This year is a very special year. It marks the year that farmers are celebrated for the brobdingnagian (that’s immense, to you and me) contribution to our way of life. From the food that we eat to the clothes that we wear, farmers are intertwined in our daily lives in ways we tend to forget, or take for granted. So this year, the Australian Year of the Farmer, we are celebrating and honouring them. To all farmers out there, we thank you for putting dinner on the table and clothes on our backs (amongst the billion other ways you make our lives easier).
Throughout the year, to share the incredible work many farmers are doing, we will be featuring interviews with farmers around Australia who are doing the right thing by the environment, their livestock, and ultimately, by us. We’ll be exploring what it means to farm sustainably and look at the benefits and challenges of farming in tune with the environment in an industry that, by and large, is caught up in convention.
Last month we visited brother and sister duo Danielle and Sam White, pictured above at their family owned and run pastoral farm Glenardagh (Sidonia Hills), located near the town of Kyneton, about an hour’s drive from Melbourne. We sat around their big rustic kitchen table in the family’s quintessential farmhouse, and over cups of peppermint tea and organic fruit buns, talked about what it’s really like to be a farmer in today’s world. There were no better people to be telling us how the industry has transformed over time, because Glenardagh has been operating since 1923 – that’ll be 90 years next year.
Tell us a little about your farm and its history...
Sitting on 2000 acres, we raise prime beef and AAA merino wool. Previously a ‘conventional’ farm, we converted to organic/biodynamic practices six years ago.
We are a sixth-generation farming family. Our grandfather turned what was rabbit-infested granite hill country into a viable farm for crops, cattle, and sheep. He did this by trapping rabbits and using the money he got for them to pay for farm improvements. After our grandfather died, our father bought his two brothers out and took over and expanded the farm. He increased the acreage to 3000 acres and at one point ran 9000 head of Merino sheep for AAA wool along with some Hereford and Angus cattle.
The farm was well-run and produced quality wool and beef, but it was governed mostly by conventional and accepted farming principles and practices. In the past, conventional farming meant pushing the land as much as you could to get the most off it. This push for output encouraged the commercial development of chemical fertilisers and machinery designed to make things more ‘efficient’ and ‘effective’ in terms of time and dollars.
About a decade ago, as our father planned for his future semi-retirement, [Sam] began working alongside our father and has eventually worked his way to being the farm manager. It was with this generational shift that the farm began its true transition from conventional to the sustainable, natural, non-chemical farming practices it uses today. The farm has been chemical-free for the past six years.
So what does sustainable farming actually mean?
On Glenardagh it means zero chemicals. It means cattle and sheep graze freely at all times on natural pasture. Pasture is allowed to regenerate via mulching, topping and resting paddocks to encourage soil restoration. Trees are planted for wind breaks and stock shelter. Areas are fenced off to allow natural tree and under-story regeneration in areas where stands of old trees remain. Planting is also done along river and watercourses to solve and prevent erosion. We keep a low stocking density – 300 Angus and Charolais-Angus cross cattle and 1100 Merino sheep – to enable better management of the animals and the land.
What inspired the evolution from conventional to more sustainable practices?
Primarily it was education, exposure and knowledge-sharing amongst family members of the current generation. Like many farms, some years it’s tough making enough to support the manager and his growing family; let alone employ them. So our parents considered education vital to us having job prospects that didn’t draw on the family farm. Among the family’s six children we have a barrister, a writer with a PhD, a cabin supervisor for a major airline who did the Future Farmers exchange program, a wool buyer-trader and a manager of catchment planning for the Department of Sustainability and Environment. As you can imagine, we brought diverse awareness, thinking, experience, exposure and connection with local as well as national and global issues. Over time, our family dinner table conversations invited and inspired Glenardagh to evolve to more sustainable practices.
Did you face any challenges or resistance in the process of moving away from conventional practices towards more sustainable ones?
Absolutely. Changing thinking in a traditional field like pastoralism takes a long time. Changing practices can take even longer. Existing farming knowledge, skill and understanding cannot and should not be expected to be cast aside – as farmers are often defined by what they do and what they know. The move away from conventional farming practices must be integrated with fresh positive experiences, new knowledge and new understandings; not dictatorial preaching. The fact remains that, at the moment, sustainable farming practices often cost a great deal more money at the outset. This is challenging when conventional farming often doesn’t make above a subsistence wage and in a good season some extra to buy, grow and wean next year’s stock.
What are the farm’s biggest challenges now?
The number one challenge facing the farm today is how to achieve a balance between a sustainable way of farming and a profitable way of farming in an ever-changing environment. Farming is far more than a trend follower – it is a way of life and a way to provide life through the production of primary products. Consumer education and behavioural change take many years – farmers have to wait these years out on very little income in the hope that people might pay more for quality, healthy, sustainably farmed products – but there’s no guarantee that they will.
Another massive challenge for us is ensuring our ethical standards are maintained along the supply chain, once our cattle leave our farm.
Our region has one large abattoir. We are yet to make any final decisions about a suitable supply chain for our beef, but we are hopeful that we can arrange for our animals to be processed where they are treated with as much care as possible once they leave our property.
Smaller, individual farmers like us who are branding their own beef and want an ethical and sustainability-focused supply chain can be stuck for choice because regulations don’t allow meat that has been processed on-farm (which substantially reduces the animals’ stress and negative experiences) to be sold commercially (it has to be for the farmer’s domestic consumption only).
In an ideal world, our preference is to build a relationship with a local animal processor and a local butcher who care about the treatment and provenance of the animals as much as we do. For us, securing a supply chain will be about building trust with people who share our belief that the future of healthy farming and healthy eating relies on people and businesses based on sustainable principles and practices.
What do you believe is the future of farming in Australia?
We believe sustainable farming is the way of the future. However, Australia’s farming future is not just the responsibility of farmers. It’s the responsibility of all of us; making a concerted effort to buy local, to buy Australian and to buy from sustainably and ethically-produced farmers and artisans. Sustainable, by definition, means just that – something that will last. Sustainable farming looks after the long-term future of our environment, economy, health, communities, natural resources and food security.
Want to know more about meat production in Australia? Learn about conventional versus organic farming in our Hungry for Information section of our website.