Meet Jess Lehmann – not only is cotton part of her DNA it flows through her veins


Today’s guest blog post comes from Jess Lehmann who is the daughter of cotton industry legend Chris Lehmann. As you can see not only is Jess very proud of what her father achieved she is a great advocate for the Australian cotton industry

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Jess lehmann(Image copyright Shanna K Whan –  Photography)

Hey there, my name is Jess Lehmann.

I was very blessed to be raised as the daughter of one of the cotton industries’ most passionate, innovative, skilled and loving men; Mr Chris Lehmann, who left a legacy of being the first independent cotton consultant in Australia.

Dad noted that “progress in agriculture must recognise that we are in the lap of technology. This is the main factor driving Australian agriculture forward”.  Together with technology must come smart and innovative people. “Growing talent is like growing cotton” he said. “In no time you will harvest success”.  I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiments. Because of Dad and his vision, the Australian cotton industry in fact now has a legacy trust bursary that was established in 2006, called the Chris Lehmann Young Achiever of the Year Award. Handed out every year, the award helps propel young people who are passionate about the industry, enabling them to undertake a research project that investigates an issue relating to agriculture and agronomy. It also provides an opportunity to develop new skills which contribute to their professional career development.  What a great way to acknowledge youth in agriculture who have made notable efforts to better this amazing industry and to remember the founding father of cotton agronomy in Australia.

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The Lehmann family  July 28th 2006 ( Jess, Paul, Chris, Deb and Paul’s wife Laura) People across the spectrum of the Australian cotton industry gathered at the Narrabri Crossing Theatre for an honourable testimonial evening that Cotton Consultants Australia launched. This was an organisation Dad was a founder of in 1982. He was recognised for his contribution to the industry being the first Independent Cotton Consultant and awarded life membership.

I have found myself following in Dad’s innovative and rewarding footsteps, and I would love to share my story with you.

People question how I can be a country girl living in Canberra with my finger still so heavily on the agricultural pulse. Well, to them I say that change in the agricultural sector happens from within, as well as from farther afield. My background has been in cotton and industry research, so let me explain how hard-won rewards have come with work as an innovation researcher in a series of agriculture fields.

I was privileged to grow up in a diverse farming environment including sheep, cattle, horses, cotton, legumes, cereals, jojoba trees, and even Narrabri show-worthy silver laced whydotte chickens.


Success – I got the hawk that was eating my prized chickens on the farm!

This was what shaped me as a person today. My Dad purchased a dry land farm 10kms North of Narrabri in New South Wales called “Buddah” in 1978. He signed the papers for it a day before he married my mother (Debbie Lehmann). Fantastic wedding present eh!.

Sadly on the 18th August 2006, my lovely father passed away and the property was sold.

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Dad at his legacy testimonial evening on the 28th July 2006.

We have since moved to my grandfather’s property called “Yarral” which is 20 km northwest of Narrabri on the Wee Waa road. There have been 5 generations involved with the property over the years.


My great grandfather purchased this farm from the Barkers and it was then handed down to my grandfather Vic Melbourne, by his father Claud Melbourne around 1950. “Yarral” and “Yarral East” is a large mixed farm of both irrigation and dryland of some 15,000 acres. It generally produces 10,000 to 15,000 bales of cotton each year. We also crop duram wheat, chick peas, mungbeans, faber beans and canola. Both properties also run 800 to 1,000 head of Angus Hereford South Devon cross cattle. An opportunity feedlot is used to enable stock to be prepared for marketing to Woolworths. My brother Paul manages the farm now, and this where I proudly call home.

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Home – ”Yarral”  (Image copyright  Shanna K Whan –  Photography)

In addition to growing up on the land and in the heart of the action, I always knew that innovation and agricultural research would mean stepping outside my comfort zone, and travelling.  And that’s what I have been doing for some time now. Change and unpredictability in this industry is what makes agriculture great, and has encouraged me to advocate for more of my peers to join our exciting adventure!  I love today’s rural spirit and the jobs, education, health, and social networks it provides. Farming communities are the backbone of every country town. I personally embrace everyone’s stories and am so proud of my own agricultural area and family history: so much so that my grandfather Vic Melbourne a family mentor of mine, legend and pioneer of the cotton industry had a book of his life recently published this year called “The Vic Melbourne Story”.

