn to a program that spoke to his values.

“When I started looking at the ARLP, a description caught my eye: that it’s not about podium leadership, it’s about networks and standing up and having the capacity to lead within a community and to subtly help steer. To be involved in the activities that affect your life or your business.”

He was sponsored by Auscott Limited, Cotton Australia, Namoi Cotton Cooperative and Twynam Investments to undertake the program.

Scott gained something different from each program component.

“At the very beginning in the Kimberley I was paired up with someone from a totally different background – we were conflicting from the get go,” he laughs.

“But that was the best thing that ever happened. Just the different array of personalities … we were incredibly lucky to go to Vietnam, Indonesia and Borneo for the overseas session. If you’d asked a farmer from Warren ‘do you want to go to Borneo?’ my reflex would have been to say ‘no’, but it was an incredibly valuable eye-opener.

“Back home we were exposed to some great stuff on the dairy and timber industries, and our time in Sydney gave insights into some social problems,” he says.

Supported throughout the course by wife, Jo, Scott says the way the ARLP is spread out over more than one year fitted “seamlessly” at the time with a young family and growing farm business.

After the program, he grappled with issues of succession planning, and immediately put the communication and planning skills he had learned on the ARLP to work.

“My father had been busy for a long time with his own leadership roles outside the farm, so I was able to subtly steer us towards the decision to split up the family business and make sure everyone was secure,” he says.

Scott and Jo ran the historic property – in the family since 1870 – until a major health hurdle prompted a new direction.

“I went hard for about a decade, then I had a bit of a blip. At 46 I suffered from this auto-immune disease which sent me very quickly into total renal failure.”

After six months on dialysis, Scott underwent a transplant, receiving his wife Jo’s donated kidney. Scott’s illness came as the business at Warren had grown to about 12,000 acres.

“Just about every single thing I’d learned in life and through the ARLP about keeping focused helped me and my family to get through it,” Scott says.

“It also gave me time to think about the reflective lessons of the course – if there’s things in your life you’re not happy with, it’s up to you to try and change it.”

Scott and his family decided to sell up, and moved to Gunnedah in 2012, where they produce rain-grown cotton and sorghum, barley, durum wheat and chickpeas on about 2,500 acres.

In the current drought affecting much of New South Wales, Scott jokes that he “brought the western weather to the Liverpool Plains”.

He and Jo were finalists in the 2015 Australian Cotton Industry Awards for their innovative dryland farming, which includes the production of a home-grown liquid fertiliser.

“Everything I do these days has risk management at its heart,” he says.

Scott supports his Liverpool Plains community, is Chair of the Upper Namoi Cotton Growers Association, and is part of a relatively new dryland cotton growers’ association. He sees a bright future for his industry.

“I think the natural sequence of succession is happening far better than it was around ten years ago. It was the same old faces turning up at end of their careers. We’re getting a lot more young people coming through, and a lot of young women getting involved – they offer a new light and they think differently. It’s a balanced group of young people, and there are a range of industry development programs for them,” he says.

Scott taps industry leaders on the shoulder for the ARLP whenever he can.

“I think it’s such a fantastic opportunity that there’s a sponsored rural course that’s related to your vocation in life; what you’re doing and what you’re passionate about,” he says.

“It gives you an opportunity to meet a whole heap of like-minded people from around regional Australia, and you learn suddenly that you’re not in a stand-alone industry, that there are linkages across the board. You’re entering such an amazing, large alumni that’s been effective for all these years. That sort of exposure’s just invaluable.”

More information

Applications are currently open for ARLP Course 26 and will close on 30 September 2018.

For information about the ARLP, see Australian Rural Leadership Program.