"If you asked the question, almost everyone would be able to tell you who their doctor is, even though you only see them every six months. If however, you asked someone, 'who's your farmer?' they would have no idea, even though we sit down to three meals a day! There's no relationship there and I'd like to see that change." - Charlie Arnott
Charlie Arnott has farming in his blood.
His family has bred cattle for 60 years and his great, great, great grandfather William Arnott started the famous Arnott's Biscuit Company. Charlie is at the forefront of sustainable farming practices and is an ambassador for 'From Farm to Fork', a Landcare Australia initiative to get people together to enjoy awesome Australian food, while supporting the farmers who make it possible.
Charlie breeds his cattle hormone free and grass fed, winning countless awards along the way for his natural resource management and conservation practices.
We caught up with Charlie to chat about farming and the romance of agriculture.
How does your business work?
My family has been on this farm for 45 years, I moved back home to manage it in 1997. For the first eight years we did everything conventionally but over the last 10 years I've done things very differently. We were very busy and relatively environmentally conscious but I didn't feel it was sustainable and felt that needed to be looked at.
We stopped using chemicals and 'cropping'. There were seven or eight enterprises within the farm and I was finding it complicated to manage them all properly. This meant we were compromising so the decision was made to simplify the business to beef.
See also: Shaping Sustainable Surfboards
What was the biggest change for you?
The biggest change came from asking the question "who was going to eat the food?"
Agriculture has become industrial and lost its romance, it's all machines and chemicals. I'm trying to get back to the most natural form possible. I think the gradual shift of people moving from the country to the city is creating a real disconnect. There is the possibility of an immediate connection back to food because it is front of us three times a day.
For me, I stopped having the attitude that I am a farmer who produces a commodity. Instead, I started thinking that I am a farmer who grows food to feed people. I wanted to focus on the connection between me as a feeder, and the eaters. This change of attitude increased the degree of responsibility I had to people and the environment. Previously we would produce a commodity and forward it on, now the focus is how we produce that food and how we think about the people who are eating it. In a perfect world not one kilo of beef will go off our paddock without knowing where it goes.
The attitude change came first, then the change of management and marketing came second.
We work with nature a lot more. With conventional farming you are constantly fighting nature, all you are doing with chemicals is trying to kill stuff. So we work with nature instead of against it. Once you are dependent upon the chemical loop it requires more and more manmade things to prop it up. It's hard to break the loop, but once you do, the natural food produced is worth it.
How important is the marketing side of what you are trying to do?
As a general rule farmers are really bad marketers. They need to be plumbers, electricians, land managers, all these other things, and then go about producing a product. There's just no time for anything else. We have great product we just don't know how to sell it. Improving marketing has the potential to make a big impact on the business.
Traditionally farmers are terrible at marketing but have an amazing product. It's up to us to sell the sizzle as well as the sausage.
I had no experience with social media. Everyone is on social media and it is an effective medium to get the message out. A lot of the people who are keen on their food and are looking to buy good quality food, this is what they use to source info - not through the papers or TV.
The future of farmers lies in the hands of communicating that message. If we just keep producing a really good product and get the message out there, social media will sell it for us.
I am trying to create a movement called 'Who's Your Farmer?'. The aim is to get people curious about where their food comes from and how it is produced. I want to create a demand not just an endless supply. After all we are dealing with people not machines so we need to bring back that human element.
A young fella named Daniel Hayes actually came to us via social media. He had been working in the mines and after seeing what we do said, "I want to work with you guys". He had no experience but knew he wanted to grow food and feed people. He studied cultural enterprise and we joined forces, he provided research, time, and a different point of view and we provided the land and resources.
Now we are looking at multiple enterprises again. From a management and environmental point of view makes sense to create a layering of enterprises which make good, clean beautiful food that we can sell to people.
See also: Surviving the outback with Bob Cooper
You're an ambassador for 'From Farm to Fork', can you tell us about that?
From Farm to Fork is helping with the education of where food comes from and building that connection. Hopefully people get inspired and say, "wow! I want to know where that is from". It is also helping connect people with an experience and location and great outdoors, the birds, cattle, chickens, fruit, veggies. The gap between kids these days and farm life is so distant they wouldn't know about it.
A growing portion of the population is curious as to where their food is from, because they have to be. Allergies are far more common these days so people go to great lengths to find out where their food is from and develop an understanding. Obviously all of our food is chemical free and organic, we just need to inform people.
What is some advice for people that interested in this idea?
We are very lucky in Australia that we have food with no hassle and it's cheap, but it's not all good.
When you are ordering a steak or eggs, ask where it is from. The more people who ask the more restaurants and chefs will bother to find out themselves. This creates a consciousness from people who are cooking. As a result people will support the restaurants that support the farmers.
Also keep an eye out for farmers selling direct at either farmers markets or other means. It's all about asking questions and connecting with your food. Let's bring the romance back into it.