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If anyone loves new “technology” it’s my Grandpa or as he would say “Gadgets” Vic Melbourne “Yarral” Homestead  (Image copyright Shanna K Whan -Photography)

My agricultural education really started formally at boarding school, attending Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Armidale and Calrossy  Anglican Ladies College Tamworth. I soon embraced life away from the farm and continued my studies, worked, and became involved in the Cattle Teams at both schools.

In 2000 I went on a school exchange to Queenwood School for Girls, at Mosman, Sydney. It was here that I first began to understand the city-country divide; and to learn what was important for people from different backgrounds. The city lifestyle was sparkling and shiny for sure, yet the community showed only a passing interest in our rural environment. This experience was an absolute game-changer, which made me think about how I would, one day, be an advocate for regional Australia amongst our urban neighbours. My goal, I knew then, would be to help show urban Australia the importance of acknowledging and appreciating the people who produce the food they eat and the clothes they wear.

My first research job was with the NSW Department of Primary Industries Integrated Pest Management (IPM) project, run by Dr Robert Mensah at the Australian Cotton Research Institute near Narrabri. This was a fascinating agronomic experience for me; as it was a Cotton Research & Development Corporation (CRDC) funded project based on a chance-discovery of the pest-resistant extracts of the Butterfly Pea plant.


Ground breaking research being conducted at Australian Cotton Research Centre at Narrabri 

Our role was to see how these characteristics could be exploited for the cotton industry. Being part of an applied entomology research team was exciting and no day was ever the same. I loved the three a.m. starts and sunsets on field sites across NSW and then Queensland. I embraced the knowledge, paddock-yarns, and industry friendships that were nurtured in this period. There’s nothing like endless days of temperatures over 40 degrees to really test a woman; carting around equipment in protective clothing in head high cotton, irrigation boots, sunscreen in your eyes, high humidity, mud, fighting flies and insects as you charge through the cotton. Thank goodness for headphones, 80’s rock music, and fly-spray! The thrill for me is in the details. It’s in the counting of the rows, bolls, flowers, plants, beneficial insects, and pests. The collecting of specimens and then documenting all of this, while in the field. I love both the scientific engagement and the hands-on aspects.

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Vic Melbourne of “Yarral”  My  Grandpa,  father figure and mentor was one of the first farmers who invested in my dad’s innovative independent cotton consultancy approach back in 1973 that grew successfully from there.  Grandpa has described Dad  (Chris Lehmann) as the pioneer of crop consultancy in Australia  and understands how important my approach and strong passion of agricultural research is to the industry. (Image copyright  Shanna K Whan –  Photography)

Hard work, passion and innovative research pays off in this industry. My contribution was one part of developing a long awaited world first biologically based pesticide to support global food security called Sero-X®. The pesticide was developed from the butterfly pea plant as a result of Dr Mensah’s research in collaboration with Innovate Agriculture Pty Ltd (a Wee Waa company run by Kerry and Nick Watts). It has now completed its trial period and will be launched on the 12th May 2017 as a commercial product by The Hon. John Barilaro MP, Deputy Premier of New South Wales. I’m looking forward to attending this event. With an organic tool like this, growers are able to naturally manage pest-pressure, which has remarkable potential across the cotton industry. What an amazing change this marks, in comparison to my Dad’s day, when cotton consultants were influenced and employed solely by large chemical companies and pests were controlled mainly by using synthetic insecticides.


What I would say is that growing up in any industry, and setting yourself up to keep progressing requires guidance to be successful.  That’s why I feel so privileged to benefit from the mentorship and life-experience of Dr Robert Mensah, a senior Scientist and now the Director of NSW Department of Primary Industries, Australian Cotton Research Institute in Narrabri.

