A new program designed by GrainGrowers Australia in collaboration with the AICD hopes to fashion future Australian farmers — and future- proof the agricultural sector.

    Tracy Lefroy

    Tracy Lefroy

    "We're running multimillion-dollar businesses. I do all of the business management, the grains marketing and strategising for the farm." Tracy Lefroy, Cranmore Farming

    Changing perceptions

    Former NAB agribusiness analyst, communications manager, startup founder and freelance journalist Tracy Lefroy is eagerly breaking down stereotypes. When she’s not working with husband, Kristin, on agronomic planning or her CFO responsibilities at Cranmore Farming, a 5700ha intergenerational diversified mixed crop and livestock farm in Moora in the WA wheatbelt, some 170km from Perth, she may be attending to local government matters as president of Moora Shire, in a meeting of the GrainGrowers National Policy Group, or the board of Innovation Central Midlands WA Inc.

    Lefroy who formerly farmed in her own right, rejects perceptions of geography and gender. Grain farming requires smarts, she says. “We’re running multimillion- dollar businesses. I do all of the business management, the grains marketing and strategising for the farm. My husband and I do the agronomic planning for the farm together.”

    Where others see challenges and, for example, call for agriculture to steer clear of any net zero targets, she sees massive opportunities. “Agriculture has a really big role in terms of minimising carbon emissions and locking up carbon through different land management practices. We could become a carbon sink through the revegetation of non-arable land” — a process already underway at Cranmore. “In time, that will be a tradable asset.” Lefroy’s role in local government has been focused on promoting a vibrant regional community. “I could see gaps in service provision and infrastructure issues I felt needed addressing,” she says. “I can’t just whinge, I needed to put my hand up to find solutions.”

    A sizeable population increase and new jobs are on the way with the upcoming opening of WA’s largest cattle feedlot by Minderoo Group and a $28m development by Westpork Piggery.

    Improving business-grade telecommunications in the region is essential. Poor connectivity impacts the farm and the community. Lefroy, who also sits on the National Farmers Federation telecommunications and social policy committee, and colleagues at ICMI and the Field Solutions Group have secured $20.5m in federal funding for new telecommunications towers for the region.

    Another victory has been keeping the Central Midlands Senior High School residential college open so skilled people with children will continue to be attracted to work in the region.

    Lefroy applied for the OnBoard program because she wanted to know more about governance and ethics. “I want a clear understanding of my obligations and liabilities,” she says. “My passion is providing a voice for regional Australia. How do you do that from the Midlands when most of the decision- making happens in the east?”

    Kate Gunn

    Kate Gunn

    "Even if global trade patterns change, underlying demand for food holds strong." Kate Gunn AAICD, Merrivale Partnership

    Multifaceted diversity

    It was the diversity of farming that appealed to Kate Gunn AAICD when after university she returned to 10,500ha family enterprise, the Merrivale Partnership, on the NSW Liverpool Plains, which dry- land farms wheat, sorghum, canola, barley, chickpeas and cotton, to make it her career.

    “I could see a lot of opportunity in agriculture — it’s such a strong industry with a consistent and growing demand for its products,” says Gunn. “Even if global trade patterns change, underlying demand for food holds strong.”

    Starting “at the bottom on tractors and machinery”, these days Gunn works on finances, payroll, HR, logistics and the ever-enlarging area of compliance. For her, the promise of diversity has been well fulfilled, sometimes in unexpected ways.

    While the Merrivale Partnership had a substantial expansion in 2012, it operates “like many family businesses”, she says. “We rely fairly heavily on the family structure as the business structure.”

    The partnership runs successfully without a constitution and formal job titles. “We have fairly clear areas of responsibility and expertise. While we don’t have regular scheduled meetings, we do have meetings, usually before we blow out the kids’ birthday candles or something.”

    Gunn, who sits on the GrainGrowers Australia National Policy Group and previously was “a voice for agriculture” in the Shire Council Economic Development Working Group in Gunnedah, faced a reckoning after being approached to take on her first commercial directorship a year ago.

    On joining the board of AMPS Agribusiness, she says she felt underqualified. “I’m the only female on the board, and the most inexperienced, which lends itself to not feeling as confident as you might,” she says, noting agriculture has not moved as fast as other sectors with equal representation.

    The board, a diverse mix of farmers and professionals, was actively looking for someone “with a different perspective” and has been very welcoming, she’s quick to point out.

    So, when the opportunity presented to upskill via the OnBoard course, Gunn seized it. Already she sees areas where the course will deliver critical insights. Supply chain expectations for ESG, for example, are ramping up, with suppliers asking for more data, while many in the industry wait for clear frameworks and defined measurement before coming to grips with what’s required. “It’s really valuable to learn best practice from the Company Directors Course so you have that knowledge to apply to your own business, particularly around strategies. At the moment, our strategy is in everyone’s heads.”

    Megan Gooding

    Megan Gooding

    Paddock-to-plate innovation

    "I see a gap in understanding between agriculture and other industries, although people are affected by it every time they eat." Megan Gooding MAICD, Three Farmers

    At the end of a particularly dry year, the quest for a high-value, drought-tolerant crop in 2010 set fourth-generation WA farmer Megan Gooding MAICD on a decade-long journey.

    After growing up on a mixed crop and livestock farm near Narrogin, south-east of Perth, completing a PhD in agriculture and marrying a local farmer, she applied her bent for research with her understanding of farming and came up with quinoa.

    Hailed as a superfood, the opportunity to provide an Australian source for the high- nutrient grain that grows in drier than normal conditions and, at the time, almost exclusively in South America, loomed large. Just 30km away, farmer Ashley Wiese and agronomist Garren Knell were on the same path. The trio formed Three Farmers Australia and the Three Farmers brand.

    Today, managing director Gooding tells a story of great highs, lows and considerable experimentation. For starters, quinoa is a tricky crop to grow. “In South America, they grow it in summer at high altitude — we grow it in winter at sea level,” says Gooding. “With every aspect we had to start from scratch.”

    That included breeding their own variety, the Medusa strain, for WA conditions, testing it in different environments via a network of growers from Kununurra in the north to Esperance in the south, and building their own machinery to process and package the grain.

    On the upside, supermarket giant Coles provided a $500,000 grant and a ready outlet, but Three Farmers product hit the shelves in 2015 just as the price of quinoa peaked, then crashed due to oversupply from Peru.

    In monthly board meetings, the founders maintained their health food focus and added a new line of “wheat-free” (low- gluten) oats. Australian-grown, they have the highly desirable advantage of being sun- ripened and creamier when cooked, says Gooding who’s now making export plans.

    The domestic and international push for buying Australian that grew stronger with the pandemic, along with the emphasis on healthier choices and the provenance of food, “has played to us”, says Gooding.

    Three Farmers — with just three staff — and a vertically integrated “paddock to plate” business model benefits operationally from good communication along the supply chain through partnerships between farmers, processors, manufacturers, brands and major supermarkets. The trio has also partnered with Whipper Snapper Distillery to produce the world’s first quinoa whiskey.

    “People in agriculture tend to keep to their own sector, yet farmers need to know what consumers want,” says Gooding. “Going further up the supply chain with our business has made me see the value of those connections.” It’s one of the motivations for further expanding her horizons with the OnBoard course.

    “There’s not a lot of professional development in agriculture and I see a gap in understanding between agriculture and other industries, although people are affected by it every time they eat,” she says. “I’m interested in bridging those gaps.”

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