Cotton Country – Graziher

Cotton Country

Thirty-five years down the track and Kate O’Callaghan is still a Leeton local, living in cotton country in southern New South Wales. 

In a region traditionally dominated by rice production, Kate is the General Manager of Southern Cotton (SC) – one of the first gins to be built in the region. Passionate about agriculture, Kate was recruited by SC to nurture the emerging cotton industry for the Murrumbidgee Valley. Her role in the project was monumentally important – she was there from the initial stages.  Within a year, Kate had helped SC transform from an empty paddock into the successful cotton gin it is today.

After graduating from university as an agronomist in the mid 1980s, Kate has spent years contributing to the agricultural industry. Her leadership roles at the Department of Agriculture, Novogen and CopRice Stockfeeds led to her current position at SC and her passion for education.

At age 23 Kate landed a job with the Department of Agriculture in the Leeton Shire, undertaking irrigated lucerne trials.  New to the area, not knowing a soul and living out at the little research station at Yanco, she couldn’t foresee her ties to the Leeton Shire growing. It was a region vastly different to Tamworth – hotter summers and no rolling hills in sight.  Kate recalls thinking when she moved, “Imagine after studying at uni after all those years, I got stuck in a place like this my whole life.”

This is an excerpt from the Summer Graziher magazine, shop here. 

Plans changed after meeting Owen, her future husband.

“That was the start/end of my life really,” Kate laughs. “He feigned an interest in irrigated lucerne production, even though he had no lucerne, and kept coming and checking my
lucerne trials.”

Years later and now a fully fledged Leeton local, Kate was invited to become involved with the start-up stage of the Leeton based cotton gin, Southern Cotton.  It was in 2012 and she remembers the invitation for the interview.

Tim Commins, one of the five board members called and said, “Owen says that you’re looking for a change. Would you be interested in joining Southern Cotton and coming out and having a chat with the directors.”

Kate replied, “Yes, I’d love to.”

She went out to the site one afternoon after work, in her CopRice clothes – her employer at the time, to meet with the six board members.

Kate recalls, “It turned into a full on grilling for two hours. I was so terrified.”

“They didn’t really know what my job was going to entail, they just knew that they needed someone. They needed someone to do ‘the other stuff’ apart from building
the machine.”

At this stage the whole project was a shed with a hole in the ground. There was no electricity, there was no power and no internet.

It was an exciting venture to be a part of. To start with, Kate focused on doing the books for the accounts and going out to growers meetings to start to get to know the growers. “We were still in the building stage. By then we had started cementing, but had no internet and one little laptop,” Kate recalls.

“It was all an ‘ohmygod moment’ and ‘what do we do next’. There were so many things going on.”

She focused on laying strong foundations for the business like sourcing the equipment for ginning operations, sourcing programs via an IT consultant and building the network and computer systems. Writing her own strategy all from scratch and on the fly.

“I thought we needed safety systems in place so I wrote those documents,” Kate adds.

Everything taken for granted in an existing business, they had to source.

The first bale was pressed on June 16 2012, a momentous occasion with the families of the directors all present. Kate remembers the challenges in that first year well.

“The computer programs which we had written from scratch, didn’t work,” Kate recalls.

“So many teething problems.”

Five years later and now one of Australia’s leading ginning facilities, SC has produced more than 800,000 bales of cotton, a vastly different story to their first month of pressing 30 bales. SC gin features state-of-the-art technology in quality measurement, cleaning humidification, processing and data traceability. The company employs 11 full-time staff and 47 seasonal workers, and achieved Best Management Practice for Cotton Ginning Accreditation in 2013.

Looking back, it was her love of working with farmers and enjoying the grower relationship that convinced her to join SC. 

There’s two things Kate is really excited to talk about: the gin process and the gin story obviously is an exciting story. Education is another passion of Kate’s, in particular, educating tour groups, visitors and school children about agriculture throughout the region.

“Education is an important part of what we at SC do – and we don’t do it for money, we do it because it is important for us that people understand,” Kate explains.

“Understand not only the cotton industry but all irrigated agriculture, and even for school groups, for them to understand the smallest connections such as where their shirt came from.”

Kate O'Callaghan, general manager

Kate O'Callaghan is the general manager of Southern Cotton. She runs the production and logistics management for both ginning and cottonseed management, as well as leading a team of 10 permanent staff and more than 40 seasonal casuals. 

Recognised as one of Australia’s top 100 Women in Australian Agribuisness in 2014, Kate heads up the liaison and negotiations with growers, is secretary of the Southern Valley Cotton Growers’ Association and represents Southern Cotton at Cotton Australia. 

She is passionate about locals and visitors understanding the quality, sustainability and excellence of agriculture in the region.

This is an excerpt from the Summer Graziher magazine, shop here. 



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