Changing Agriculture: Reinventing the Family Farm

Ever been stuck in a rut on the family farm? Do you think: we do things this way because this is how Grandad did them; the farm has been in the family for generations so I can’t change it; I feel a huge responsibility to keep this place going? Yet you know – deep down – there has to be another way.

Here we give you some inspiration with three family farmers who thought just as you do ….. and then changed their place in agriculture. Let’s discover where they are now and where they have come from.

Educating Australia

The cheese is creamy, soft, and tangy and each mouthful is a burst of freshness. That’s what you can expect from goat cheese made from Meredith Dairy in central Victoria. Sandy and Julie Cameron have taken a product once shunned by the Australian public and hand-crafted it into a unique specialty item.

Originally sheep and cattle producers with off-farm income, Sandy and Julie reinvented their business over twenty years ago. For Sandy agriculture was always a tough game.

“It reached its nadir in the 1991 recession when a lot of farmers went broke and that’s when we said ‘enough’s enough’ – we’re going to start a farm where we have control over our own destiny from now on,” he says.

The Cameron’s went looking for an alternative, especially one where they could value-add and have control of a product from pasture to plate. For Sandy, a veterinarian with a PhD in sheep and goat reproduction, the answer became obvious and Meredith Dairy (www.meredithdairy.com) was born. Today the business milks 5000 goats and 1100 sheep daily and cheese and yoghurts are made on-site the same day – ensuring the freshness for which the brand is becoming famous.

Employing over 90 people, the award-winning Meredith Dairy creates a range of products including marinated goat cheese, fresh goat chevre and naturally pot-set sheep and goat milk yoghurts.

Netting a Fortune

Frances and Peter Bender are born entrepreneurs. Starting married life as traditional sheep and cattle farmers on a family property in Tasmania, the Benders have never shied away from a challenge. Over the years there has been a butchery, an apricot orchard, an excavating business, and in 1986 they began farming fish with one pen of trout (approximately 30,000 fish) and one employee.

Today Huon Aquaculture (www.huonaqua.com.au) harvests 5.5 million salmon per year, employees over 500 people, is recognised as one of Tasmania’s greatest success stories and is fast gaining an international reputation for its use of cutting edge technology. Through the years, jobs have been created in the hatcheries, the sea pens, the factories, in the workshops with boat builders and engineers, in the smoking plant and in sales and marketing.

Huon Aquaculture has fish farms at Macquarie Harbour and Hideaway Bay: giant sea pens where salmon are bred, fed and cared for in world-class facilities.  Huon designs and builds its own boats, uses automated technology for anything from bathing fish to medicating water, and once the salmon are ready for harvest they leave the farms and enter the on-site factories for processing.

The end result is seriously special salmon. Choose from whiskey cured salmon, gourmet smoked pate, hot smoked ocean trout, and ocean grown caviar.

Collaborating with the Neighbours

So maybe the thought of establishing a totally new business like cheese-making or salmon farming is a little daunting. How about combining your farm with others to take advantage of economy of scale and the subsequent increased sales leverage? John Gladigau and Robin Schaefer may have the answer you have been looking for.

As part of a Nuffield Scholarship, John traveled the world researching collaborative farms, coming to the conclusion that although ‘there is no model, there are no rules’, there was a place in Australia for this type of farming.

John and Robin sat down to design their ideal farm. Leaving preconceptions at the door, they discussed innovative ways to improve the profitability of their respective businesses. The result was a collaborative venture called Bulla Burra. Each partner brought approximately 2000ha to the table. They sold all existing machinery and bought plant specific to the new operation, and they worked out an economy of scale based on cells.

Bulla Burra, formed in 2009 and still in its infancy, now employees seven people and, through the formation of Collaborative Farming Australia (www.collaborativefarmingaustralia.com), helps bring the corporate world to hundreds of similar farming families. Could the collaborative model help you?

But How?

So here we have three traditional agricultural operations reinventing themselves and their family farms into new, successful businesses. But how did they do it and what changes and challenges did they face along the way?

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