Robert isn’t just an ‘’agricultural industry connection’’ to me – he was my dad’s best friend.  Dad and Robert developed a series of updated farming practices, which my grandfather adopted immediately, reflecting grandad’s faith in my father’s independent cotton consulting approach. Robert continues to positively influence and impact my agricultural and industry research, career, and life after all these years. We speak every week. What I have learned from his guidance and my experience working alongside him is that I believe youth in agriculture need to identify a mentor. I would also say that networking is your best agricultural friend!  In my case, I sought advice from Robert about my next agricultural research industry journey.

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“Yarral” –Dr Robert Mensah, describes me as a innovative bright minded and active change maker that this industry and research sector needs to nurture.  (Image copyright of  Shanna K Whan- Photography)

I decided to head to the University of New England (UNE) working for the Professor of Animal Nutrition/Animal Science at the School of Environmental and Rural Science in Armidale.  Here I focussed on my passion for climate change, the issues it places on Australia’s food supply chain, and the disruption it is causing to the environment from extreme weather events, and farmers already struggling to cope with intense droughts and flooding.

The UNE research topic focussed on a by–product called “Grape Marc”, the waste left from crushing, draining and pressing of grapes in wine production.

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Grape Marc

The research outcomes showed a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in ruminant animals. In lay terms, it’s another amazing illustration of smarter-farming, because this innovative by-product is also more cost-effective for producers than traditional grains.


Projects similar to what I have worked on can help deliver environmentally sustainable and ethical agriculture. It also shows how industry, science and government can work together to deliver innovative outcomes for the sector and rural communities.  Having left field work last year, I have been privileged to work with the Australian Research Council (ARC) in Canberra which funds all types of research including agriculture.  The diversity of research that contributes to improving cultural, social, economic and environmental outcomes is extraordinary!  Division of the average $A800m per year in funds is a competitive grants business, so the quality of the research is high.  My reward has been my contribution to a team that monitors and assesses reports as the projects progress through their grant life cycles. I view this as critical for the future of our industry. “Agriculture wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for industry research, it plays an important role in sector to continue progressing forward with sustainability and profitability targets”

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 “Yarral” I surround myself with a combination of other bright minded innovative youth and inspiring older generations who all share my visions to keep that flame alive in an amazing go ahead  agricultural industry that produces the food we eat and clothes you wear. Dr Robert Mensah & Grandpa – Mr Vic Melbourne. My two life/family mentors full of wisdom and knowledge, pioneers and legends of the Australian cotton industry.   (Image copyright Shanna K Whan – Photography)

When I reflect on the work I am doing and the work I’ve done, I am always amazed by the various people and bodies who contribute to our agricultural sector. Whether it’s farmers, contractors, researchers, scientists, policy developers, or agronomists; everyone is a part of the overall equation. All of this group will benefit from future agricultural research, leading to a more sustainable industry. The people who contribute to agriculture are far more complex and diverse than what some would perceive as ‘just farmers’. It’s people in the city, the country, and even overseas. For my own part, while not being a current hands on producer, I have gained experience all the way from my early upbringing and family, through research, and having worked as part of a funding body that dispenses project funds to support agricultural research to boost production.

So, if sharing my story on why I am so passionate about this incredible, innovative, and go-ahead industry encourages somebody else to pick up the ‘baton’ and get involved in agriculture research, then that would be an amazing personal reward.  What is next for me is a question I am yet to answer, however I am focussing on remaining in the agriculture and research sector. Who knows what the next challenge is to tackle? You are welcome to contact me. I am certainly open to suggestions!

My advice to somebody starting their Agriculture career would be this: don’t hesitate to take the road less travelled if it is where your interest truly lies. Take the long way around. Let your life unravel as you cover that ground. Ride high in the saddle. Face the world and find your own way home.

Find your own way home….that’s what my Dad taught me.

“Take the road less travelled, and find your own way home”

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Yarral” Dr Robert Mensah, Jess Lehmann and Grandpa – Vic Melbourne   (Image copyright Shanna K Whan – Photography)









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