Farming the brand. Woomargama Station’s land management approach.
Clare Cannon is totally unfazed with seeing herself as a leader. 10 years with the group Earthwatch, which supports scientific field research addressing environmental problems, she saw measurable outcomes that made a real difference. A new hands-on phase of her life beckons on her property, Woomargama Station, where she has placed part of the property under a conservation agreement with the Nature Conservation Trust.
“I’m absolutely passionate about conservation. I’ve talked the talk and now there’s an opportunity for me to walk it”, she says with a steely resolve that belies a certain blessing. For it is clear that the land is blessed to have come under her stewardship; when she has such a vision for farming and nature conservation working together. She bears down on it with conviction born from experience and history.
“I feel very strongly about providing leadership in the space and showing that you can run a profitable business while also being focussed on sustainability, planting trees and preserving wildlife”, she says.
And a business this is; a serious farm business running poll merino and poll Hereford cattle. And like any business, she is keen to position herself to meet new and emerging markets. The customer, it seems, is helping to drive business decisions for farmers that highlights how the land is managed.
“Some people get nervous about covenants because they feel they’ll detract from the business but from my perspective it only adds to the value of the brand”.
And she thinks that fibre like wool will move the same way as food when it comes to consumers being conscious of where it is sourced and what animal husbandry methods are deployed in the making of a garment.
“We’re selling wool internationally, and we’d like to sell more wool into Europe”.
At the recent wool sales in Melbourne, in addition to their commitment to pain management for mulesing, there was much curiosity around this “protected habitat” as Cannon reflects on the label produced by the NCT describing the protected area on the property. It created a lot of attention.
“Buyers were particularly interested; they were asking where the property was; and Bruce Taylor, who consults to me here at Woomargama, recently did a trip for us to Europe including England and Scotland where he met with woollen mills and there’s no doubt that the European buyers are very interested in animal welfare; and they’re particularly interested in sustainability”.
And while initiatives like “Paddock to Plate” have been particularly successful in teaching, mostly urbanites about where their food comes from, Cannon is convinced that this translates more broadly about the origin of other products.
“We’ve done the provenance of food, and it’s still a big issue; the provenance of clothing is the next one”.
It’s something Cannon sees as her enduring legacy for future generations.
And it’s a legacy that already stretches back 51 years since her mother and father, Gordon and Mar-garet Darling, purchased Woomargama Station.
“My father and mother bought it in 1965 and I actually discussed the question of protecting the property a lot with my father before he died last year. One of the really great things was he joined Nigel (Jones) and Sam (Niedra) from the NCT for lunch one day and he really felt that this was a good thing to do”
Cannon’s vision also stems from her parent’s legacy with both having a huge vision for Woomargama Station from the earliest days.
“My mother would not have classified herself as a “Greenie”, taking certain umbrage at city people telling farmers what to do, but we estimate that she planted around 100,000 trees throughout the 25 years that she ran the property; and my father started soil conservation work in the 60s, which was pretty early days”.
Innovative stuff when you consider that today modern Landcare approaches recognise that certain species help fix nitrogen while others help retain soil moisture; for others it may be about keeping carbon in the soil. Then you have the value native vegetation has in reducing salinity and halting erosion and the loss of top soil. Yet Cannon’s family have been doing it for years. It’s a history that speaks volumes as you witness the evident health of the land right across Woomargama’s 1,800 odd hectares.
And she reflects on that legacy as we speak, “What you want to create are resilient landscapes, so they’re resilient through very wet seasons and through drought; and what is interesting is that resili-ent landscapes are usually always aesthetically pleasing so you have the inherent beauty of the natural landscape but this also helps to give the land an ability to respond when conditions are challenging.
It’s also an approach that is recognised as being at the leading edge of agricultural practise around the world, as Cannon knows.
“In the UK, the Organics Association is called the Soil Association because they know soil is para-mount, for without that you have nothing. It’s always about the quality of the soils”, and she pauses for a moment before continuing, “what concerns me about a lot of corporate farmers when they specify they want a 10% return, or whatever; well, that’s great but you’re actually eating into the natural capital of your property; with us we want to add to the natural capital of the property”.
This idea of “natural capital” – the recognition of nature as an essential part of the economic measure for GDP - is gaining substantive currency both in Australia and overseas as more and more evi-dence emerges that active pursuit of what have traditionally been referred to as economic externali-ties, are now considered as critical to the business’ operating environment.
A recent report by The Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity, an initiative designed to critically assess global food systems in the face of predicted food shortages in the 21st century, recognise that food systems must be seen holistically not as distinct or separate zones from ecosystems but rather part of the whole.
As they note, “Operations within the entire agricultural value chain - production, processing, distri-bution, consumption and waste – not only have impacts but also depend on the state of the envi-ronment, socio-economic well-being, and human health.
“TEEBAgFood seeks to overcome the common practice of viewing ecosystems, agriculture and food systems as distinct ́silos ́. A selective analysis, not recognizing agriculture holistically, leads to subop-timal decisions with far-reaching consequences. (TEEB for Agriculture & Food: an interim report, 2015)”
Cannon agrees and she sees that the Woomargama brand is all about speaking to a consumer who also recognises these issues and wants to make purchasing decisions that accord with their views.
“For us, there is only one market we want to be in and that’s the quality end of the market where animal welfare is number one. People are looking for products like ours; a premium product that has more stringent guidelines for animal welfare which we support. We make ethically based decisions and we still make a profit.”
And while the Live Export Trade is a contentious issue right now, Cannon’s view is that she wouldn’t sleep at night if that was the plight of her stock.
