Farmer investment group fights to save family farms as big corporations buy Tasmanian land

ABC | Sat 27 Nov 2021

Farmer investment group fights to save family farms as big corporations buy Tasmanian land

By Lachlan Bennett

Key points:
- Increased foreign ownership and corporatisation of agriculture makes farm ownership challenging for young families
- A local farmer investment group aims to bolster local ownership with investment pathway for farmers
- The Tasmanian group owns 11 dairies, with 4,200 hectares of farmland and 8,500 milking cows

The work is dirty, long and must happen every single day; but a cot in the corner of the dairy reminds them why they do it.

"We've got an 18-month-old and one on the way," Mrs Langley says.

The Langleys dream of one day buying their own farm to pass down to their children.

But in their district in Tasmania's north-west corner, that dream can feel like a fantasy.

"Someone told me in Circular Head there's only nine family farms left that's not corporate ownership."

"It takes away the opportunity of the dream of owning your own farm because they get bigger and bigger and bigger. You're talking 1,800 and 1,000 cow farms. They come with a big price tag," Mr Langley said.

The rise of corporate and foreign-owned farmland has made farm ownership challenging for many young families across Australia.

A submission to the Foreign Investment Review Board said foreign entities – from North American pension funds to Chinese businessmen – controlled more than 60 per cent of Circular Head's milk production.

But not all corporates are created equal and a special type of corporate is giving the Langley a chance to chase their dream.

Buying back the family farm

Seven years ago, agribusiness entrepreneur Stephen Fisher became concerned that corporate agriculture was "limiting" the opportunity for locals to "come into the industry and have some ownership in it".

His solution was to create Circular Head Farms. The entity raises funds from local investors to buy properties and then finds aspiring farmers such as the Langleys to run them.

Over time, these "sharefarmers" can raise their own cows and eventually buy a stake in the farm.

"They can start with very little and over time build up into cow ownership and even ultimately, our goal is to see them start to come into ownership of the farm," Mr Fisher said.

The first farm was bought in 2014 and its sharefarmer, Cody Korpershoek now owns a herd and a 40-per-cent stake in another property.

Meanwhile, Circular Head Farms has grown into a network of 11 dairies, more than 4,200 hectares of farmland and 8,500 milking cows.

Mr Fisher said the focus was bolstering opportunities for locals, not opposing foreign ownership.

"I just want to see us as a community reap the rewards," he said.

"Wealth is created by owning the farm, wealth is not created working on the farm. If you want to create wealth for your community, you own it."

Cashed up locals turn the tables

Recent effluent and animal welfare issues at the Chinese-owned Van Dairy farms in Circular Head thrust concerns about foreign ownership into the headlines.

While that property is a symbol of foreign ownership, it also signals a shift in the property market as large chunks were recently sold to Australian owners for the first time in history.

Nutrien Harcourts Tasmania director Michael Warren said locals are lining up to buy farms while foreign entities are facing hurdles.

"With the market so strong, having to wait for that Foreign Investment Review Board approval has really pushed them out of the marketplace to a large extent," he said.

"Properties are selling more quickly than they have in the past and we're really seeing those parties being left behind."

Mr Warren said there had been many waves of foreign investment – New Zealanders in the 90s, Europeans in the early 2000s – but today 80 per cent of his customers were locals.

"We really saw that foreign interest peak a year or two ago and now you're seeing local farming families taking advantage of being in a strong financial position [and] the cheaper interest rates," he said.

Attitude matters

Foreign interest in Australian agriculture is unlikely to disappear and there are plenty of migrants such as Genaro and Rosselyn Velasquez who also dream of a family farm.

The Venezuelan couple moved to Tasmania five years ago to work on a dairy farm and now own a herd and a booming business: La Cantara Cheeses.

Mr Velasquez said what really mattered was "the attitude you bring to a place and your willingness to do the right thing".

"We may not be born here but we feel like we're a part of this community," he said.

"If we buy a block of land or we buy cattle, all that money will stay here, all that money will be invested here."

Ensuring the wealth of the land stays in the community is also key for Circular Head Farms chair Paul Lambert.

He has been with the venture since its inception and said the biggest challenge ahead would be "finding the right property at the right price".

Booming property prices are making that tough but they do already have the backing of more than local 70 investors, from white-collar "townies" to rural tradies.

"The pitch is really around the community and what we are trying to achieve in terms of local ownership," he said.

"One of the big things I would like see out of this is that other people see it and say, 'Wow, we can do that in the wheat industry, we can do that in the sheep industry, we can do it in lots of areas around the country'."
  • Icon-world  ABC
  • 27 Nov 2021

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