Bundarra Berkshires

Looking back at how Bundarra Berkshires evolved Lauren Mathers defines it as ‘madness’ given that she has given birth to three children in the midst of becoming a free-range farmer and exemplifying the paddock to plate dream. Displaying the attributes of a true entrepreneur, it all started when she saw a problem that could be turned into an opportunity. And history keeps repeating itself.

Arriving at the Mathers property near Barham in New South Wales early one brisk Saturday morning mid-winter, it comes as no surprise that bacon and eggs are on the menu. The kids are sleeping in and Lachlan and Lauren are planning their weekend ahead. No football. No socialising. Weekends are the best time for the couple to do the hands-on work required to care for their 400 plus Berkshire pigs.

‘It’s madness when I look back. I used to do it all, but Lachlan stepped in and shared the responsibilities as the children came along,’ explains Lauren. A transport driver for his parents’ company during the week, Lachlan has been pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it has been to get involved in the business that has now built up to become their main source of income. ‘I’m trucks by day and pigs by day, night and weekends,’ he smiles. ‘Dad and husband is in there somewhere as well.’ All jokes aside he adds that he is enjoying his new role.

‘Lachlan is a great salesman and loves chatting with the customers and fellow stallholders,’ Lauren chips in. ‘Until he started coming to the markets with me he’d never seen that side of the business.’

With our plates empty I chat with Lauren over coffee as Lachlan deals with the waking kids. It quickly becomes apparent how her brain operates. Constantly. Very fast. And, there is no doubt, she is a problem solver. ‘If I think of a good idea I just run with it,’ she admits.

OPPORTUNITY #1 Sourcing local quality pork

As a partner in the successful The Long Paddock restaurant established in 2008 at nearby Koondrook on the Victorian side of the Murray River, Lauren had her first experience of small business. The restaurant’s reputation was built on an ethos of sourcing local quality foods but she was having trouble finding tasty pork. This is how Doris first came on the scene.

‘A bloke down the road had a Berkshire pig that he didn’t want any more,’ Lauren explains, ‘so I reckoned I would have a go at breeding my own pork.’ Being raised on a beef cattle farm, however, was of no use whatsoever when it came to collecting the founding member of her breeding stock. With the owner absent Lauren tried to herd the pig – later named Doris - on to the trailer. ‘She was like a wild dog,’ Lauren recalls. ‘My first lesson was in how to bribe pigs with food and make it a positive experience.’

While Doris failed to have any produce for some time, ironically Lauren fell pregnant with her first child. Undeterred, the seed of an idea just grew and grew, fuelled by a bursary as a Rural Ambassador to visit France and see how farmers there sold their produce at markets and the relationship between consumer and farmer.

Eight years since establishing the herd, Lauren now has over 100 sows and 300 piglets at any given time to care for. And, for those of you who are wondering, Doris lived on despite her shortcomings, eventually passing away from natural causes.

OPPORTUNITY #2 Finding customers

‘It was clear when I came back from my trip to France that we needed a local market so I helped to set up Red Gum Group and Farmers’ Market,’ Lauren explains. ‘Now there are lots of Farmers Markets which everyone loves. Until recently we regularly attended the Melbourne markets and will continue to attend the Castlemaine market each month and possibly get back into Melbourne once a month now that Mum and Dad are here to help out.’

In 2011 Lauren started selling the pork and by late 2011 was selling gourmet pork products to retail outlets and at farmers markets. ‘Winning a Delicious Product Award in 2013 was a great kick start,’ she acknowledges.

Bundarra Berkshires has its own website and Farm Shop page outlining products that can either be purchased at one of the listed stockists or delivered through their courier service. Hogfest, held each September, promotes the ‘paddock to plate’ concept and connect customers with their products. Social media has clearly been a winner with a healthy following on Facebook and Instagram. Quality photography assists Lauren to clearly articulate their love of animals and a rural family lifestyle.

‘There are now a lot more micro businesses operating in this field,’ Lauren admits, ‘so now we have to work hard to stay ahead of the game. Over the past two years we have been constantly tweaking our targets. Our space is clean eating so nitrate free and preservative free is where we concentrate our energy on. You have to pick an area and own it,’ she advises.

OPPORTUNITY #3 Controlling supply

While many businesses are transitioning to a lean balance sheet through outsourcing, Lauren believes that agriculture is moving in the opposite direction especially when it comes to clean, green, and ethically produced food. ‘There is too much uncertainty if we don’t,’ she explains.

Keen to know her business every step of the way, she started by helping her preferred butcher at Gunbower to pack her pork products. ‘Tom showed me all the different parts and how to bone out a shoulder. Lucy, our eldest child, was in a pram at the time,’ she recalls. Soon the logistics of taking Lucy to the butchers and struggling to find other butchers to do smoking and sausages for her became stressful and time consuming. Just as their second child, Frida, was born in 2013, Lauren recognised what many would perceive to be a problem as an opportunity. ‘I decided to take control of our own supply.’ Subsequently the shed was cleaned out and a cutting room and smokehouse installed. A year after that a commercial kitchen and air-drying room was added.

Before you start thinking this is all too easy, finance did prove problematic for this second phase of the business so Lauren tried out a Crowd Funding campaign by offering produce in return for advance payments to help fit out the new facilities. ‘The campaign raised more than we aimed for, but I probably wouldn’t do it again,’ she admits.

To help get her started, a friend spent a day instructing Lauren on the different cuts for meat. “For the first three years I butchered on my own with a handsaw which kept costs really low.’ As the demand for product grew a butcher was employed in late 2015, perfect timing to assist with the Christmas rush and, by my calculations, to aid Lauren who was pregnant with George, child number three!

‘To begin with we used what buildings we had but we are outgrowing ourselves now.’ Another problem and/or opportunity for her to think about.

Humane slaughter of the pigs is something that Lauren also feels passionate about especially in the current climate where many abattoirs are closing or denying micro producers access.  After a series of abattoir closures and an increase in road miles impacting on their transport costs of ten pigs each week, Lauren is once again taking a lead in providing a solution. ‘Ideally we’d like to slaughter 15 pigs a week but the logistics are against us because of the truck size.’

In her latest quest, Lauren is part of a group of like-minded farmers in the process of establishing a local cooperative to set up their own micro abattoir. Her vision is shared with the group for it to be staffed with highly skilled personnel operating under an ethos of humane treatment of animals. ‘Offal is another big opportunity to create new products from waste and, as a cooperative, we will also be able to put back into the community,’ Lauren says with a sparkle in her eye.

Much to Lauren’s frustration, problem #4 is still in the process of being turned into an opportunity as the effects of an impending drought start to make their mark. ‘Usually we are knee deep in pasture this time of the year but we’ve had no rain and we’re at the mercy of a feed company. The price of feed has just gone up $100 per tonne.’ Sourcing feed with no animal base has been quite a difficult process so there is no quick fix to this one but I have no doubt that Lauren will keep thinking on it. Expanding their 65-acre farm is one strategy and she has already sub-contracted her parents on a nearby property to grow out pigs for her.

‘I am a thinker,’ Lauren acknowledges. ‘The challenges are what I love. I strive to get it better and stay ahead. As a society we are still so disconnected from our food, but Bundarra Berkshires is pure paddock to plate. It’s pretty amazing.’

Lauren’s top business tips:

  • Have a clear vision of what you want to achieve and stick to it.
  • At the same time, be aware of new opportunities to improve your business and be prepared to change and adapt.
  • Don’t do it if you don’t love it.

http://bundarraberkshires.com.au/


KERRY ANDERSON: Founder of Operation Next Gen and author of Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

15 Acres

We’ve all heard the saying that it takes a village to raise a child, however the Cohuna-Leitchville district in northern Victoria has taken it a step further. They are nurturing and encouraging young entrepreneurs!

January 14, 2018 was a special day for the Taylor family at Leitchville. Not only was it their pop’s birthday, it was the launch of Cooper (12) and Bailey (15) Taylor’s business, 15 Acres.

Their mother Kellie recalls the day that Cooper came home and announced that he had bought a business. ‘You haven’t,’ was her reply. He had. And, after spending some time with Cooper, it is easy to understand how. This gregarious pre-teen doesn’t lack in confidence and I have no doubt that he could sell ice to the Eskimos if required.

For some time prior Cooper had been earning his own pocket money by selling eggs from the twenty chooks he kept at his family home but it was proving to be problematic. ‘People wanted heaps of eggs and I didn’t have enough.’

Having received lots of advice from a ‘mate’ on a nearby property who also produced eggs but on a much larger scale, Cooper was wildly excited when the mate said that he was selling up. When Cooper was offered 160 chooks, two Maremma guard dogs, and two caravans he had no hesitation in saying yes which brings us back to a sudden announcement to his parents that he’d bought a business. ‘Well I haven’t actually paid him yet,’ admits Cooper. ‘But I will one day. He just wanted someone to love the chooks as much as he did. I don’t like factory farms, that is my pet hate.’

At the same time his older brother, Bailey, had been seeking a part time job, not always easy when you live some distance out of town and don’t have a license. This new business presented an opportunity for both brothers. It was then up to the boys to come to an agreement on what their responsibilities would be in the business.

‘Bailey isn’t a morning person,’ Cooper is quick to share. ‘I do the morning chores and most of the infrastructure stuff.’

The much more quietly spoken sibling, Bailey, explains that his role is to collect the eggs at night and look after the larger chooks and dogs. Cooper has been responsible for growing 200 chickens that are about to graduate to free range in the paddock. A bit of disagreement breaks into the conversation at this point. Cooper wants to dispute who is responsible for what. You know; that normal sibling rivalry stuff.

Quickly moving on, I ask: Why call their business 15 Acres? ‘Well the previous business was called 400 Acres,’ Cooper clarifies successfully distracted. So, no need to ask how big their property is then!