“We’ve sold beef on the hook into Europe which has very stringent guidelines around vaccination and antibiotic use. Obviously we do vaccinate our cattle so that they don’t get sick but we’re very judicious about how we use antibiotics”.
But it’s wool that drives her continuing passion for the merinos that she runs.
“Actually, my father started out with Southdowns and Romneys. My mother got into Merinos and when my husband, Andrew, and I took the property over 4 years ago we thought we’d keep going with them; and I’m actually passionate about wool; I think it’s a fantastic product.
She bemoans the modern disposable society we find ourselves in where petroleum based clothes are thrown away so readily while wool, she notes, has so many great qualities “Wool is sometimes a hard sell but it is a breathable, wonderful product. My son, William, is a triathlete and he wears woollen gear that is protective, it breathes, it doesn’t smell”, and displaying yet another hallmark of a great leader she continues, “I love being where people aren’t”. By that she means her competitors. “I think there are about 10 million less merinos today than there was in Australia 15 years ago”.
Woomargama Station Woolshed. Scott Hartvigsen.
It’s not just this appetite for risk, but a sense that she is positioning her business to meet the future, that makes Cannon’s approach all the more remarkable. And now there’s a conservation area on Woomargama Station that at 600 hectares, equates to around 1/3 of their total area.
“My parents acquired much of this area of the property around 25 years ago and they were old soldier settlement farms that were just not viable. I’ve seen photographs of that area from the turn of the last century and you can actually see that not only was it highly cleared but there was ring-barking on a lot of the trees so there has been a lot of re growth in that period of time. And this is woodland, not forest”.
Indeed the woodland occupying the conservation area on Woomargama is box gum woodland which is estimated to have been cleared so extensively that only around 3.5% of the original extent exist driving box gum woodland to be listed as a critically endangered ecological community in 2006 un-der the Commonwealth EPBC (Environmental Protection & Biodiversity Conservation) Act (1999).
“It’s what makes this area so special. It has extraordinary bird life; it’s copses of trees which are beautiful and I remember while my daughters were on exchange in England and we had two girls out here, we took them there during the day and at night and, honest to God, I think they thought they were in Jurassic Park!”, she laughs, “There’s just so much life, kangaroos, lizards, echidnas, amazing bird life. It’s just so beautiful and quite wild. You really could be in the middle of nowhere”.
And she comes back to thinking about her legacy, posing a question that many ponder at some point in their life.
“You know when we look to future generations, what will be the thing that will be such a scarce commodity in years to come? It’s these wild places.”
But she doesn’t just wonder about such things as an abstract notion somehow divorced from the practical realities of daily life but as if to give meat to the muscle of her idea about the value of fu-ture generations she recognises that teaching children about how this all works is not just a nice thing to do, but essential.
“For me, you can’t be in the conservation business without being in the education business. It’s about showing that you can work within conservation guidelines and still run an effective farm and I want to give people a hands on understanding of that; and making sure people understand that this property is standing on its own two feet and making a profit while doing it”.
“We’ve had school children from seven schools come in and do biodiversity testing; some were in the lake looking at the endangered pygmy perch (Nannoperca oxleyana), some were looking at birds; we had a Welcome to Country at the Woomargama Village Hall from the local Aboriginal community, including a smoking ceremony; and there were seven scientists”.
Central to the covenant is a Plan of Management which is provided to the landholder. Often referred to as a landholder’s bible, it provides a detailed assessment of the conservation values including lists of present flora and fauna species as well as prevalent weed species and feral animals. It is an inval-uable resource that helps establish a baseline of data that can then be built on over the years to show any changes.
“The whole thing for us was the Plan of Management and how restrictive it was going to be. What pleased us was that when we read it, we saw that it really mirrored the way we were running the property; and that area in particular. For example, we don’t graze that area in the summer months. What I found, ultimately, with the Plan of Management was that it wasn’t constricting how we ran the business. We went right through the detail but everything made complete sense and we were happy to proceed”.
Locally the NCT’s Albury office hosts 3 staff members including Nigel Jones, the Conservation Manager, who has been working with Clare throughout the process of creating the covenant for Woo-margama. Cannon is effusive in her praise for the organisation and the people behind it.
“They’ve been excellent. They’re very passionate, very knowledgeable and very committed. I think the NCT is very professional and they (including former staff member Sam Niedra) were great am-bassadors for the organisation. When I came along to the landholder event at Flyfaire Winery in May I thought what a terrific organisation and what for me was so fantastic was also being able to meet the other covenant holders.
“You know we all run farms differently, sometimes it’s hard to find people who share your values. A lot of cattle farmers probably don’t run their farms like we do and so it’s, for me, great to be in a community where we all share a common love of the land and we all value each other’s work; whether it’s a small covenant area or a large one. It was great to share stories and learned a lot from being with those other covenant landholders.
And what would she say to another grazier contemplating a move like this but worried about the limits in might place on them?
“I would allay their fears. My husband was quite nervous; and he was quite nervous about how much it would devalue the whole property. So we did a valuation pre and post covenant and we found that because the most productive part of our land is not under covenant, it actually didn’t de-crease the value much at all.
“My daughter did quite a bit of work with our accountant on that and she and I both agreed that the value of the covenant in the longer term will be great. I see that this part of the property will be the jewel in the crown of the property in 50, 100 or 200 years. This will be the most valuable part of the property because this box woodland is just so rare. The tables will turn and things will change”.
There’s no doubt Clare Cannon is a leader; she wants to use her position in agriculture to persuade others that conservation can provide opportunities for a farm business; that native vegetation has an essential role for the health of landscape.
In these days of us and them around land use, she stands as a shining beacon that proves there is another way.