Monday, July 1, 2013

The business of farming

As local chef and restaurant owner Steve Cumper pointed out last week, much of the publicity about Tasmania's agriculture sector goes to the small, niche producers. He's right. I really love what small landholders are doing here, whether that's raising heritage livestock breeds, growing delicacies like mushrooms, wasabi, saffron or truffles or supplying fresh produce to local consumers via farmers markets. However, those we don't hear about so much are the bigger farmers: those with substantial landholdings and diversified businesses, who sell their high volume of produce into mass markets. Those we might call an 'agribusiness'.

Recently I was lucky enough to visit Elverton, a 3000+ hectare farm at Blessington in northern Tasmania, the property of a fellow 2013 Tasmanian Leaders program participant Adam Dickenson and his family. I learnt that managing a farm like this is not too different from running any other complex organisation. The business incorporates beef cattle, lambs, private forestry and crops. It's a constant battle planning for the future of each of these 'business units', anticipating consumer demand, the regulatory environment and of course the weather. There are staff and investment decisions to be made.

It was interesting to see how the farmer manages the asset he is responsible for. Their care for the soil, water, plants and animals while planning for the farm's future viability is very impressive. When I heard about the days spent hand-weeding the land and the creeks and the North Esk River that runs through the property, I suddenly felt ashamed of the Spanish Heath infestation on our own tiny nine acres that I haven't even started to deal with properly. Unfortunately, it needs to be managed in much the same way - hand weeding in conjunction with cut-and-paste of herbicide on larger plants.

The views at Elverton are stunning and the history is fascinating too. Many Tasmanians will know the area from driving through it on the way to Ben Lomond National Park. The historic farm buildings are a tribute to the hard work of previous generations, while the 'tiger tree' stump that Tasmanian Tiger heads were once nailed to is a stark reminder of how things once were. The Tasmanian Tigers now carved into the stump by chainsaw act as a constant motivator for the current generation of Dickensons to ensure a balance between environmental, economic and community outcomes. Their philosophy is that a good farm management decision is one that will benefit their grandchildren.   Here are a few photos from our visit. I hope to get back up that way and see more of the area.

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