Kept safe by the two Maremma dogs, Falcor and Jane, the chooks free range in the paddock while roosting and laying in the caravans that have been converted for their exclusive use by the boys’ Pa. It seems that a number of additional caravans have been donated by various people around the district. A heat lamp was also provided free of charge and another local businessman has offered to build them a website. ‘People are really nice and willing to help,’ Cooper acknowledges.

Everything he has learnt about caring for chooks and preparing eggs for market has been from his mate and from watching videos on You Tube. ‘I haven’t read any books,’ Cooper admits.

Just coming out of the moulting season with reduced eggs to sell, he says that this is a challenge when supplying their customers that includes six local eateries and the Farmers & Made in Cohuna Market on the fourth Sunday of every month. ‘We’ve been offered another caravan that we hope to use for the markets; we just need time to convert it,’ Cooper says. Pa must be busy is what I'm hearing.

Time is definitely a challenge even for teenagers. ‘I’ve got eight hours at school each day including bus travel, and then I’ve got sport as well.’ Cooper glances at the clock as he is due to leave for a football match playing for Leitchville Gunbower Under 12’s very shortly. Sport is extremely important in a rural community.

Let’s talk money I suggest and ask Bailey if it has been worthwhile. ‘I’m glad that I did get involved,’ he says. ‘It’s going well at the moment and we should do well in the future as the layers pick up.’ Usually on a Sunday the boys convene at the kitchen table to assess their cash flow. The profits are split up while leaving a set amount in kitty to cover change and feed costs.

At this point Cooper cuts in to accuse his mother of helping herself to a bit of petty cash on a few occasions. ‘She treats it as an ATM,’ he claims. This argument suddenly falls flat when I ask how much they pay her to cover the transport expenses of delivering the eggs, going to the markets, and collecting the chook feed supplies. 66 cents per kilometre is the going rate I helpfully point as Kellie chuckles in the background. Cooper is momentarily silent.

With another successful diversion in place I wonder how they established their retail price?  ‘We started at $5 per dozen but put it up to $6 for the market,’ Cooper bounces back. He is clear on what their expenses are. ‘It costs $450 to fill the big container,’ he explains. ‘If we bought 20kg bags it would cost a lot more so we buy in bulk which reduces the cost per kilo.’

Kellie has helped the boys to establish a business page on Facebook and a business card; however, it seems that word of mouth is pretty much doing the job for them.

It would appear that everyone in the district is keen to nurture more young people to experience and develop business skills, and these two enterprising brothers are only too happy to take up the challenge.


KERRY ANDERSON: Founder of Operation Next Gen and author ofEntrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

OPERATION NEXT GEN COHUNA:  Read on if you'd like to know more about how you can establish your own collaborative entrepreneurial ecosystem.  READ MORE

Digital Impact on Ag

Digital technology has been quietly transforming Australian agriculture for the past few decades and is now extending to the outback and making impact in ways previously not anticipated. Education, collaboration, security, monitoring, and improved efficiencies are making a big difference in a highly competitive and risk filled environment, which is why our primary producers are jumping on board.

Back in 2015 I organised a professional development day for secondary school teachers alerting them to new career and business opportunities in rural Australia. Gareth Evans spoke to us via skype from O’Connors in Birchip. Far from moving away from the action when he left his city job to return to rural Victoria, Gareth spoke about how he has witnessed an explosion of new technology related systems supporting Australia’s agriculture industry. ‘O’Connors maintains a series of surveyed base stations strategically located throughout SA, VIC and NSW supplying a RTK signal capable of delivering 2cm accuracy,’ he explained. ‘Precision Ag means that farmers can now monitor their entire fleet on a screen and communicate with machines via live telemetrics.’

Chatting more recently on the phone with an older generation Riverina based rice grower, he told me how he was transferring data from his tractor to his agronomist’s office by email. In short, all modern farm machinery requires a level of digital literacy on the part of farmers. And this needs to be backed up by technicians trained to service these increasingly complex machines and analyse the big data they can produce.

What was initially viewed as a novelty or purely educational is now becoming serious business as the potentials are realised.

My colleague, Tim Gentle from the Think Digital Coach has been touring cattle industry events the past few months with a virtual reality experience aimed at inspiring more young people to take up farming. Initially it’s a far reach for cattle farmers but it starts to make sense when Tim spells out the possibilities and they are quickly being taken up. Virtual Reality videos can be used to help promote and sell animals, machinery and properties to buyers who are located hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away. They can also be used to induct staff in a real life, yet safe, environment.

Cost efficiencies and shared risk is seeing a resurgence in agriculture cooperatives and collaborations seeking to drive innovation and improve farm gate returns.

Funded by the Australian Government, the Farming Together Program has supported almost 500 groups with collaborative projects over the past two years. One of the projects has enabled the Birchip Cropping Group to evaluate a digital agricultural cooperative. Unless you are extremely tech savvy it is hard to know what the best choices are. Ultimately the aim is to give farmers access to trusted sources to provide increasingly complex digital technology.

As our climate continues to change and water becomes more expensive, sustainable farming practices and monitoring are becoming more important.

And, as wages increase and staff numbers fall, real time data enables farmers to better manage their crops, livestock and pastures. Progressive young cattle producers like David and Rebecca Comiskey at Melton in central Queensland have already adopted the basics and are keen to do more. With minimal staff and 8,500 hectares to monitor, apps on their smart phones currently help them to monitor their solar powered stock fences and water storage as part of their introduced rotational grazing system. They can even monitor rainfall while away from the property which helps with their planning and enables them to enjoy important recreation time.

Security on remote properties is another increasing concern.

Viewers of the acclaimed Mystery Road may have noticed camera footage from water trough locations around the Western Australian property that featured in the series and provided key clues to the disappearance of two young stockmen. Far from fiction, this is an actual tool that assists farmers Australia wide, not only with monitoring but security. Fixed cameras provide sheep breeder, Jock MaCrae in central Victoria with live feed of his assets via his smart phone. Gate monitors alert him to unusual activity and there is potential for tags to also be placed on key stock to alert him to mob movement that could indicate a dog attack or theft. All this can be verified before leaving a warm bed and driving out into the paddocks.

Improved efficiencies is essential when growing animals or crops and manufacturing related products in large quantities.

At Pentagon Feeds in northern Victoria, an infra-red machine, the size of a little computer, gives them the ability to scan incoming samples of grain, and translate the imagery into data that is then emailed to their nutritionist for analysis. Another piece of technology then accurately sprays up to an additional 4 percent of fat coating around the food pellets. A nutritionist uses the information from this equipment to formulate appropriate rations for each class of pig.

And of course digital technology is an absolute blessing for smaller producers entering niche markets.

They are able to market and sell their produce world-wide. Simply Rose Petals in northern Victoria was an early adopter of technology to transform a cut flower business into packaged rose petals for weddings and events. Sales via a website and intensive use of social media has taken their product into 15 countries. In another great example, Lauren Mathers from southern New South Wales had a vision of a herd of free roaming black heritage pigs rooting about improving the soil.  Bundarra Berkshires was subsequently born and now she sells quality pork products online and through farmers markets.

Slowly the National Broadband Network is being rolled out to the regions with wireless tower options providing access for more rural properties, however, connectivity remains a big issue in many areas.

Thankfully, there are many instances of those willing to work with innovators, finding their way around these issues.

William Creek in South Australia took the option of lobbying in Canberra and getting Optus to allocate satellite access to their tiny town.  In another partnership with Richmond Shire Council, a broadband internet service, Wi-Sky, was generated for Queensland cattle producers and now services 50 customers across a 20,000 square kilometre radius. Not only is this connecting farmers but also their children to School of the Air which has long struggled to deliver online services to many of their remote customers unable to download videos and big files.

Slade Beard from Eco Thought is approaching this same problem for remote stations through the development of smart farm sensor and control systems powered by a radio-based network with low bandwidth Wi-Fi over long distances. He plans to utilise old windmills to hosting radio masts and is now rigorously testing the hardware to ensure it can stand up to Australia’s harsh weather conditions.

Even in the more highly populated and smaller state of Victoria, issues still arise with connectivity. ‘Neighbours separated by a single hill are finding that one is eligible for high speed internet services while the other is relegated to either congested Next-G or slow and expensive satellite services,” explains Grant Sutton from Ag Cloud. His company has developed a solar-powered broadband repeating system that allows a daisy-chain radio network to be realised. In plain English, this means that farmers can extend their high speed internet reach to parts of their properties previously not able to take advantage of digital technology.

Even to a casual observer like myself, each year the agricultural industry is venturing more and more into what was previously viewed as science fiction. Digital technology is big business from one end of this big country to the other.


Just discovered this blog from the CSRIO with a more expert opinion! https://blog.csiro.au/digital-agriculture-whats-all-the-fuss-about/


KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE http://www.kerryanderson.com.au/about/

Fast tracked rural careers

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CAREERS can be fast tracked in rural areas. Just ask Gareth Webb of Birchip. When I first spoke to him back in 2015 he was preparing to accompany a group of cropping farmers on a study tour of North America. “I’m working” he reassured me in the most serious voice he could muster.

Raised on a farm near Natimuk, Gareth attended the local primary school then secondary college in Horsham. Following university in Melbourne he then pursued a career in commerce getting a taste of the city life and gathering funds to source his passion for travel. Travelling through Turkey aged 23 years he came to the conclusion that he didn’t want to sit in an office for the rest of his life and started planning for the alternative upon his return.

'Coming from a farm I am attracted to the open spaces,' he admits. 'I started researching farm machinery companies and in 2004 joined O’Connor’s Birchip branch working in sales.' The added advantage was moving back to a rural area. 'You get community in a small town,' says Gareth.

Over a ten year period the award winning O’Connors has fast tracked Gareth’s career promoting him to branch manager and, most recently, to Group After-Sales Executive overseeing six branches across Victoria and South Australia.

Far from moving away from the action of big city enterprises Gareth has witnessed an explosion of new technology related systems supporting Australia’s agriculture industry to innovate and retain its status as a serious competitor in a global market.

