Astute livestock sense and keen camaraderie sets the tone for stock and station agent and landholder

WHEN the paths of an ambitious young livestock agent and an enterprising landholder crossed back in 1953 it would have been hard to envisage they could still be doing business together in 2020.

The old sheep and lamb saleyards in Wagga, near the Hampden Bridge, were the backdrop for the initial meeting and it was a day the two men will never forget.

At the time Jeff Francis, who will be 85 in October, had just started with the livestock agency firm called Young Husbands. Young Husbands, with a head office in Melbourne, was a big player in the livestock industry during that era.

After missing the Wagga cattle sale on the Monday it was fair to say Mr Francis was more than keen to get to a sheep and lamb market later in the week.

"I was dirty, I couldn't get out of the office fast enough, I was doing book work, and I couldn't wait to get out to the sheep sale," Mr Francis said.

"I had a pushbike I bought for 21 quid, and we were due to start at the yards (for the sheep sale) at 6am ... I was down there and waiting at 5.30am," he said.

It was this particular sale were he later extended his arm and shook the hand of Mick Thomson, who also shares October as a birthday and will turn 90 later this year.

The polite greeting of "good to meet you Mr Thomson" quickly turned into "call me Mick."

"It was always Mick from then on," Mr Francis said.

From that day the pair have travelled the length and breadth of the country in search of a "good trade" for either sheep or cattle.

A RELATIONSHIP THAT WAS BUILT ON BUSINESS AND FRIENDSHIP

"Mick was one of the biggest clients Young Husbands had, it would be nothing for Mick to line up with 5000 sheep ... and Mick only dealt in good sheep, there was no rubbish," Mr Francis said.

Mr Thomson's name is clearly identified in the first notebook Mr Francis carried in his early stock and station agency days.

He still has the book, purchased from Hunters in Wagga. And in March this year the selling connection between the two continued and further cemented their longevity in the livestock industry.

A handy pen of Santa Gertrudis heifers, weighing around 400 kilograms, went under the hammer at the Wagga Livestock Marketing Centre, to average more than $1500.

While an abundance of sheep transactions have crisscrossed between the two, neither were able to put an exact estimate on just how many might have been traded.

However, Mr Thomson said there were years where he traded in the vicinity of 40,000. And at one stage he counted annual losses alone at 3500 head.

For all of their journeys and business dealings both men are great mates. And they admit to never having an argument or blue even if that meant facing near-death experiences.

DISTANCE NO BARRIER

To secure quality stock the pair didn't stop at any form of transport or destination. Planes, trains and boats were all part of the mix. And they have impressive tales of survival and camaraderie to share.

They re-tell the story of how they huddled inside an auster plane, that Mr Francis said was made of little more than cardboard, and took off in a zigzag fashion only to near-miss a sand-hill.

Mr Thomson, generously says the plane was built of "fabric and wood" but admits to actually holding onto the seat and hoping to bring it to a halt. Mr Francis was sitting behind him with trepidation.

Both men say that that day could have been their last, had the plane not narrowly missed the sand hill by inches during the terrifying takeoff.

"Thank God someone was looking after us ... we are here today to tell the story," Mr Francis said with a wry smile.

There are other stories of loading sheep onto trains only to have the driver communicate that he needed an "eight-hour break."

Flood waters meant that that break was taken by later rowing a boat to the nearby pub. Then there are other tales of actually manually maneuvering wiper blades in cars during torrential rain.

THE NEXT GENERATION

Encouraging young people into the livestock industry is something Mr Francis is passionate about. He said sharing stories of years gone by with those entering the sector was valuable.

He said the H Francis team always employed young agents. At the moment the youngest team member is David Kosa, 23.

And while the livestock industry has experienced a lot of fluctuations over the years and Mr Francis and Mr Thomson have witnessed financial downturn and hardship, drought and floods they both say the uncertainly at the moment is something new.

With the COVID-19 pandemic gripping Australia both believe the outlook was more uncertain than ever yet agriculture was still thriving.

Mr Francis said he was grateful for the opportunity to learn so much from Mr Thomson. He said the partnership had taught him about good sheep, great husbandry and the ability to make money in the livestock industry.

"He always had the best stock, and the best dogs and he looked after his stock," Mr Francis said.

COMPARING THE MARKET

Back in the 1950s there were purchases of wethers that would equate to around $8.90 a head in today's money. And Mr Francis explained to buy those exact same wethers in the market now it would amount to $200.

The pair took risks, they punted, bought and sold sheep, cattle and even pigs, but prided themselves in only securing quality stock. As Mr Francis puts it "there was no room for rubbish."

They attended markets and saleyards that have long since shut. For instance there used to be a market at Galore.

And private sales were always on the cards too. A journey out near Wilcannia could have been a complete disaster after they hit a culvert destroying the fan and radiator in their vehicle.

Mr Francis said he was due to play footy with the Wagga Waratahs the next day and had initially worried about not being able to get back home. The breakdown resulted in a chance meeting with someone who had wethers to sell.

What started as a broken down car, and no footy the next day, turned into an ideal opportunity to buy 1500 "magnificent' wethers.

It was a serendipitous moment, like so many others. A chance encounter that turned into a lucrative opportunity to purchase stock.

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