Going back to basics pays off for farmer
TWENTY-FIVE years ago Mallanganee farmer Stuart Larsson turned away from chemical inputs.
"We were throwing everything at the soil," the Upper Clarence man recalled.
"We were using high nitrogen at 150kg/ha up to 500kg/ha and were still going backwards.
"The costs were going up and the returns were going down."
Stuart took a working holiday and travelled to the USA where he was inspired by the organic farming methods of the Pennsylvania-based Amish, a group of passionate free-thinkers who share a Dutch genealogy.
More than a hundred years ago they considered "modern" farming was going in the wrong direction, and they kept their traditional skills alive.
"Their farming and production are truly inspiring," Stuart said.
"Meeting the Amish was a turning point and compost was the basis of their business."
By adopting similar methods a gradual change took place on the Larsson properties, all within 40km of Culmaran Creek.
Soybeans benefited first and paddocks became qualified for organic status and that hurdle opened new export markets.
Then with a bit of clever processing - dehulling the bean and slightly crushing the oil-rich centre, or "gritting" them - the family avoided 90% of the whopping 465% tariff imposed on bulk Aussie soybean into Korea.
The quality of this organic soy, grown in microbe-rich soil - with a close ratio of 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen - attracted interest from Vitasoy soy milk factory.
Today Mara Seeds, with Mara Global Foods, the corner of the family business now fully controlled by their son Ross, supplies a major part of Vitasoy's organic beans.
The waste product from Ross's operation - split beans and ones that don't make the grade - go back to Stuart and his wife Katina's enterprise: SOFT Agriculture (Sustainable Organic Farming Techniques).
There it is turned into a variety of innovative and organic stock feed products: Green Cow, Green Chicken, Green Pig, Green Pastures and Green Crop.
"The family businesses work well together," Stuart said, explaining another side of the family business, value-added beef, involved his nephew Paul Allen.
His brother Keith has retired from the role of principal at the nearby Bonalbo Public School to assist with distribution and marketing.
SOFT Agriculture, now based on the highway to Tabulam, still cleans grass seed for export and provides supplemented feed products, but it is concentrating on three new projects.
They are stock feed cubes for organic application, the production of biochar in a big way, and providing calcium/phosphorous ore for a variety of custom-made blended products thanks to a sole distribution rights agreement with a rare earth mine at Monto in Queensland.
The MaraSOFT Rockphos is clean, with no impurities and provides 16% P, Stuart said, and that number will climb with further processing.
"We are looking for perfection in the organic market," he said.
SOFT Agriculture also produces stock feed pellets with additives such as biochar along with organic fertiliser in the form of compost.
As a carbon farmer, Stuart is excited about biochar and its range of positive possibilities, and his involvement has attracted the notice of the Carbon Farmers of Australia Conference, at a recent conference in Albury.
With the aim of the Carbon Farming initiative to reduce livestock emissions, biochar is proving to be a key ingredient.
Just like the old charcoal tablet prescribed by chemists in years gone by, biochar incorporated into feed pellets absorbs toxins in the animal's gut, and helps produce a manure with much less odour.
Partnering with researchers
at Central Queensland University at Rockhampton, SOFT Agriculture has pioneered innovative stock feed pellets for chickens, cattle and now pigs.
The result, now proven by rigorous science, shows an 8-12% gain in chicken meat growth and a manure by-product with half the smell.
The carbon in the pellets absorbs ammonia, making the sheds a safer place for humans and livestock.
In cattle fed on nutrition pellets infused with biochar, the growth rates climb to 17%, with a lighter fat.
"The secret is in the research and the science," Stuart said.
"If our product works then farmers will follow.
"The fertilisers came about from what we needed ourselves, and the feed pellets came about the same way.
"We then turned them into commercial products."
SOFT Agriculture is working on a dry lick for cattle that will be accredited for organic pasture-fed certification under PCAS, aimed at weaner and yearling markets.
And its organic pellet program is experimenting with soy-based proteins, instead of urea, which reduces methane.
The company is also pursuing a biochar-activated litter base for intensively farmed chicken sheds that can remain in place for a year before it needs renewal.
Another research program for egg-laying chickens fed on biochar pellets is showing results.
Stuart said the business has benefited from its philosophy of not chasing markets.
"Markets come to us," he said.
"For example, with our chicken feed additive, a six shed operation with six turn-offs of birds a year can be reduced to five with higher feed conversion to increase production investment and lower ammonia emissions.
"It's not hard to sell that."
Down the track, if the government officials in Canberra focus on carbon farming, farmers will be rewarded for good practice.
"There will be credits for reducing methane in beef and ammonia in chickens," Stuart said.
"Sixteen per cent of carbon emissions in Australia come from agriculture.
"We can address that."