Victorian sheep breeder Ben Hartwich says returning to the family farm after finishing year 12 has been one of his best decisions after winning the national Merino sheep judging championship at the Sydney Royal Easter Show on Wednesday.
The 23-year-old competed against the national's top young sheep judges - two years after the initial event was supposed to take place - and has credited his success to lessons learned on the family farm.
The competition was originally scheduled to take place in New Zealand in 2020 but was postponed a year due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Then last year, the competition was set to be held at Queensland's annual show, The Ekka, before it was also cancelled due to the pandemic.
It meant the 2021 and 2022 competitions were run simultaneously at the show.
Mr Hartwich, who claimed the 2021 championship, said the experience in Sydney was surreal, noting he never expected to win.
"It wasn't too nerve-wracking," he said.
"I just did it with the mindset that I wasn't going to win, but I was there to enjoy the experience and learn a bit more about the industry."
Mr Hartwich farms with his father, Phil Hartwich, south-east of Ararat, where the pair produce 250 bales of super fine Merino wool ranging from 16-18 micron annually.
The pair also run Mt Challicum Merino stud and sell about 30 rams via private treaty each year.
As the middle child of three boys, Mr Hartwich knew he was destined for the family farm long before he completed his VCE at Marian College Ararat.
"As soon as I left school I came back to the family farm," he said.
"I looked at a few other things I could do first, for instance going to uni for ag, but I decided there was not much point because all I've ever wanted to do was to come back to the farm."
The family-run operation includes 10,000 Merinos.
The clip is sold at auction in Melbourne to both Italian and Chinese markets.
The Sydney competition involved judges assessing four Merino rams and ewes on a set of criteria.
"Their wool type, their structure, the way they stand and hold themselves, the evenness of the animal is what we were looking at," he said.
"You have to judge the sheep all the same and treat them with a good level of respect."
Mr Hartwich was elevated to the national competition after competing in similar competitions at Bendigo and Balmoral.
Patrick Davis from Harden, NSW, won the 2022 competition followed by runner up Ashley Meaburn, Runnymed, Tasmania, and third was Phillipa Hacker, Roselea, Muckadilla, Queensland.
Runner up for the 2021 competition was Campbell Rubie, Forbes, NSW, and third was Sym Hood, Longford, Tasmania.
Overall there are nine categories for judging and parading each year under the Agricultural Shows Australia national competition program which include beef cattle, dairy cattle, alpaca, poultry, Merino sheep, meat breed sheep and Merino fleece judging, as well as parading competitions in beef and dairy cattle.
Agricultural Shows Australia chairman Rob Wilson said the competition is designed to recognise the best new talent in livestock judging across Australia.
ASA oversees 572 agricultural shows in Australia which attract six million visitors annually and contribute nearly $1 billion to the national economy.
"It's an extremely prestigious event and positions at the nationals are keenly contested," Dr Wilson said.
"These young people are the future of agricultural show competitions which are crucial to the continual improvement of Australia's food and fibre.
"The national competition is a coveted opportunity to grow personally and professionally by practicing skills against the cream of the crop."