Of course it can be done

stuartThis farm’s story is one that is shared with tofu buyers in Korea.

The Larsson family farm is at Mallanganee, 50 kilometres west of Casino in northern New South Wales.

Henry and Sheila Larsson initially ran it as a dairy.

More than 40 years ago Stuart Larsson decided to change to beef cattle, legumes and seed crops. Along with his brother-in-law, Bill Allen, Stuart was an early pioneer of exporting Rhodes grass seed into the Middle East. The company Mara Seeds was born.

Mara Seeds developed a value-adding facility to process the soybean and over that time the primary production area has grown from 200 to 2000 hectares. The farm now includes wheat, barley, corn, soybean, hay and grass seed (Rhodes, Setaria and others) production, livestock feed pellets and compost.

The move to organic

Over the past 20 years the business has changed direction to become a certified organic agricultural property through Australian Certified Organic. Stuart’s interest in organics was initially sparked by the realisation that his conventional farming system was killing the soil and was increasingly reliant on synthetic nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertiliser, which was expensive and not reversing the decline in soil health. He also wanted to differentiate his operation to reduce the gap between costs and returns.

When he started conversion to organic, there was no organic market for soy, so he developed his own market, initially in Korea, where his soy grits attracted a much lower duty than whole soy did. His 600 hectares of soybean now supplies the Australian soy milk market, which demands much more organic soy than Stuart can produce.

Mara Seeds now includes 650 breeding cattle. The herd is based on Hereford crossed with Brahman (to help with paralysis tick resistance) and Angus bulls. Stuart’s yearling beef were difficult to sell into the organic market in the early days before the organic meat market matured but now some of his beef, labelled as certified organic, regularly goes into supermarket chains.

Using compost for better soil

An on-farm compost production system produces compost for Stuart’s own use and for sale under the trademark SOFT – Sustainable Organic Farming Techniques.

In recent times the business has split its production division (Mara Seeds Pty Ltd) away from its processing division (Mara Global Foods Pty Ltd, owned by son Ross) to simplify and track its cost and profitability margins.

Stuart says, “A major reason for sticking with organics is that the markets come to us and our research indicates there is a huge demand for organic products throughout the world, with millions of dollars available to be sourced by Australian businesses if coordinated properly.”

The compost production facility is also expanding to service both organic and conventional farms interested in sustainability and soil health, from livestock production at Glen Innes and throughout the horticulture production area of the Northern Rivers. The compost is made with phosphorous from a mine in Queensland and with biochar. Recent experimentation shows that biochar improves the effectiveness of the compost and also adds a carbon farming benefit.

Stuart has organic certification for a variety of crops that help to control weeds. Stockfeed pellets use byproducts from the soy processing operations and are in great demand to feed the expanding organic chicken and beef market. There is also some natural timber and some commercial forestry on the farm.

Stuart says, “The secret to success of the business is the use of compost to get our soils moving. Once we get the soil in an improved state, it starts to look after itself.”

He continues, “At first we bought in compost but it was poor quality and did not work. Then we purchased ‘potions’, which also did not work. Eventually we went to the United States and investigated windrow turning systems, which we adopted to make our own compost.”

He adds, “We are assisted here by our good rainfall, which is a great aid with our biological program. Our soils have now improved so much that we have pushed out the contour banks that were put in 30 years ago.”

And some additional wisdom from Stuart is, “We benefit from organic premiums, but compost got our system working really well, and yield will beat price any time.”

Stuart’s willingness to experiment has undoubtedly helped his conversion to organic. He says, “When someone tells me it can’t be done, that is extra incentive to find a way to do it!”

His final advice to growers considering conversion is, “Understand your markets before you start and develop a strong relationship with buyers. Asian countries are determined to source true organic products for the health of their people. Mara Seeds has been able to win the export confidence of Korean customers to such a degree that the story of our organic farm at Mallanganee is involved in the marketing of organic tofu on the supermarket shelves in Korea.”

If you’re interested in becoming certified organic go to aco.net.au, call 07 3350 5716 or email info@aco.net.au.

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