Our local farming evolution
KCM talks with Stuart Larsson, owner of Mallanganee agribusiness SOFT Agriculture, about farming in the age of climate change, growing hemp and why he’s gone SOFT.
Compost production at Soft Agriculture in Mallanganee
KCM: Throughout your company's history, you have also been one of the first to try something new. How important is it to always be looking ahead?
Stuart: Agriculture is a great industry but unfortunately things change over time. Our farming methods have evolved due to consumer demand. For example, in the late 60’s we were part of the Dairy Industry producing cream and skim milk, as well as pigs. By the 70’s most dairy farms had moved to a system of bulk handling of milk which ultimately turned our path towards beef cattle and soybean cropping. The evolution of our farming methods and embracing change has been an important part of developing our business over the past 50 years.
KCM: I have read that you were often dismissed as 'hippies' when you made shifts to a 'softer' form of agriculture... do you think attitudes have changed since then? If so, what do you think has driven the change?
Stuart: We decided in the late 90’s to change our farming practises as we had destroyed most of our soils using conventional farming methods which are part of so-called “modern Agriculture”.
We chose organics because we believed it was the future for land management and there was a growing market for good, clean and healthy products such as Soybeans, Cereals and Beef.
At this time the term “Organic” was not as familiar so we introduced the concept of Sustainable Organic Farming Techniques (where SOFT Agriculture is derived from) to make it more palatable.
These days consumers have more awareness of the growing Organic industry and people choose to buy these products understanding that there are better health implications for their families.
KCM: We are interested in hearing how your Hemp Food trials are going - can you give us an update about where you are at in hemp food production?
We believe there is a strong future for food grade Hemp in Australia. As a plant it has some fantastic features that suit the Australian climate, for example;
Low water use 1.5 meg of water compared to Cotton or Soybean who use 6 meg
High protein 35%, High omegas 3 & 6
100 day crop cycle.
The main roadblock we face is finding high yielding varieties, at the moment our yields have been poor. For example, 300kg/ha compare to a yield of 2000kg/ha in the Northern hemisphere.
The solution is to find the right varieties to work with, which requires plant selection. We are currently planting Northern hemisphere types and are entering a selection programme to improve yields and adapt the varieties to our Australian climate.
KCM: What do you think is the single biggest struggle the local agriculture industry is facing right now?
I can think of three for you:
Our climate has changed greatly, as farmers we face this change head on.
The large supermarket chains distort pricing.
A simple saying is if you tax it you will kill it, if you sponsor it, it will grow. The government’s help will change this.
KCM: What are you guys working on to tackle those issues within your own business?
Evolving our business to adapt to the changing climate, and we focus on improved management and technology for cost savings.
KCM: What advice would you give to younger farmers or new agricultural businesses... how can they set themselves up to succeed in tricky times?
My start came from a low interest loan from the Commonwealth development bank and light repayments in early parts of loans until I got established.
In these times with the evolution of on farm technologies and management systems, I would say to young farmers to utilise these tools, however, don’t forget the old practises of looking at patterns in the land, animals and birds, as they know more than we do.
KCM: And lastly - what is it that you love about Mallanganee - why here for you?
I was born and bred in the hills of Mallanganee. Although things have changed, the best attributes are that it’s not crowded, there is quality land, a safe and moderate climate and it’s only a maximum of 3 hours drive from major centres.
For more information check out www.softagriculture.com.au