O’Connors maintains a series of surveyed base stations strategically located throughout SA, VIC and NSW supplying a RTK signal capable of delivering 2cm accuracy. Precision Ag means that farmers can now monitor their entire fleet on a screen and communicate with machines via live telemetrics.

With skills shortages in many rural areas Gareth is living proof of how a career can be fast tracked. 'There is so much more potential in rural areas,” he says. “Do something you love and you will go a lot further in life.'

And what about city versus rural living? Gareth’s advice to young people from rural areas is to move to the city and travel before making long term plans. 'You don’t appreciate home until you’ve been somewhere else.'


KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Top Ten Percent

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‘Aim to be the top 10 percent of any industry and you will do well,’ advises Tom Smith from Yarrawalla in north-central Victoria.  Supported by wife Val and their children, the Smith family has transformed a traditional family farm into five companies that employ over 40 full time staff to care for 2,000 sows and their piglets. By milling and mixing all their stock feed, they have complete control from farrowing to finish.

As pigs were always a small part of his father’s mixed farming activities, Tom was familiar with caring for them as what is now seen as in a very primitive way. When he and Val married in 1971, a $40,000 loan was sought but rejected by the bank at the time. Rural Finance also rejected the application suggesting it was too big of a risk. Fortunately, the family were supportive.

With keen business intuition and a willingness to experiment Tom’s dad took full advantage of any assistance on offer.  Purchasing of the pigs was funded with the assistance of a stock agency veto over stock.  Fortunately for the Smiths, Gippsland was experiencing a bumpy year in drought terms, so they were also able to increase cash flow through hay sales and establish their new business with 100 sows.

‘Oddly enough,’ Tom reflects, ‘several years later with the piggery functioning, we applied for a loan to Rural Finance, and they knocked us back because we were in a good enough position to borrow from the commercial banks.’

The government at the time also saw pigs as a potential industry and invested considerable dollars through the Department of Agriculture.  'This benefited us enormously, says Tom. 'Department staff helped us to select breeding stock; they had an engineer on staff to design shedding, nutritionists to assist with the feed formulations, absolutely top veterinarians, pathologists and field officers. It was an incredible time of development. The industry has been very good to us.’

In 2016 there was an estimated $8 million of capital improvements on the books indicating that the Smith family don’t do things by halves. ‘There has never been a time where we have said we want to get bigger,’ admits Tom, ‘it has just evolved. All increases have been about improving.’  

It also goes without saying that a lot of hard work and sacrifice helped their business to ‘evolve’. Val has worked right from the beginning in the farrowing and training areas of the business and says that she learned to ask ‘lots of questions’.

Their children were brought up to be independent. ‘They got themselves ready for school, made their own lunches and beds from prep year onwards,’ Val explains. She would leave the piggery in time to take to them to school bus. ‘Life was a lot simpler for families back then. Kids entertained themselves.’

‘They were great kids and very dependable,’ agrees Tom.

Instilling strong work ethics has had positive outcomes for their now adult children. Their sons, Jarad and Caleb, are actively involved and buying a portion each of the business while daughter Jeannie and her husband lease the land and farm in their own right.  Another daughter, Kellie, is a veterinarian and part owner of a practice in Eaglehawk.

Attracting good staff was a major challenge as their companies expanded.  In 2010, Tom advertised in the Manilla Times attracting four quality staff and making a significant difference.  They now have 22 workers from the Philippines on their books.

‘Working with pigs is a chosen career path in the Philippines,’ explains Tom. ‘Although not quite at a formal Australian veterinary standard, they are well educated in this industry and have a positive attitude to their work.’

As the business and family has simultaneously grown, succession planning has always been at back of the mind for Tom who wanted to find a better way than what he experienced with his father and four brothers.  A partnership with one brother and his father existed until 1994 when it became time to move in different directions. Tom took on the piggery and the other brother took much of the land previously owned by their parents.

‘For succession, my dad’s idea was an insurance policy to cover the payout on his death with my brother and I paying the premium,’ Tom explains. ‘The property was valued and that value divided into five and the value increased equivalent to CPI each year. Upon reflection I think it would have been better settled when my brother and I first took control of the farming activities.’

‘All along Val and I have told our children that there is no such thing as an inheritance,’ says Tom. ‘Kids in this day and age are in a much better position to earn more. 

Having said that Tom admits that they have already given the kids what they are to get of their inheritance. ‘It was easy to do. The returns (lease payments) on what the boys haven’t paid for on our death goes to charity until purchased entirely.  As a future owner of the company you have to be active in the company,’ he adds. With the saying “three generations from riches to rags” in mind, Tom’s theory is that you will always have a second generation if the potential owners have to commit financially and be active in management.

One of the best decisions Tom claims he made of his career was the setting up of an advisory board providing Tom, Val and the boys with an outside perspective. ‘It was important for us to recognise the strengths in the boys and give them freedom to speak their mind, not just be a father son relationship,’ says Tom who is also clear on his role as he starts to contemplate retirement.

No doubt the transition from a family farm partnership into a more complex company environment that includes Kia-Ora Piggery, Kia-Ora Breeding, Walla Environmental Solutions (waste products), Sixth Gralloch Holdings (employment service company), and Goldfield Pork (wholesaling pork), hasn’t been without its bumps and challenges, both financially and emotionally.  Fortunately, Tom’s history of making good decisions has stood them in good stead.

In 2009/10, despite the pork industry shrinking 30 percent while Tom and Val were investing millions of dollars, they managed to retain the confidence of their bank manager. ‘It is extra tough when pork prices are down and grain prices are up,’ says Tom. ‘This has happened on several occasions, making it tough for all producers.’

A firm believer in utilising whatever is available to you, Tom has put SPC Ardmona waste products to good use, feeding the contents to the stock and recycling the tin. This required over a $1 million investment to set up the process, however, 18,000 pallets of tins over 18 months recycling up to 50 tonne a day has made it worthwhile.

Always keen to innovate, Tom’s latest project is the installation of a bio gas system to take advantage of the huge amounts of pig affluent generated onsite. Impressively, it has the capacity to reduce greenhouse emissions by 81 per cent and generate more than 115 per cent of the site’s electricity needs, with the excess potentially being sold into the power grid as a greenhouse gas offset.

A touch of competitiveness has encouraged Tom to take up benchmarking opportunities along the way. Thanks to their hard work and diligence, today the Smith family are a competitive player in the pork industry and ranked within the top three of their industry. 

Tom’s top business tips:

  • Aim for the top ten percent of any industry.
  • Have a vision.
  • Utilise any resources available to you including professional advice.
  • Communicate openly and often.
  • Your staff are your biggest asset. Care for them and they will care for you.
  • Organise your succession, whether with your family or even top managerial staff early in your business path. The sooner the easier with family. They then know what to expect.

READ MORE bio-gas plant


KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE http://www.kerryanderson.com.au/about/

The Sultana Sisters

BY KERRY ANDERSON

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Armed with university degrees, for the first time in their life Mildura sisters, Katerina and Ivana Blekic, have jobs away from the family’s vineyard.  However, far from turning their back on agriculture, they are spending every spare minute working on their new business enterprise, The Sultana Sisters.  In an industry dominated by large international companies they have carefully crafted their brand to attract a local and online market.

When John Blekic, a migrant from Croatia, planted his first vines on the outskirts of Mildura in the late 1950’s, I wonder if he knew that 60 years later his two grand-daughters would be branding themselves as The Sultana Sisters?

While most kids went to playgroup and kindergarten, Katerina and Ivana, grew up working alongside their parents in the family vineyard.  Today, aged 22 and 24 years, they are busy establishing the building blocks of their own business enterprise, The Sultana Sisters.  With picking almost completed the next exciting step is to pack and launch their new brand.

I caught up with Katerina and Ivana on Good Friday, one of the few days of the year the family downs tools.  With half of this year’s family crop sitting in the sheds, they are praying for no rain (it darkens the fruit) and anticipate that by Easter Monday they will have the second half picked. A small portion of this year’s family crop has been allocated to The Sultana Sisters to launch their new Australian brand up against an increasingly global market.

‘We have a big vision,’ says Katerina, ‘but we’re starting off small and seeing where it goes.’

They officially formed the business in March 2017 and gave away lots of samples to test the market. ‘We are taking the time to get to know our market and ourselves personally as a brand,’ Ivana confirms.

Not happy with their initial branding as Mallee Dried Fruits they invested in a graphic designer who understood their vision and now they are excitedly waiting for the new packaging to arrive. ‘It’s unique packaging, printed with a bright colour on craft paper with plastic lining and a clear window to display the product,’ Ivana explains. ‘We want it to come across as vibrant and fun.’

They are very clear on their need to differentiate in a global market and also understand that it won’t happen overnight.

‘Mildura produces a large quantity of Australia’s dried fruits and is home to many large corporations,’ says Katerina. ‘By comparison we’re a small fish in a big sea so we want to be different. We’re family owned, and we’re involved in the whole process from planting, to the pruning and training of the vines, as well as the picking and packaging of the end product.’

‘We’re aiming to provide a fresh look to the market,’ says Ivana. ‘And we’re big planners,’ adds Katerina. ‘We want to do this right.’

With Ivana’s accounting and legal background checking each step, Katerina has set up a website using a Squarespace template in preparation for online sales.  ‘There is a lot of behind the scenes work that we both converse on,’ says Ivana who takes on the responsibility for the accounting side of the business while Katerina’s high social media presence is giving them a good head start with the marketing.

In 2017 Katerina was both a National Rural Ambassador finalist for the Agriculture Show and a Leo (youth) Lion giving her access to state and nation-wide networks.  Her photographs on Instagram and Facebook taken amongst the vines and machinery are creating lots of interest. ‘I’m documenting a day in the life of what we do in the vineyard,’ Katerina explains.

Bridging the divide between consumers and farmers is a personal quest for both sisters who are also dreaming of one day producing a book featuring The Sultana Sisters as a way of reaching young people and sharing their passion for agriculture. 

Both Katerina and Ivana completed their degrees by correspondence allowing them to continue working full time in the family vineyards while studying.  2018 is the first time they have both worked off farm.  Far from detracting from their interest in agriculture, one gets the sense that it is giving them a better perspective of the markets they intend to reach through their new business.

Upon completing her degree in Community and Sustainable Development in February, Katerina was offered a place in the Ruralco Graduate Program. Passionate about social justice, Ivana is putting her law and accounting degree to good use as a tenant advocate for Haven Home Safe covering the region from Mildura to Kerang.

On weekends, and sometimes even before and after their paid work, the sisters are busy out in the vineyard and working on their business. They can clearly explain the different techniques for naturally dried sultanas on the vine which are dark in colour as opposed to the golden sultanas that are put through a wetting machine and sprayed with pot ash and oil to get their unique colour. Even though the change from flood to drip irrigation took place 18 years ago when both were toddlers, they also talk about what a significant improvement this has been. No-one needs reminding they have grown up in the industry.

Currently they are converting a building into a new operation centre and office. They plan to use the top level themselves leaving the ground floor for their parents and a store front. ‘I love working in spaces that are bright and creative,’ Katerina admits.

They have established a cashless system in preparation for the launch of their product at Farmer’s Markets around the region. ‘We’re very big on apple products,’ says Katerina, ‘and decided on the Square range of devices that plug into your iPhone and provide point of sale software.’

Bakeries plus health food and corner stores are other potential customers in addition to direct sales. ‘While investors and super farms exist in the region, we want to show that smaller growers can be sustainable if they deal direct,’ says Katerina.

With the benefit of growing up in the family vineyard and their individual skills and networks, these two enterprising sisters are building on the strong foundations set in place by Grandpa Blekic and their parents, adding their own unique building blocks to the Sunraysia business landscape. As the bins are filled and the new packaging is delivered, prepare yourselves for The Sultana Sisters’ new product proudly bearing the ‘Made in Australia’ logo scheduled to hit the market in May 2018.

https://sultanasisters.com.au/


KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE http://www.kerryanderson.com.au/about/

Year of the Camel

Camel Milk Co Chris & Megan 2018.JPG

2018 is going to be the ‘Year of the Camel’ according to Chris and Megan Williams of Camel Milk Co. Australia. While there is no official proclamation, indications are that their Kyabram based business is going to make it worthy of such accolades.

With traditional dairy businesses under pressure it is no surprise that rural communities are rapidly diversifying and becoming home to a wider range of micro businesses. But camels? Seriously? Two questions that immediately came to mind for me were: 1) How on earth do you milk a camel? and 2) Why on earth would you want to?

A road trip on a hot January morning to the Camel Milk Co. Australia near Kyabram helped answer these two questions for me.  The ‘How?’ was easily resolved by arriving right on milking time.

Which brings us to the ‘Why?’

We managed to wrangle Chris off a tractor to sit down with Megan so I could hear first-hand their fascinating story, delivered in half sentences that they finish for each other, a charming testimony to a shared passion. And, to their secret delight, I unwittingly request milk when offered a coffee.

From modest beginnings in 2014 with 3 camels on 100 acres, Chris and Megan have expanded their business to nearly 250 camels on 480 acres with plans to expand even further.  Straight away this indicates what a success story it has been but not without the usual risk and hard work associated with a start-up business.

Working with Megan’s parents on their Victorian dairy farm, the newly married couple were looking for something different but still agricultural based.  While researching what they could do, their family expanded with the arrival of three active boys within a period of less than four years.

‘We were looking at getting our own farm and getting the work-life balance going,’ says Chris. ‘It was important to us to have a sustainable income and not have all our eggs in the one basket.’  Initially they looked at miniature Herefords and goats but eventually they settled on camels.

To understand why camels were their beast of choice we have to back pedal to when they first met in 2008.  Chris had just immigrated from the United Kingdom to work on a cattle station east of Alice Springs and Megan was driving tourist coaches. They met in a pub in Alice Springs; as you do.

In what appears to be love at first sight, Megan jumped ship - or coach to be accurate - and started working with Chris on Andado Station where they frequently came across camels roaming wild.  A subsequent fascination grew with these majestic animals that were imported in the 19th Century to help build the telegraph from Adelaide to Darwin, and eventually abandoned to roam free and breed to feral proportions. 

When the couple moved to Megan’s family property in Victoria where drought, rising expenses, and declining income, has seen the water dependent dairy industry struggle; they brought with them the knowledge that camels survive well in the harshest of climates.  But surely milking camels was unheard of in Victoria?

‘Dad always says that if you are a farmer you are one of the biggest gamblers in the world,’ laughs Megan.  ‘We didn’t know for sure if there was a market,’ she acknowledges but, incredibly, as soon as word got out there was a waiting list before they even started producing milk. 

What started out as Camel Milk Victoria was soon rebranded Camel Milk Australia Co. when it turned out that fresh camel’s milk is highly sought by a large middle eastern customer base in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth through fine grocers and boutique stalls.

‘In their countries camel milk is a staple,’ says Megan. ‘Australia has a huge advantage over other countries because we have disease free camels.  Once you have a recognised brand in Australia then it is trusted overseas as well.’

As a result they are already exporting milk to Hong Kong and Singapore with supplies about to also hit Iran.  A shortage in the United States is another opportunity they are currently pursuing.

With high protein and low fat, camel’s milk is also attractive to the fitness market.  Sipping the coffee I requested at the start of our interview, it doesn’t even occur to me that I’m drinking camel’s milk until pointed out by Megan.  My initial thought is that it tastes very similar to skim milk.

Having resolved the ‘How’ and ‘Why?’ we turn to the many challenges of starting a new business enterprise, not to mention such an unusual one.

Their initial test pilot with three camels proved that they were on to a solid business idea so it was time to purchase more land and more camels.  Your bank would be more than willing to help? I ask the question tongue in cheek and inevitably Megan fires up.

‘You see bank adverts that encourage you to do something new, niche and innovative but it’s a load of crock!  We changed banks and it was positive for a while but the final decision was made by people in the city who have no idea.’ Instead, the sale of some dairy heifers they were growing helped them get started.

Not relying on finance and taking a ‘stepping stones’ approach turned out to be a huge positive.  ‘We had to make the money before we could spend it,’ explains Chris. ‘The advantage is that we own everything,’ adds Megan. ‘It’s good to grow into business, not go into business.’

Sourcing camels has also been tricky. ‘It’s not as easy as buying dairy heifers,’ Chris admits. Usually they are mustered directly from the outback. Their specification of a pregnant female camel hasn’t always been adhered to resulting in one truck load arriving that included bulls and calves and had to be sent back.  Where possible they now go and help draft the camels when they are mustered. 

Another constant challenge is, with a fourteen-month gestation, trying to guess at what stage of the pregnancy a camel is at.  Now that they have their own bulls and breeding program this is becoming a little easier.  Feed issues were overcome by finding a ‘fantastic nutritionist who helped us formulate their diet.’

The fact that the majority of camels are wild or semi wild is a significant challenge that also requires dedicated and skilled staff.  When the couple first advertised for an experienced camel milker it caused much laughter, but social media and word of mouth got results.

‘In any business its hard to find good staff but doing something niche like we do, they first have to have an absolute love of camels and some skills from being around camels,’ explains Megan. ‘It’s easy to train people who already have a passion.’  

As a result, they have a very multicultural workforce with the majority of their seven staff members having either lived or travelled in countries that have camels.  When it is time for them to move on, they are often able to recommend someone else to take their place helping out with the recruitment process.

Meeting stringent Australian food production and handling regulations is a necessary evil for any dairy business that Chris and Megan willingly undertook including installation of a pasteuriser plant and cool room.

Both have an Advanced Diploma in Agriculture which has helped them along the way but doing their own research and connecting with the right people in the industry has been crucial to their business success.  Attending trade fairs has been a productive investment.

Finding an independent niche distributor took some time and was aided by the many connections formed at a Naturally Good Expo in Sydney.  ‘We did it ourselves at first,’ says Chris. ‘Started with a Wayco in the back of the car then upgraded to a refrigerated vehicle.’  Thankfully, they now enjoy a friendly twice a week pick up by Melbourne based Metro Milk that simultaneously provides a service many other small producers in rural Victoria.

Once the business expanded into an international market, it became evident that their customers like a range, not just one product.  In addition to fresh camel’s milk, they now also sell soaps, lip balms, body butters, liquid soaps and powdered milk.  Research and development continues with a current focus on introducing camel cheese and chocolate products, no mean feat with up to six months required to get to point of sale.

‘We have a lot of money tied up in this that we can only hope to get back,’ Chris admits.

‘Yes, it’s a bit of a gamble,’ Megan agrees, ‘particularly ensuring that we have enough milk to meet demand. We have to meet all the regulations, produce samples, test the market, get customer feedback, and design packaging before we can even start selling.’

Outsourcing some aspects of the business was a wise decision made early on.  A professional is contracted to look after their website and the non-fresh products are packaged offsite.

Despite all the challenges of setting up and continuing to grow Camel Milk Australia Co., Chris and Megan have no doubt that they are on the right track.

‘It’s very exciting being our own bosses and doing something different,’ admits Megan.

‘We’re constantly learning,’ agrees Chris, ‘and we’re making a living from something we’ve made from scratch. There’s money in everything if you do it properly.’

Putting back into the community is something else that they enjoy. ‘Employing people and bringing them to live in Kyabram probably gives the pub a lot of business,’ Chris smiles. ‘We also bring visitors to town, give tours of the farm and point out other nearby attractions’ Megan adds.  A recent feature on the ABC’s Landline program is giving them and the district added exposure.

‘We all need to understand the ramifications of what happens to rural towns when local agriculture isn’t supported,’ says Megan.

Being able to have their boys, aged 5, 4 and 2 ½, close at hand has always been a priority. While a nanny comes in daily to allow them both to work in the business, the boys often join them when feeding out the camels and every day they have meals together.

‘We want them to grow up and have opportunities. Already they are learning lots of skills as a normal part of their life,’ says Chris.  No doubt their eldest son, will be able to tell his prep class about the ‘Year of the Camel’ as he starts school February!

Chris and Megan’s top business tips:

  • Do your research.
  • Be passionate about what you are doing.
  • Educate yourself on what you are going to do.
  • Don’t doubt yourself.
  • Be a problem solver.

VISIT THE CAMEL MILK CO AUSTRALIA WEBSITE


KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Rural Co-operatives

Cooperatives are a common solution for rural producers to pool their resources to take on big industry. And the benefits for rural communities are immense as I've written about previously READ MORE

However, a couple of more recent conversations are worthy of bringing to your attention hence this new blog.

The first is a field trip I undertook in Ford County a couple of weeks ago with Joann Knight, Executive Director of Dodge City & Ford County Development Corporation.  The scale is truly immense in this major cattle processing region along with the new emerging wind energy industry.

The second is the recent Farming Together Conference I attended in Adelaide during May 2017 where a new (and free) tool was launched to assist groups to develop a cooperative.  ACCESS TOOL

There is no doubt that rural industries and communities working together with a good business plan can be very lucrative.


KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. She is also an expert adviser for the Farming Together Pilot Program. READ MORE http://www.kerryanderson.com.au/about/

Business instincts

 Kate Tol enjoying the country life at Mount Mitchell - photo credit Stefanie Driscoll

Kate Tol enjoying the country life at Mount Mitchell - photo credit Stefanie Driscoll

When lifestyle becomes a priority how do you balance it with a viable business? Simon and Kate Tol are in the process of finding out if their instincts are on track having just eighteen months ago, taken ownership of the historic property Mount Mitchell near Lexton, in the north-west district of Victoria.

As a youngster living in Geelong Simon Tol recalls driving along the Sunraysia Highway to visit his grandparent’s farm at Donald. “Two bachelors live there,” his father told him once as they passed Mount Mitchell, “and they store their grain in the ballroom.”

While the grand house, built in 1861 and expanded in 1910, was hardly visible from the road, that bizarre story stuck in Simon’s mind. It is hardly surprising that four decades later he and wife Kate were attracted by an advertisement in The Weekly Times seeking expressions of interest for the very same historic property, now reduced to 800 fertile acres.

The timing was right. Simon had been running his own successful plumbing and construction business for ten years, mainly in the commercial space, and was ready for a change.

“I hated the paperwork; having to be compliant, and the whole tender process,” he admits. “You’d work hard, sometimes for three or four years at a time on a big job, and then have to spend a couple of years trying to get paid.”

Kate, who was the Head of Physical Education/Health at The Geelong College for 24 years, in addition to renovating various properties with Simon, was also ready for a new challenge. “We both ran out of projects and were ready to do something else. Neither of us are good at sitting around.”

An inspection of Mount Mitchell revealed that the land was leased out for cropping while the 27-room house, complete with 18 fireplaces and 10 acres of gardens, had been lovingly restored over a 34 year period by Richard Salter. Quite literally Richard, a successful New South Wales grazier with a past family connection to the property, had saved it from the previous bachelor farmers who typically only valued the land and allegedly slept in their car at night, because it was warmer than the house and had a wireless.

“Everywhere we looked, we were amazed,” says Kate recalling their first visit. “We already had a picture-perfect home in Geelong and we were looking for something unique.” Mount Mitchell hit the mark for both of Simon and Kate, while Richard was assured that they would make perfect custodians.

So strong were their instincts, an unconditional offer was made on the property immediately following their second inspection. A six-month settlement allowed them to release their assets to meet the sale requirements and plan for their exciting move with the family.

Lifestyle has proven to be an important component of their decision and not for themselves but for their three children; Will aged 18, Sophie aged 16, and Harry aged 10.

“We wanted our children to have the opportunity to be more hands on,” explains Kate. In other words, everyone is required to pitch in!  Sophie is also raising seven calves in her own little business enterprise. “We’ve all got involved in the local community and are loving country life.”

“We don’t miss the hustle and bustle of Geelong at all,” confirms Simon who has just been elected President of the Waubra Football Club following a term as Vice President.

“So, let’s talk about your business plan for Mount Mitchell,” I suggest.

While Simon promptly informs me that they don’t have one, Kate is more forthcoming. Informal planning and bouncing ideas off each other is part of their daily life.

“We love living here but it still has to be viable. While Richard, the previous owner was very private, we have opened Mount Mitchell up to the community,” she explains. “For the moment, we are focusing on farming produce, events, and accommodation.”

Making the transition from construction to farming could be considered a risk, however, Simon has been fortunate to accumulate some useful skills over the years.

“I got my wool classing certificate in the 1990’s and a few years ago we purchased 250 acres at Moonambel as a weekender and loved it so much that we purchased the adjacent farm,” he explains.

Simon is particularly grateful to their new neighbours at Mount Mitchell. “They’ve been just wonderful with their advice and support.”

His first challenge was to restore the 800 acres previously planted with crops into pasture for prime lamb production. Fortunately, they already had sufficient farming machinery from the Moonambel property and Simon’s construction equipment also came in handy.

Sheep are an important part of the property’s history. Original owners along with assigned convicts, drove forty-eight merino rams down from Elizabeth Farm in New South Wales to Mount Mitchell in 1838. While the current homestead wasn’t constructed until 1861, there were numerous shepherd huts and outbuildings to service the 21,000 acres. Mount Mitchell was established only three years after Melbourne. An early map of the district notes the Adelaide to Geelong Road highlighting that Ballarat didn’t exist at that time.

With the paddock to plate concept becoming more popular world-wide, Simon and Kate were delighted to be introduced to Melbourne based Executive Chef, Ian Curley, who wants to stock their product in his restaurants. Not only their prime lamb but also the produce from their large kitchen garden.

Kate has spent the first year of their property ownership shadowing the gardener of 17 years learning the ropes and has recently taken on the responsibility of maintaining the 10 acres of gardens with some help from contract gardeners.

“My first Christmas present at Mount Mitchell was an eighty metre bore,” she laughs. “Installing an underground sprinkler system is next on my wish list.”

When it comes to events the Tol’s still value Mount Mitchell as their family home and the homestead is strictly off limits. They are targeting outdoor events utilising the extensive garden spaces and historic outbuildings such as the National Trust listed stable block.

“We are deliberately aiming for events at the exclusive end of the market,” Kate explains. “We want to retain Mount Mitchell as a high-quality brand. It’s such a unique place and essential that we don’t over expose it.”

While a coordinator is engaged to look after weddings, Kate and Simon take on most of the other events which include visits by various clubs and outdoor luncheons for groups. Just recently Kate took a film producer on a familiarisation tour, opening up new possibilities. Maybe Doctor Blake will pay a house visit, or an Australian version of Downton Abbey?

The Tol’s are fast learning that some types of events take more work than others. “We just get in casual help when we need it,” says Kate.

For a privileged few that want to stay longer and soak up the magic of Mount Mitchell, there is a historic cottage and brick veneer family home available for casual hire. Kate continues to manage their Moonambel property which is also available for luxury Australian bush experiences.

It becomes evident during our conversation that the Tol’s are good at connecting with the right people and that those relationships are helping to strengthen their vision for Mount Mitchell. In the initial stages, they employed Kate Davis, an events coordinator, that helped establish the brand and get them established. Each discussion leads them to someone else.

“Everyone gets as passionate about Mount Mitchell as we are,” says Kate. “It’s just such a special place. There are moments I love, every day. We are constantly pinching ourselves!”

Kate continues to access workshops and courses as time permits, continually building on her skills and exploring new ideas, as they seek that sweet spot between business and lifestyle.

Marketing through the Pyrenees Tourism Board, Visit Ballarat, and word of mouth referrals are proving most effective.

One gets the impression that Kate and Simon have spent their lives up until this point gathering all the appropriate knowledge and skills required to make Mount Mitchell a viable business. Their skills complement each other and they aren’t afraid to take on something new. Following their instincts may not be such a risk after all.

“Always challenged, rarely defeated,” quips Simon. “We are learning as we go and only take sensible risks.”

And then there is their other motivation.

“The house just seems to love us,” says Kate. “I think it needed children, noise, parties and skateboards!”

“There is no way I’d go back, to my previous life!” agrees Simon.

 Simon and Kate’s Business Tips:

  • Just do it!
  • Have fun.
  • Get involved and give back to your local community.

http://www.mountmitchell.com.au/

ANDERSON Kerry Book 2016 1 ols.jpg

KERRY ANDERSON: Author of ‘Entrepreneurship: It’s Everybody’s Business,’ Kerry works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Kerry recently published her first book with 20 inspiring case studies for rural communities and business people READ MORE

Rural NBN Innovation

 Grant Sutton, co-founder of AgCloud that is addressing NBN inequalities in rural Australia

Grant Sutton, co-founder of AgCloud that is addressing NBN inequalities in rural Australia

AS we often say out in the bush, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Having never personally done so I repeat this at face value, but I can testify as to how innovative rural people are when it comes to problem solving. Such is the case when it comes to the National Broadband Network (NBN) and the inequitable service being presented to rural Australia.

LAST spring, amidst the green rolling hills of central Victoria, a group of farmers was given a sneak preview of a solar-powered broadband repeating system that allows a daisy-chain radio network to be realised. The prototype has been developed by a Bendigo based start-up, aptly named AgCloud.

Showcasing his new purpose built shearing shed and workshop, fourth generation stud merino breeder, Jock MacRae, set the scene by describing his frustration at not being able to utilise the full benefits of the NBN in his business.

Empathising with Jock’s frustration and that of many other rural clients in similar circumstances, Grant Sutton, a self-employed IT professional from Bendigo, recognised the problem and, with the help of some colleagues, found a solution.

“Grant was able to help us connect to the NBN when most providers were saying it couldn’t be done. Once connected to the residence, he was able to take it via a hilltop to the farm infrastructure a few kilometers down the road at Elphinstone,” explains Jock.

“This has delivered low cost high speed internet right across the farm.  From operations in the sheep yards and cattle yards, the workshop and shearing shed, right down to the monitoring of an individual animal, this is the solution I had been looking for.”

Grant says that Jock's case is just one of many.

“Neighbours separated by a single hill are finding that one is eligible for high speed internet services while the other is relegated to either congested Next-G or slow and expensive satellite services,” explains Grant.

Over the past year Grant has collaborated with a local team of experts to develop the proto-type and co-founded a new business aptly named AgCloud

“Our aim has been to address the inequality by repeating services over hills and terrain to fill that void in the service difference. By linking high-speed NBN we’re exploring what high-quality internet can do for them.”

In the case of the prototype service established at Jock’s property, the benefits are already significant particularly in the area of farm security and NBN provision.

“We’ve installed some fixed cameras and gate tags at key points around the property and I can now access live data and receive alerts via my smart phone,” says a clearly delighted Jock who is ever conscious of protecting and monitoring his assets.

All this has been achieved by simply installing a repeating service at the highest point of the property, something that I overlooked when driving in but paid special attention to on the drive out. Solar panels overcome remote power issues and there is the potential to also install wind turbines to ensure continuity in the winter months.

But what happens if the connection is broken or equipment tampered with I wonder?

“Notifications are immediately received by the client,” responds Grant whose expert team has thought through the process carefully.

“Farm sensing products are also solar powered and can be used for a vast number of sensing requirements,” he adds. “Anything from silo levels, livestock locations and environmental conditions can be recorded into the cloud and understood by the farmer from anywhere in the world.”

For farmers who have large remote properties and like to take time off with their families, this is particularly good news. From Jock’s perspective he will be able to check live feed and respond to alerts from wherever he might be.

Having collaborated with electronic specialists, programmers, and manufacturers, Grant has successfully developed a prototype service and products that surpass any off the shelf hardware currently available on the market.

Capital funding is AgCloud’s next big challenge.

“So far we’ve developed the system from our own pockets with zero return,” says Grant who is sincerely grateful to the local individuals and businesses that have generously given their time and resources to get the prototype to this point.

“We are now looking for some serious funding to take us to the next level and roll this service out Australia wide and potentially to a global market.”

Local community leaders and the Victorian Farmers Federation are excited. Jaala Pulford, the Victorian Minister for Agriculture, has also agreed to drop into Jock’s property for a demonstration.

The burning question is, will funding bodies step up to the mark or will this innovation go down the path of many other Australian prototypes and be hijacked for the benefit of overseas competitors?

I sincerely hope it is the former.


KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, author, and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE  

Kerry recently published her first book with 20 inspiring case studies for rural communities and business people READ MORE

Value of Planning

BY KERRY ANDERSON

Having an unrestricted dream and writing it down into a plan can have far reaching consequences according to David and Rebecca Comiskey of “Melton” in Central Queensland.

In a harsh environment that swings from successive years of drought to a flood in the blink of an eye, it is hard to imagine how farming families continue to survive let alone run a successful business.  Recently touring Melton, an 8,500 hectare (21,000 acre) cattle property, in Central Queensland, I was privileged to witness the passion of David and Rebecca Comiskey as they paused to reflect on their achievements eight years into the implementation of a twenty year plan.

Nestled between the Drummond and Great Dividing Ranges, Melton’s Brigalow soils are highly valued in terms of land prices.  Fortunately for the Comiskeys, Melton was under developed at the time of purchase making it affordable, albeit a huge investment, for the young couple.

Drawing on modern farming techniques and networking with other like-minded producers they have taken a whole new approach to farm management since purchasing the property in 2007. 

Entering the organic market, adopting a rotational grazing system, and maximising their herd management forms a three pronged approach to their twenty year plan.  Closely monitoring and benchmarking their progress against previous years’ performances, all three goals have been fast tracked beyond their initial expectations.

Their first big decision was to go organic and the reason was quite simple according to Rebecca.  “We decided to go with grass fed organic cattle because that is what we like to eat ourselves.”

They were also very aware that their capacity to remain viable with inflation and rising costs of inputs  was limited.  “We don’t have the scale that other properties have so we had to focus on quality rather than quantity,” explains David.

To David the biggest difficulty in going organic was believing that they could do it.  “When you’ve been brought up controlling weeds with the use of chemicals, the hardest thing to do is to get rid of that paradigm in your head; to take a risk and go organic.”

In essence, organic status dictates that any input has to be natural or organic for both stock and land.  All new products are thoroughly researched and approved prior to ensure that they are compliant.

Well experienced in conducting audits and monitoring other farm activities Rebecca picked up the annual reporting in her stride. It took just three years from application until they were certified to sell organic beef and the financial benefits were immediate.  Organic beef is currently selling at around $7.20 per kilogram as opposed to $4.50 per kilogram mainstream beef.

David is quick to warn however, that anyone wanting to fast track organic status may encounter unexpected challenges.  “Because our goal has always been to go organic, we were able to deal with everything that came up along the way.”

At the crux of the Comiskey’s planning is the introduction of rotational grazing.  In essence 5,000 acres are divided by electric fencing into four sections all leading to a central water trough. Paddocks are rested  according to the growth rate of the grass, 60 days in the growing period and out to 120 days in the non-growing, allowing time for the ground cover to replenish.

“Everything starts with the earth,” explains David. “Healthy soils leads to healthy pastures which leads to healthy cattle and ultimately to healthy consumers.”

Good grazing practice stimulates growth of the primarily Buffel and native grasses.

“The rotational grazing system is far more climate effective,” says Rebecca. “For every one percent increase in Organic Soil Carbon, achieved through good grazing land management, another 72,000 litres of water can be absorbed into the soils per hectare, making our property more resilient for the droughts that will always be a part of our business.”

Thanks to a Natural Resource Management grant they have been able to fast track their plan with one quarter of the property already under the rotational grazing system.  It has also given them the opportunity to make comparisons with other paddocks still on the set stock system.  At a fence line separating a traditionally grazed paddock from a rotationally grazed paddock, the benefit is clear to see.

“We don’t have to tell anyone, they can see for themselves,” says Rebecca.

Animal health is central to the rotational grazing system.  Thanks to new and extensive water infrastructure powered by solar, the cattle have less than 750 metres to walk to water and are easily transferred from one section to another.

As part of their 20 year plan the Comiskeys have also focussed on maximising management of their 1,000 head of Brahman breeders, currently down in numbers due to recent drought conditions.  The herd originated from David’s father giving them a great base to start with.

“Genetics and genomics will help our rate of improvement and are important tools to help us achieve our breeding goal of well adapted, high eating, quality grass-fed beef,” says Rebecca. “We are focussed on providing what the consumer wants to eat.”  Effectively they have increased the productivity of their breeding cows by introducing seasonal mating so that calves are born when rain is predicted and pasture nutrition is best to assist the lactating cow.

“Each decision we make is weighed up both financially and ecologically,” she adds. “For example we’re not rushing to restock cattle after the recent drought even though we’ve just had unexpected rain.  It’s good to let things recover.  We believe there is a huge link with profitability and good ground cover or land management.”

Chatting with David and Rebecca it becomes evident that they also value their personal time to participate in sports such as barefoot waterskiing that has taken them as far as the national titles.  They engaged a farm hand so ease of management has been a high priority while introducing their three new strategies to the business.  .

Rebecca produces her mobile phone to demonstrate.  Water storage, electric fences, and even rainfall can be monitored from afar.

It goes without saying that none of this has been easily achieved and it is no surprise that, a three year drought aside, accessing capital and managing debt have been their two major challenges.

A schoolteacher by training, Rebecca is quick to pay credit to David’s business acumen that has been fine-tuned during his previous ownership of an earthmoving business and investment in real estate.  Her skills in monitoring and report writing have become equally valuable to the business.

In dealing with debt, they have closely monitored their progress.  Regularly supplying their bank with budgets to actual results and yearly financials has helped establish a strong relationship and negotiate the tough drought years that would normally present lots of hard questions from financial partners.

“We didn’t wait to be asked,” explains Rebecca. “We knocked on the bank’s door and kept giving them information.”  She started with some solid budgeting and putting together lots of reports to help understand how they were travelling; however, this still wasn’t enough to satisfy her own need to confirm that they were making positive progress.  Benchmarking against their own performance was the next step.  “That was a good business decision,” she smiles. “Even the auditing for our organic status and monitoring of our pasture growth has been good for our business.  We know how we are performing at all times. It’s exciting.”

David believes that investing in their management skills has been a key to their success.  Initially they both did an investment course to help them negotiate their finance and invest off farm to help drought proof their business.  Then they joined a business group of like-minded property owners, Resource Consulting Services that helped them further develop their twenty year plan.

David was stunned with the power of simply putting down a dream in writing.  “I didn’t believe how suddenly a wish list can be ticked off and achieved.”

The group also helped them access resources that would have otherwise remained unknown.  By matching a Queensland Rural Adjustment Authority Loan to help fund a Natural Resource Management Project, they were able to fast track their plan.

“We went a bit bigger than we thought but it was too much of a good offer to pass up,” says David.  The result was 51 kilometres of polyurethane piping and 45 kilometres of fencing towards their rotational grazing infrastructure.

Both David and Rebecca are sitting on a number of industry and natural resource management groups.  Joining is a no brainer according to David. “Before that we were just bumping along and inventing our own stuff. You meet so many like-minded people and share many great ideas.”

Changing the perception of their industry is another personal goal they both share.

“We like to think that we are custodians of the land,” says Rebecca who has a number of family members recognised in the Stockman’s Hall of Fame. It is our aim to leave our soils in better shape than how we found them.

“Politics aside, it’s important that city people come out and visit to see exactly what we do and don’t do,” says David.  “While we respect the old ways, we are very open to trialling new ways.”

From my perspective, agriculture’s future is in good hands if this enterprising couple is any indication.

The Comiskey’s Top Business Tips:

  • Dream big and have a plan.
  • Maintain a good relationship with your bank manager, accountant and solicitor.
  • Surround yourself with like minded people.
  • Access good advice and training.
  • Be open to new ideas.


KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, author, and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Entrepreneurship: It’s everybody’s businessBOOK

Number Crunching Pork Producer

 Photographs courtesy of Shayne Mostyn, Cohuna

Photographs courtesy of Shayne Mostyn, Cohuna

BY KERRY ANDERSON

When a small group of pork producers was faced with an increase in freight costs for the cost of purchasing feed, Aeger Kingma, an enterprising pig grower with a passion for ‘crunching numbers’ was motivated to take action. Five growers subsequently established Pentagon Feeds at Cohuna, in northern Victoria, in 2010. Six years on and it has significantly reduced costs for its members and is turning over $20 million per annum.

Comprising a green site development of a purpose built feed processing mill with capacity to store 3,000 tonnes of grain, Pentagon Feeds is a substantial addition to Cohuna’s industrial district. The mill produces 1,000 tonnes of pig feed a week to meet the needs of its five shareholders and other local pork producers as customers. By controlling their own grain procurement and utilising modern technology to achieve efficiencies, this privately owned company is producing quality feed at a reduced cost.

Creating much interest at the time it opened, and since confirming its viability as a business, Aeger is happy to share why he believes Pentagon has been a success.

In his view, it all comes down to ‘a bit of lateral thinking and ability to crunch the numbers.’ As is often the case in agriculture, he also agrees that adversity is a good catalyst for change, enabled through a spirit of co-operation.

‘For a couple of years, the pig industry wasn’t so good and there wasn’t a lot of money in it,’ explains Aeger.  Given his long involvement in the industry as a current director of Australian Pork and former representative of the Victorian Farmers Federation Pig Group, he is well placed to comment.

‘Changes to the pork industry import regulations in the early 2000s allowed importation of pork into Australia which ultimately decreased pork prices and resulted in an excess of pigs being produced. A number of pork producers exited the market until the national herd was decreased and a balanced industry and pricing was restored in economic terms.’

Then, just as balance was being restored, along came the drought.  ‘This increased our feed costs and impacted severely on our bottom line,’ says Aeger.

Normally 50–60 percent of total costs, in the drought feed costs rose as high as 75 percent. When their local feed mill closed down in 2007 an additional freight impost was introduced to transport feed from St Arnaud. 

As a producer who runs 1,400 sows and cares for a total of 14,000 pigs at any one time, Aeger had very good reason to be concerned. ‘We had no control and were fed up with being dictated to.’

Using his accounting skills, Aeger wrestled with the issue and came up with a business proposal based on a similar model already operating in South Australia.

Operating for about a decade, the Murray Bridge Abattoir, led by Ian Parish, had successfully brought together a group of farmers and processors to control the quality of slaughtering for the export and domestic markets. 

‘It was initially Ian’s suggestion that we look at this model,’ says Aeger. ‘A proposal was prepared but none of us had a lot of spare cash at that point in time so we parked the idea for a couple of years.’

Two years later in 2009, when the timing was right, Aeger updated the figures and put the proposal to five local pork growers. Most of the group had already formed a relationship for joint negotiations to purchase feed at the best price.

In fact, with this existing spirit of co-operation, Pentagon Feeds Pty. Ltd. only took 17 months from the initial concept to turning out the first run of feed pellets.

‘We worked out that we could build a pretty fancy mill for the cost of freight savings and produce at least 600 tonnes of feed per week for ourselves and other customers.’

Initially each partner signed an Expression of Interest and contributed $2,000 to fund a feasibility study to ensure the proposal was sound.

Discussion then turned to operating budgets and the legal side of the business, with agreements drawn up on how profits would be distributed and shares could be traded or sold.

Because the amount of feed required for each partner varied, shares issued was proportional to the amount of feed consumed. This was an important part of the company structure, therefore it was considered fair that the shared risk also be proportional according to the shareholding.

‘We each put in some cash to underwrite a loan for the business. All up we borrowed $3.2 million. The bank co-operated with us to establish proportional guarantees.’

Aeger stresses the importance of having a champion who will drive the process.

‘You need to recognise the points at which you are competitors and where you are not. It’s then easy to create a desire to achieve as long as someone is prepared to lead it.’  Aeger took the time to make a personal approach to each grower, explaining the figures and assisting them to understand the required investment versus anticipated return.

Early on the shareholders decided on a few basic principles.

‘We agreed that we were sharing the mill and that we would be as efficient as we could which meant some compromise.  Efficiency depends on long production runs with similar rations, not lots of different varieties.’

Six years down the track and Aeger, who was appointed non-voting part-time executive director, is clearly delighted with the results.

‘It’s gone significantly better than expected. We bought into the concept based on savings on freight but didn’t understand the savings generated by being involved in our own procurement of raw materials which were obtained at a cheaper price than by the previous supplier.’

The mill was designed to be run with low labour input and, with the unanticipated savings on procurement, Pentagon has been able to weather the storm of increased energy costs.  Aeger proudly claims that they get 33 percent throughput above the average of other mills out of their presses and can recite a range of statistics and figures to back it up.

Strategy is an important part of each board meeting held every two months, especially when it comes to purchasing their main raw ingredient of grain.

‘If commodity prices are at a high point we buy short, and if they are at a low point we buy long,’ says Aeger. ‘We are lucky to have the funds behind us to buy six months’ worth of grain.’

The company has just invested in additional grain storage to maximise buying capacity. They now have eight silos with capacity to store a total of 3,000 tonnes of grain for processing.

As a director of Pork Australia, Aeger also follows with interest the results of any research. 

Specialised equipment from Germany is currently being installed to enable Pentagon to precisely measure and add protein to food pellets, once again maximising available raw materials for the cheapest possible ration cost.

‘Fat is a good source of digestible energy,’ explains Aeger. ‘Every percentage point of energy is worth about $28 to us per tonne.’

$70,000 has been invested in an infra-red machine, the size of a little computer, which gives Pentagon the ability to scan incoming samples of grain, and translate the imagery into data that is then emailed to their nutritionist for analysis.  Another piece of technology then accurately sprays up to an additional 4 percent of fat coating around the food pellets. A nutritionist uses the information from this equipment to formulate appropriate rations for each class of pig.

Six years since being established, and with all this additional investment, there is no doubt that the benefits have been significant for Pentagon Feeds’ shareholders.

‘From a company point of view, over $1 million per year finds its way either back to shareholders or into assets,’ says Aeger. His accounting background compels him to also measure and track his own savings. ‘I personally save $5,000 each week on supplying feed to our farm.’ 

He is acutely aware that the longer they are removed from purchasing through a feed supplier, the more difficult it will be to calculate an accurate return. ‘It’s not just the freight savings, it is the increased ability to control the quality of feed going to your animals.’

Their next challenge as directors is to manage a new, and most welcome, scenario as the company transitions from one that has a big debt to service to one that doesn’t.

Without doubt, Pentagon Feeds is a great success story. As long as there is a viable pork industry, Aeger does not foresee any changes in his lifetime to the company structure or its shareholders, despite an exit strategy being clearly outlined at the very beginning of its formation.

‘All five shareholders are well into succession planning,’ says Aeger. ‘My son is well entrenched in our piggery and while it exists, the need for the mill exists.’ Even if there is a downturn, he says the mill infrastructure can be adapted to process feed for another species if required.

In Aeger’s words, backed up by his number crunching abilities, Pentagon Feeds has ‘turned into quite a useful business!’

Aeger’s top business tips:

  • Understand where control can bring added profit to your business. 
  • Think strategy before structure.
  • Commit the necessary number of people to make it viable.
  • Recognise the points at which you are competitors and where you are not. 
  • Take the personal approach when bringing people on board a business idea.  Explain the vision backed up by the figures and how they work.
  • The simpler you can keep the entity, the easier it is to get off the ground.
  • Be clear on your exit strategy before agreeing to entry.

KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, author, and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

This story is featured in Kerry's book: Entrepreneurship It’s everybody’s business

Follow this flock!

As the highly successful Marilyn Monroe Exhibition sadly departs Bendigo, yet another glamorous event is taking its place.  Yes, I’m talking about the Australian Sheep and Wool Show (15-17 July) and, if you think I’m disrespecting Marilyn by comparing her with sheep, then think again.

The days of when Australia's economy rode on the back of the illustrious sheep industry are long gone but I cannot help but be impressed with how this traditional agricultural event has reinvented itself and significantly increased its revenue in the process.  I do hope that other primary industries and agricultural show organisers are taking note as this flock is well worth following to see how they do it.

Running for 139 years, the past decade has seen significant change in how the Australian Sheep & Wool Show is presented to the public particularly since making the move from Melbourne to the regional city of Bendigo.  It is truly bigger than Ben Hur in terms of exhibition spaces and activities offered with broad appeal to the wider public who may have never been in a paddock let alone near a sheep.

What most impresses me is how this event highlights everything from the primary product (live sheep) right through to the many end products.  Sheep and fleeces are fiercely scrutinised while shearers and working dogs are put through their paces.  Young people are invited to attend a career forum at 3.30pm daily.  Then there is the food, fashion, and a vast array of industry and wool related products that attract just as much, if not more, attention. 

All these activities will take place from Friday 15 to Sunday 17 July, 2016.  And, if you have a big cheque book, stick around for the Ram Sales on the Monday!

My personal favourites are watching school students vying for the champion sashes, and the working dogs intently eyeballing their stubborn subjects through a maze of tight spaces on a large oval.  For an increasing number of the general public it is browsing an impressive line-up of over 400 site holders across an array of pavilions worthy of any swap meet. 

Who would have thought that you don’t have to know anything about sheep or even like them to enjoy this event?

Bluntstone boots intermingle with high heels thanks to the introduction of the Women of Wool Luncheon (Friday) and the Australian Wool Fashion Shows.  How refreshing to be able to wander through the champion sheep exhibits and then zip up the stairs to fine dining.  Umm, word of warning.  Just remember to wipe your heels on the mat as you exit the sheep pavilion!

I’m sure that Marilyn would have willingly clad herself in fine wool to mix with the best of the best of Australia’s sheep and view the latest fashions if she could have.   Oh well, I will just have to go in her place.  Will I see you there?

GO TO WEBSITE 


KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, philanthropist and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry Anderson is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

Rural Problem Solving

BY KERRY ANDERSON

A COMMON attribute of an entrepreneur is their desire to find a solution to a problem.  Another is that they quite often don’t fit into the school system.

With this in mind, it was no surprise that Travis Howard of Cohuna used to be easily distracted at school.  “All I could think about was farming,” he admits.

When the family dairy farm was sold in 2006 Travis contracted his skills out and kept his eyes open for opportunities.

An idea was presented to him by Cr. Goulding in 2009 when the Ganawarra Shire was trying to decide how to dispose of its green waste collection.  As a result of that initial conversation, Travis started a unique business that was beneficial for the Shire, the environment, and for farmers.

Travis started buying the green waste off the Gannawarra Shire and relocating it to dairy farms that require bedding for their cows prone to mastitis and other conditions inflamed by lying on the wet ground.

A big tick for the shire and an even bigger tick for the dairy industry.

After a period of time Travis then collects the further enriched waste and composts it in wind-rows over a six month period before sifting it into a format that is suitable for
vegetable gardens, lawns, and pasture enhancement. 

Another big tick for his customers.

A field day sparked the original idea and You Tube and the internet provided the rest of the knowledge that Travis needed to get his business started.

“I love experimenting and seeing things grow,” says Travis and this has clearly resulted in a win-win for everyone concerned.

He needed help to get started and pays credit to his father for being a great business mentor.  The farming community has also got behind him. John Keely and other local farmers have allowed him to make use of their land to process the compost.  Travis continues to move his enterprise around the Cohuna district utilizing land too salty for the farmers to use.  In return for the use of the land he spreads compost and improves the soil so that eventually the paddocks again become usable to the farmers.

In what is proving to be a profitable business Travis started off processing 80 tonnes of waste on the ground and four years later was up to 2,500 tonnes annually.  Seven years on and he is processing around 4,000 tonnes and employs another local person three days a week. 

As both Travis and his employee have young families, it suits them both to work part time allowing them the flexibility to share child care responsibilities with their partners.

“Having someone working with me has taken the pressure off,” says Travis but admits that taking the step from working solo to being an employer was a major one.

“I never realized that there was so much paperwork with super and tax.” His accountant was duly enlisted to help set up that side of the business.

And don’t think that Travis has finished yet. As his domestic market has grown significantly in recent years he has started buying green waste from a neighbouring shire and is currently looking for a retail site with suitable road frontage.

Watch this space!


KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, philanthropist and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry Anderson is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace new opportunities. READ MORE

MEET KERRY IN PERSON:  During August Kerry is sharing her knowledge on entrepreneurship as part of the Small Business Festival in Melbourne (8 Aug), Geelong (19 Aug) and Bendigo (31 Aug).  READ MORE 

Adapting to a new environment

 Daniel McLoughlan outside TMC Enviro's headquarters which has recently relocated into the old O'Connor site in Birchip.

Daniel McLoughlan outside TMC Enviro's headquarters which has recently relocated into the old O'Connor site in Birchip.

BY KERRY ANDERSON

SMALL FAMILY BUSINESSES often end with the retirement of the key partners; or they can continue on as younger family members join in.  Sometimes they can even evolve and grow if prepared to adapt to a new environment, and happily this seems to be the case of TMC Enviro in Birchip.

Chatting with TMC Enviro’s General Manager, Daniel McLoughlan, the pathway of his family’s small business becomes perfectly clear but was probably never anticipated by his parents Tom and Lois when they began their shearing and fencing contractor business in the 1980’s.

Casting his mind back to growing up in the small rural town of Birchip as one of six siblings, Daniel, admits that he always thought he’d end up in business in some capacity but it has been an interesting pathway to get there. 

Without question it began at home when Daniel and his younger brother, Tom Junior, were encouraged by their parents to be entrepreneurial as young as 8 and 10 years of age.  In addition to working for their father in the shearing shed on schools holidays, they also developed a substantial lawn-mowing business in town.

“We had quite the lawn mowing run,” Daniel recalls. “As it grew Tom went out and bought a ride-on mower and a rotary hoe. Mum and Dad paid our fuel on the provision that we mowed their lawns but I can assure you it was the last to get mowed, and usually ended up with foot high grass!” he laughs. 

Each phase of Daniel’s subsequent working life in finance, mining and construction, has helped to build the skills he uses today at TMC Enviro.

After completing year 12 at Birchip P – 12 School, Daniel took a maternity leave position at the local branch of the Commonwealth Bank starting a career in finance.  Six months later saw him transferred to Collins Street and ultimately to the head office in Bourke Street, Melbourne.

“I got into personal lending during the property rush, it was a good time to be there,” recalls Daniel.

However, after three years he got tired of the office environment and made the move to Western Australia where he joined two of his brothers in the mining industry.  Then it was back to Melbourne where he worked nine years in construction.  Each of these jobs was a step closer to his home town of Birchip, not that Daniel knew it at the time.

Back at home his parents had been transitioning into more of the fencing and rabbit ripping work as Tom senior sought an alternative to shearing which was taking a physical toll on his body.

“His idea was to work one man on one machine as a sort of semi-retirement,” explains Daniel, “but he’s not a guy who could ever retire.  It just sort of ballooned from there.”

In 2011 Daniel was asked to come home to help set up the administration side of the business which was still being run from the family home.  Younger brother Tom had started working hands-on in the business 12 months prior.

“I told my girlfriend, now wife, that I would be back in Melbourne in three months but I’m still here five years later” grins Daniel.

From working with one local Landcare group the business went to two, three, and is now working with up to 16 groups.  Catchment Management Authorities are another big source of environmental work and, of late, the business has been branching out into major project work taking them more widely across Victoria.

It’s interesting to reflect on how much has changed over the past decade in the way the business operates.  As is usually the case in a country town, it was a simple formula to begin with.

“Dad had a good reputation, the right machinery, and knew a lot of people.” 

However, while a good reputation is still a strong selling point, Daniel points out that it is not always enough when it comes to seeking government contract work, particularly in more recent years.

“Just because you are competitively priced and did a good job on the last contract, you don’t necessarily get the next one,” he explains.

Another important reason why TMC Enviro has concentrated on diversifying its business is the fact that government funding is often diverted from budgets as will be the case with the recent announcement of drought funding.

“We had a hunch that this would happen with an awful dry spell last year and two average seasons before that,” says Daniel. 

With this in mind they sought to supplement their local work with bigger projects by employing specialist staff and investing in new work premises, machinery, and an integrated management system.

Already it is paying off with a successful tender at the Werribee Open Range Zoo, where they have installed over three kilometres of 4.1 metre high chain mesh fencing around the grounds of the Zoo’s Lower Savannah Precinct. This area houses a number of the Zoo’s larger species in an open plain environment, along with holding and back of house facilities. Visitors experience this area of Werribee Open Range Zoo via the Safari Bus Trail, which runs on a regular basis each day.

“Eland look like deer on steroids,” Daniel clarifies before I have a chance to google.  “The fence needs to be extremely high so they don’t jump out onto the Geelong freeway.”

I am impressed that a rural family business can compete against metropolitan companies.

Writing a tender submission is a real team effort says Daniel and reflects their specialist skills.  While Tom senior and junior are familiar with the hours and techniques required to complete the work, Daniel is able to contribute his large scale project management experience. 

Daniel’s wife, Melanie Wood, brings several years’ HR experience from Melbourne, including the development of policies and procedures, workplace health and safety and HR reporting and statistics, vital to any tender process. 

Then there is the all-important environmental side of tendering, and indeed their business.  On the same principal as a construction company requiring the services of an engineer, TMC Enviro has employed Jess Cook as their Environmental Projects Manager.  Jess, who has a Bachelor of Applied Science (Environmental Science), joined the business in 2014.

According to Daniel, the Werribee Zoo project is one great example of how this can be a key factor for success. “Jess’s role was to take environmental considerations into account, including looking at minimising the vegetation clearance, and her environmental background came in very handy.”

While constructing a fence seems simple there were other issues to be managed.  For instance the work couldn’t be visible when zoo tours were in progress and the crew had to be out of areas by a certain time for animal welfare reasons.   TMC Enviro was able to deliver on all fronts.

“Without pumping our tyres up too much, it’s pretty cool that we are able to pitch ourselves as a one stop shop,” says Daniel.

Quality assurance is another important selling point according to Daniel especially as they have a transient workforce for their project work.  Tom senior and Tom junior lead a competency training program to ensure that all staff are fully trained and compliant in their systems.

“Our reputation is so important and Dad literally drives the roads to check up on everything.”

While Daniel is now the voice of the business as General Manager, and his brother, Tom junior, is Operations Manager, it sounds like retirement is still a long way away for Tom senior.  A recent addition to the family business has been Tom’s partner, Celeste Walsh, who has a Bachelor of Business.  Celeste will head up the soon to be advertised domestic and commercial pest control arm of the business which has recently relocated into the old O'Connor site in Birchip's town centre.

Without a doubt, Tom and Lois McLoughlan can be credited with establishing the foundations of a successful rural business that, with the assistance of the next generation, continues to adapt to new environments.

CLICK HERE for more information about TMC Enviro

KERRY ANDERSON:  A businesswoman, philanthropist and community advocate from Central Victoria, Kerry Anderson is passionate about rural and regional Australia.  She works with small businesses and rural communities to help them embrace opportunities.

www.kerryanderson.com.au