SCALE NO BARRIER TO DIVERSITY
FARMER: Tony Hamilton, Managing Director Merriment Rural Investments Pty Ltd, Forbes, NSW.
ENTERPRISES: Mixed irrigated grazing, and cropping enterprise with small jojoba plantation.
TONY'S KEY MESSAGES:
- Management of market, environmental and seasonal risks is a key driver for diversification.
- Credible information and a long-term outlook are crucial in making investment decisions.
- Small changes that make use of existing skills can reduce risks inherent in trying something new.
- Flexible systems allow faster responses to seasonal and market fluctuations.
From west to east, from small to large, Tony Hamilton’s fundamental business strategy remains the same: diversify your operations, spread your risk. After farming in Perth, Western Australia, and then working as an agricultural consultant in central New South Wales, he settled in the NSW town of Forbes and spent more than two decades running the family farm. But in 2011 he stepped into a new role, as a corporate farm manager.
Still based in Forbes, Tony now oversees mixed-farming operations on four irrigated properties for Merriment Rural Investments. This includes his own property, which is leased to the corporation. While most farms in Australia are still family-owned and operated, corporate farming is becoming more common in an increasingly diverse range of agricultural business structures.
For Tony, the corporate structure offers the chance to focus more on management and less on “driving the tractor”. Instead of 1100 hectares, he now has 4000 hectares to work with, much of it irrigated. The larger scale of the enterprise also provides greater economies of scale, and the opportunity to invest in new technology.
However, the move to corporate farming has not changed his key farm business strategy. “Basically, I have never liked putting all my eggs in one basket,” Tony says.
Red bean option
Tony has long been interested in alternative crops as a way to increase his options. Back in the 1990s he took note of a new crop a neighbour was trialling – adzuki beans. He became interested enough to not only add them to his crop rotation, but to also complete a PhD thesis on the optimal agronomy for the crop in Australia. Adzuki beans are used to make red bean paste, which is widely used in Asian cuisine, particularly in Japan.
He says the switch to adzuki beans was relatively easy. It basically involved acquiring some new information about the crop, which has similar growing requirements to mung beans. There was no additional capital investment needed.
However, adzuki beans are highly susceptible to the insect Heliothis, and registration of pesticides was an early issue, as was finding the best variety for Australian conditions and the right agronomic approaches to achieve the most marketable product. “All that foundational work has been done now, so it really just comes down to price and water availability,” he says.
“We used to be able to compete in the market with China, offering a higher-quality product, but once they improved their quality it became more difficult. The price just hasn’t been there for the past few years to make it a viable crop. You need about $1000 per tonne and a crop of two to three tonnes a hectare to make it worthwhile. Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to switch into and out of it, if you get the right market signals.”
Tony was also among Australia’s first jojoba growers, planting 20 hectares of trees in 1998 as part of a strategy to offset the risk of reduced water allocations. The initial investment was sizeable, at about $350,000 for the trees, a subsurface irrigation system and a modified almond harvester to collect the jojoba seed.
The hardiness of jojoba was one of its attractions, along with its salt tolerance. While nearby fruit orchards withered during the extended Millennium Drought, the jojoba trees were able to survive without being watered.
When he first planted the trees, jojoba oil was selling for $35 per litre. He budgeted his investment on $20 per litre, figuring the high price was unsustainable, but was still shocked when the price plummeted to $7 per litre, as a result of oil from extensive plantations in Argentina flooding the market.
“I suppose we were a bit starry-eyed going into it,” Tony says. “It is really important with anything new to make sure that you sift through all the promotional material for the credible information. It takes planning and time. And there are always teething problems, such as permits for chemical use; it takes time to register products for emerging crops.
“It is important that you are growing something people want to buy, not just because you want to grow it,” he says. “With something like this you also have to keep your eye on the big picture, the global markets, because big players overseas can wipe you out if you don’t have a distinct market niche.”
The oil price has since recovered to about $30 per litre, but his trees are providing enough seed to harvest only one year in two, instead of every year, so jojoba returns are still less than originally anticipated. However, as chair of the Australian Jojoba Industry Association, he says there is renewed confidence in the industry and some growers are planting new orchards.
Livestock and crops
While the jojoba is a distinct enterprise within the overall farm business, cropping and livestock operations are more closely integrated.
The livestock operation includes 4500 first-cross Merino-Border Leicester ewes, bred to Dorset or Suffolk rams, with an additional 5000 to 6000 lambs grown out to trade weight each year. There are also 200 Angus breeding cows, with calves, and an additional 200 head of cattle grown out to trade weights. The cropping takes in 2000 hectares across the four properties, much of it irrigated. Winter crops are wheat, barley and canola, with maize and sorghum in summer, and possibly cotton in the future. Lucerne hay is also cut in spring.
Tony says there are always compromises to be made between the cropping and livestock to maximise overall performance of the business. Pasture in the cropping rotation helps provide soil nitrogen as well as fodder for stock. Dual-purpose wheats provide fodder, but grazing stock must be removed at the right time to preserve the crop yield. Some areas, such as the row crop paddocks, are also ‘no-go’ zones for stock, in order to protect fragile soils from compaction.
Tony’s diversified approach also extends to the marketing of crops and livestock. He likes to hedge his bets, using a mixture of forward-selling and harvest-sale arrangements. “It never hurts to keep your options open,” he says.
More information on diversification in rural industries is available from the following RIRDC reports, which can be downloaded from www.rirdc.gov.au: