Lottie Lawler

Agriculture Scholar – In Honour of Lord Forress

Categorie: Agribusiness

2021

 

I entered the agricultural industry with excitement, passion and the burning desire to contribute to and develop the certified organic sector. What I discovered is that our innovative Australian farmers are fighting an uphill battle; even the most courageous, well-resourced and innovative organic farmers are struggling to farm sustainably. Organic farmers are at the forefront when it comes to environmental sustainability and stewardship of the land, but they need knowledge and skills to run fully sustainable businesses which can survive and grow; that can consistently supply the end consumer, and can transfer their knowledge to younger generations.

Farming on scale allows for increased efficiency, profitability, and sustainability, but Australian farmers currently do not have access to the technology and machinery required to achieve this. Ultimately, a fractured industry, inconsistencies in availability of produce for consumers and a lack of modern technology, processes and knowledge are holding Australian farmers and the organic industry back.

Australia has over 50% of the certified organic land globally, yet compared to countries like the USA and the Netherlands, Australia is quite inefficient in its gross revenue per hectare in certified organic production. This is largely due to the lack of knowledge that is available and shared within the industry. I will go to university one day to study organic farming, but until there are courses teaching Australian farmers how to succeed in both the production and business aspects of organic farming, the best education I can get is from the farmers who are currently learning what works and how those successes can be replicated. Specifically, I would like to learn from people and organisations in France, the Netherlands and the USA, where strong organic communities have been developed.

If people can’t or won’t pay the price they see on the shelf, then the organic industry is not sustainable. The product also needs to look and taste excellent. The goal of an organic farmer is always to grow product that can be sold at a sustainable price, but increase the quality of the experience for the end consumer. So while I continue my “farming apprenticeship” on Wattle Organic Farms, I aim to further develop sustainability through the business, by focussing on consistency and profitability within our current lines while gaining the knowledge required to develop better production management practices (including autonomous robots for weeding) and other aspects of the business (such as extending our usage of biodegradable packaging, sourcing more. customers for “cosmetically challenged” fruit and vegetables). Knowledge in better organic production management is desperately needed across the industry.

Through my BBM Global Industry Scholarship I believe that I will be able to help reverse the tide. Bringing ideas, contacts and proven methods from overseas to Australian farmers will benefit the whole sector. Good, intelligent farmers are leaving the industry as their methods and business models are proving to be unsustainable. Younger generations are advised to stay away from the risky and unlucrative business of farming. We need more farmers and better farmers. Farmers with skills, agile minds, perspective and drive entering the business of farming and doing it sustainably.

Europe and America are global leaders in organic agriculture. It has been said that Australia is 10 years behind these organic giants and little is being done to correct that chasm. Greater resources have been dedicated to organic agriculture in a more targeted way, allowing research facilities, enterprises and organisations to prosper. I have researched specific organisations within these countries that I believe offer direct solutions to the issues raised above. It would be an honour to learn from these innovators. Some of those that I would love to learn from include:

Naïo Technologies (a French autonomous weeding robot company in Escalquens, France). The biggest expense on most organic farms is labour as weeds must be removed by hand or with tractor-drawn implements, rather than with chemicals. This is extremely expensive and often ineffective, as people cannot weed thousands of hectares and tractor implements, while more efficient, are either too imprecise (and end up digging up the crop rather than the weeds), or cause damage to drip lines and other irrigation systems, which adds to the expense of the process. Weeds therefore directly relate to the cost of organic produce – if we can reduce the cost of weeding, organic food becomes more affordable.

Rodale Institute (growing the organic movement through rigorous, solutions-based research, farmer training, and consumer education, located in Kutztown, USA). Rodale is an organic agriculture hub that pushes the latest information and methods out to the farming community. The knowledge, exposure and contacts I would gain from visiting this institute would be invaluable. Jeff Moyer, CEO at the Rodale Institute, is a world-renowned authority in organic agriculture and could offer insights into organic no-till and how best to adopt it into organic agriculture businesses.

Midwest Bio Systems (renewable farming systems with a focus on enhancing soil quality and productivity over time. Run by Edwin Blosser in Illinois, USA). The farm I work on currently employs a composting system designed by this company and I’m hungry to learn more about the science and technology behind what I see in the field when we spread Humus compost out on the crops. I would like to know how other organic farmers can benefit from the technology and knowledge, especially when transitioning from conventional to organic farming.

Hudson Valley Farm Hub, (a philanthropically-funded research and development centre for finding solutions for real organic challenges, e.g. No-till in cereal and vegetable production, in New York State, USA). HVFH particularly interested me as it is entirely community-focussed. They believe in building up the collective knowledge of organic agriculture and are a non-profit centre for resilient agriculture. They also provide professional farmer training, host and support agricultural research, demonstrate new farm technologies, and serve as an educational resource for advances in food and farming.

Bio Brass (large-scale, vertically integrated organic brassica business in Zeewolde, Netherlands). Gerjan Snippe, Principal at Bio Brass, has an innovative method of farming, by leasing land and using an extensive crop rotation system to create a robust agricultural business. I would love to learn about his alterative farming model, where the agricultural business doesn’t own production land, but uses knowledge and marketing skill to profitably produce and supply the end consumer. This way of thinking could open up new opportunities for young or resource-lacking farmers to farm effectively without first owning land and assets.

My goal is to bring that knowledge back to the Australian organic industry so I can provide current and future organic farmers with the tools they need to succeed – knowledge, technology and community. I too hope to have my own organic farm one day. I see “future me” facing similar challenges to those I am currently witnessing at work and on other farms, if the industry doesn’t get a shake-up and set some bright minds to work.

To achieve my goals, I need to learn from successful organic farmers in countries that are proving to be progressive and cohesive in the organic agriculture space.

I have always lived rurally, but didn’t grow up on farm. I was selected to attend the National Youth Science Forum (NYSF) in 2016 and realised during an excursion to a regenerative agricultural farm that I was scratching the surface of something that was really exciting to me. I wanted to learn everything I could about agriculture.

I was fortunate to spent 7 months in France following NYSF. During the school holidays, all I wanted to do was visit the local farms, so I took myself around the countryside (on a bike borrowed from my host mum!) and met with goat farmers, olive growers, and orchard owners. It was quite an education in French and agriculture!

After year 12, I spent the year working and doing as much voluntary work experience with farmers around the state as I could. I learnt from sheep and livestock farmers, mixed enterprise farmers and finally, from Wattle Organic Farms, where I was offered a position as Assistant Manager after just 7 days of work experience.

I took up this position and deferred a Bachelor of Agriculture at the University of Melbourne and a $37,000 scholarship to learn more from the people who overcome challenges day after day to get food on Australian plates. I will attend university when the time is right, but my education at the farm to date has given me knowledge and perspective that I could never have appreciated in a lecture theatre. I can now pinpoint where the issues lie and have a clearer picture about where I can contribute to the industry. In the 15 months I have been living and working on one of Victoria’s biggest and most innovative horticultural farms, I have:

  • Introduced and implemented a farm business improvement initiative onto farm, involving whole team training on site, with an emphasis on culture.
  • Created this year’s broccoli programme involving 16 different planting dates, each involving 60,000 transplanted seedlings, with multiple varieties, to ensure a consistent broccoli harvest volume for our growing season.
  • Reinvented the website and public image of the farm business.
  • Started a local Produce Box delivery business, servicing three of the local towns with our produce to assist vulnerable people during COVID-19 restrictions.
  • Assisted with one of the farm’s development projects to import 12 French apricot varieties. This will allow us to offer a consistent supply of very high quality, truly organic and flavoursome apricots to our customers for an entire 4 month window.
  • Created training videos to allow for more transparency across the farm and empower all members of our team.
  • Learnt to use all implements and machinery on the farm to assist with daily farm work.
  • Attended numerous industry events, including Australian Organic, VFF, NFF and local seminars held in our growing area, where I was able to network with various leaders within these organisations.

I am in my final year of a Certificate IV in Agriculture and have just started an Advanced Diploma in Agribusiness. While I continue my studies, both academically and on the farm, I have several targeted courses planned, including a Certificate in Nutrition farming in Queensland. I aim to be a farmer, farm owner and manager. Being a farmer is committing to lifelong learning and gives credibility to anything you do within the broader industry. In later years, I see myself contributing to agriculture through leadership, being an executive on a peak representative body such as the VFF or the NFF.

Many farmers have the intention to move away from conventional, synthetic fertiliser-based farming to organic or more sustainable farming practices, but there simply is no knowledge bank, system or course that farmers can follow to assist them. My goal is to ultimately develop a blueprint for transitioning to organic farming, which would not only help individual farmers, but would also contribute to the development of a sustainable certified organic industry in Australia.

You have to walk before you run and I know my career is going to be a long and diverse one! Before I can have a truly powerful impact I need to invest in my education. My BBM scholarship will propel me along this journey and the professional and personal development that will come from travelling and learning from those experienced in the field will be uniquely useful and invaluable.

I have loved giving back, and the people I have met by serving in leadership roles and volunteering in the community stay with me, and I know each interaction has “nudged my ship” and changed the course of my life by just a couple of degrees.

From volunteering at aged care facilities, to a 12 day volunteering trip to Thailand to assist disadvantaged children, to Relay for Life and Riding for the Disabled, I had many opportunities to give back to my community. In year 12, I volunteered each Wednesday evening as an assistant/instructor with the organisation E.motion21, which provides weekly fitness classes for young people with Down syndrome. It was a wonderful weekly reminder of how resilient and courageous Australians are.

Community is so important and that has been underscored to me in the rural agricultural community in which I now live. The mental health of our farmers is declining and the agricultural community does not currently foster a supportive, open and growing space for agricultural discussion. Rural people need support in many areas of their lives. Conscious of this, I completed my Youth Mental Health First Aid training last year and am now an Accredited Mental Health First Aider.

When COVID-19 broke out in our community, I set up our produce box delivery service, to help those who are vulnerable access safe, healthy, fresh, local produce. The appreciation coming back to us as a local farm is heartening and through these brief face-to-face interactions, I have met many other local farmers! My network is ever growing.

Members of the team at Wattle Organic Farms hold various positions on boards, committees and advisory panels with VFF, NFF, Skillselect, Australian Organic and Horticulture Innovation. Through these connections, I will be able to make the knowledge I have gained accessible to the organic and agricultural industries in Australia. I am also a member of Young Agribusiness Professionals (YAPS), an offshoot to the VFF.

“Lottie has identified a true knowledge and skill gap in Australian Agriculture, within an industry that is likely to grow in the future and play an important role in the value of the sector. Her study path and destinations are detailed and will provide tangible results back to industry and herself. Lottie displays initiative and leadership qualities that will only be further enhanced from this opportunity.” – BBM Industry Panel

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