Doing what it takes

mary and davi boothDavid and Mary Booth raised sheep, cattle and goats at Ivanhoe, NSW, before moving to the Cootamundra region in 2002.

The Cootamundra property, comprising 1240 hectares of farming country and 400 hectares of conserved bushland, was already in conversion to organic with Australian Certified Organic when they acquired the land. They decided to take advantage of the previous owners’ investment in conversion and maintain the property as organic – largely because of Mary’s desire to be organic, although David has quickly grown to appreciate what organic can do for production and the soil, and the market and lifestyle advantages of organic production.

Two years later, they were certified for grain cropping, and a year later for organic meat.

Diversify to grow business

They now produce organic lamb and beef, non-certified goats and some organic crops. They sell organic and halal meat to butchers in Canberra and Sydney, and are planning to produce organic eggs and pigs to add value to their pasture and grain crops. They already have a local customer for a few eggs but are aware of the potential to develop a much larger egg business.

They get some assistance from their son Richard, who works FIFO in the mines but returns home “to work harder than in the mines” on his days off.

Take control of marketing and supply

Currently David and Mary are facing a hiccup in their marketing system, with the sale of the local abattoir to a much larger operator that is not interested in small numbers. They have combined with other livestock producers and wholesalers to see if they can purchase and run their own facilities, but are quickly learning that the business will need to be larger and more capital intensive than they had hoped. While the large investment is daunting, it also offers the potential of more control over their markets and supply system, and planning is continuing.

For the abattoir to be successful, there has to be a critical throughput of 120–150 cattle per day, or 500–800 lambs a day. David said, “We have to coexist with conventional farmers to make it work but will have the abattoir certified so organic markets can grow. At present, we are about to do a feasibility study on an abattoir that will cost about $4.5 million and service kill only using operators who have their own markets. It will be for domestic consumption with an option for export offal.”

Expand gradually

IMGP0009Cropping has traditionally been a smaller part of the business, at only about 120 hectares per year, but the potential to add value by feeding to egg laying birds will make it a more critical, if not necessarily larger, part of the business. David and Mary already raise some poultry, including chickens and guinea fowl, and they are intending to gradually increase their skills and experience to expand the poultry operation, rather than make a large-scale, all-at-once transition.

Crops grown include oats, largely for feeding out to their own stock or direct grazing, wheat, which has been sold to Wholegrain Milling and direct to bakers, and spelt, which was sold to Neil Druce for use in his organic liquorice. Since the recent drought, smaller areas of crops have been produced, and the spelt crop growing when Australian Organic visited the property was only growing for seed increase, rather than for sale to millers.

Consult experts to avoid mistakes

As David and Mary had been mainly livestock producers in their previous farming careers, they did use a consulting agronomist to recommend fertilisers and varieties, when first cropping the Cootamundra property. As the cropping was quite high input, they have not expanded that aspect of the business.

David says, “If we are not selling crops, then we are not exporting nutrients in the same volume, and we can be more sustainable and farm with a smaller outlay.” In fact, during the long drought of the past decade, they have sometimes purchased feed oats and wheat from another organic producer in the Riverina region. They have also refrained from bringing in outside genetics for the stock breeding program, in order to concentrate on a self-reliant business and build resilience to parasites in their animals.

The reasonably even split between summer and winter rainfall is a good basis for a reliable grazing enterprise, although David notes that the winter rainfall is more effective.

The only way they’d farm

What’s obvious in David and Mary’s conversation is their enthusiasm for organic growing and their willingness to acquire new knowledge and skills as they expand into the egg and abattoir enterprises, and to continue regardless of steep financial investment.

As David says, “We were probably ahead of our time, but organic has served us well and the markets are good. It suits our scale of operation and desire to be self-reliant and sustainable. And Mary says, “I would not want to farm any other way.”