Sexism and rural succession

Gone are the days when the eldest son would inherit the family homestead. But in building a wine business, farmer John Thomson has created plenty of options to go with the family farm.

Farm inheritance has always been a pretty sexist affair.

There’s a practical side to this, apart from pure male chauvinism: only one child can live in the homestead. And traditionally that’s been the eldest boy; in many cases the girls simply missed out.

But few (if any) families go in for that now. Gone are the days when sexist succession is acceptable to anyone, including the Family Court, it must be said.

That means ‘who gets the homestead?’ is a rather more complicated matter these days than simply leaving it to the eldest boy. Rock, paper, scissors anyone?

One way to deal with the problem is to create an actual business, with a separate existence to the farm and shares that can be sold -- not just a house that must be lived in by someone.

And that’s what the John Thomson of Victoria’s Western District did when, in 1975, he and his then new wife Catherine planted wine grapes on the family farm at Condah, south of Hamilton on the Crawford River, and in the process opened up a new and interesting Australian wine region.

I don’t think succession was in the front of their minds when those first vines went in the ground – maybe in the back. But Crawford River Wines, as the business is called, now produces 4000 cases a year of very good Riesling and an increasingly well-regarded cabernet, and turns over $1 million.

It’s now a well-established family business, and definitely not sexist: daughter Belinda, 37, is the winemaker and Fiona, 33, is in charge of sales and marketing. Eldest boy, Robbie, 39, works for Ord Minnett in Sydney, and Richie, 35, works for another winemaker in WA, Leeuwin Estate.

The farm -- 2000 hectares with a beautiful 1870s homestead, running sheep and cattle -- was established by John’s great grandfather James Thomson in 1878, who was a crofter in the north of Scotland, forced to emigrate by the appalling Highland clearances.

James Thomson had 11 children, or rather his no doubt long-suffering wife did, and the eldest boy, John, got the farm. He wasn’t the present day John Thomson’s grandfather – that was Alexander, John’s brother.

Alex was actually buying John out of the farm when they both died within a few months of each other in 1946, leaving Alex’s son Monivae, then 36, (named after the original homestead) and his sister Kathleen to inherit.

Monivae was the eldest boy, and the only one, so he got the homestead, selling some paddocks to pay out his sister. He had three children: one boy, John, and two girls.

When it came time to sort out the inheritance nine years ago following the deaths of both parents a few years apart, John got the farm. Not because he was the eldest boy, although he was. It was because he had worked the farm for 26 years, including planting those vines in 1975 and creating Crawford River Wines. That meant he was able to pay out his sisters from cash flow over a few years.

John had returned to Condah after a career in stockbroking had taken him to London, as well as giving him a taste for good wine. And it turns out that his eldest boy, Robbie, followed him into stockbroking, while the eldest girl, Belinda, followed him into wine.

Belinda studied oenology and viticulture in Europe and after graduating divided her time between Spain and Australia, spending the winemaking season in each place, making wine.

This year she has returned full time to Victoria as winemaker at Crawford River Wines, while Fiona handles sales and marketing from Sydney.

John is now a young 65 and still runs the business. The family hasn’t settled succession and inheritance yet, but now there are plenty of options, thanks to the creation of a family business, to go with the family farm.

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