A circuitous route to the top

29 Apr, 2014 02:00 AM
Intergrain chief executive Tress Walmsley.
Intergrain chief executive Tress Walmsley.

BUT FOR the vagaries of a Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia (DAFWA) posting, chief executive of leading grain breeders InterGrain Tress Walmsley could be spending her days looking down a microscope.

Ms Walmsley was in the process of beginning a doctorate in environmental science, specialising in aquatic biology when her then boyfriend, now husband, got a position at Three Springs, three hours north of Perth.

She decided to go along for a three month holiday before resuming her studies back in Perth, but was soon conned into doing some work on DAFWA trials.

One thing led to another, and before she knew it, she was in a role co-ordinating WA’s TopCrop program through DAFWA and on the pathway that led her to her job today.

Although a career in agriculture seemed unlikely during her tertiary studies, Ms Walmsley - a member of the inaugural Women in Australian Agribusiness 100 - has always had an affinity with farming, growing up on a mixed livestock and cropping operation at Northam, east of Perth.

“My brother wasn’t particularly interested in farming, but I was the one chasing Dad around as soon as I got off the school bus, going out on the tractor or helping out in the sheep yards.”

Upon beginning work formally for DAFWA, she was involved with the response to the devastating fungal disease, anthracnose, which virtually wiped out WA’s albus lupin industry in the late 1990s, before working with TopCrop.

“It was during that time at TopCrop I decided I didn’t want to go back to study, I loved being out and about and in the field.”

She said she enjoyed being involved in worthy research programs, such as the TopCrop Families initiative, which allowed women to participate more freely in research.

“I remember taking a group of 12 ladies and three babies across to the east coast, where they looked at farms through NSW and Victoria and met with marketers and researchers in both Canberra and Melbourne, it was a fantastic project.”

But it was a chance approach by a colleague at DAFWA that saw her learn the skills necessary for her role at InterGrain.

“I was asked by a workmate to help with a month long project to go and negotiate a grains intellectual property (IP) agreement.”

Following a successful outcome in getting the agreement across different links of the barley supply chain, she then ended up working as the manager of grains IP and commercialization at DAFWA.

“I wrote DAFWA’s IP policy and set up the end point royalty collection system.”

This was all in spite of no formal business or legal training.

“I just learnt on the job and was helped out by working closely with the Crown’s solicitors’ office.

“The trick was to take their formal legal advice and overlaying the commercial context to get a workable outcome in practice.”

At the time, she said many questioned whether a transition from the seed base royalty system in place to an EPR was possible.

She is glad it was.

“The old system was only generating around $50,000 in royalties per variety, which didn’t allow for a sustainable breeding program when you consider that it can take around $3 million or more to breed a variety.”

She also says it is a fairer system.

“Varieties get more royalties when they yield well, so there’s a shared reward between the growers and the breeders.”

From there, came the seeds of the privatisation of the DAFWA program which became InterGrain.

Ms Walmsley said there were already some private breeders in Australia, and she was given the task of building a business plan for a commercial breeding program in WA.

From there, she helped set up the fledgling company, including changing WA legislation to allow DAFWA to own shares in a private company, with Intergrain launching in 2007.

In its initial years, Intergrain operated similar to a shell company, with its work taken out by DAFWA employees under contract.

By 2009, staff migrated across from DAFWA and external staff were hired, and by 2010, the company added a barley breeding portfolio and launched an agreement with Monsanto which invested in the company.

Another agreement was ticked off with Syngenta in 2012 and the company is now one of the leading players in Australian breeding, with popular wheat varieties like Wyalkatchem and Emu Rock wheat and Bass and La Trobe barley.

Ms Walmsley said the partnerships with the two breeding giants had different advantages.

In terms of Monsanto, she said access to that company’s seed chipper, a piece of equipment that vastly speeds up the breeding process by identifying desirable traits quicker was a big boost, while she said the Syngenta deal gave Intergrain access to a world-class bank of malt barley germplasm.

In spite of the many achievements in its seven year history, Ms Walmsley said she felt the Intergrain business was still bedding itself down.

“In terms of our breeding program, we haven’t yet released a line that has gone through the entire pipeline at InterGrain - that will happen in the next year or two - but we’re still very much in our early days.”

Looking forward, she said Australian farmers could expect big genetic gains in wheat.

“When we compare Aussie wheat breeding, we are at the front internationally.”

And she said wheat was on the cusp of stepping out from the giant shadows of corn and soybeans in terms of yield gains.

“It’s often compared to corn and soy, which is probably not a fair assessment, as the corn and soybean plants not only have simpler genomes to work with in terms of breeding, there has also been significantly larger investment from major international breeders.

“On top of that, there has been access in both crops to biotech to help boost those gains.”

Ms Walmsley said Aussie wheat farmers could be buoyed by the fact major breeders such as Monsanto and Syngenta, but also Limagrain Dow Agroscience, and Bayer were seeking to establish a presence here.

“They can obviously see some big gains in the coming years.”

She said Intergrain had set itself an ambitious target of 2pc annual genetic gains in wheat, up from the current international mark of 1pc.

While a tough ask, she believes it will be achievable. In fact, if the company is able to use biotech, a move she feels is at least a decade away, she believes that figure could rise to closer to 3pc.

“That would put wheat right on par with what’s happened in corn and soy.”

The Women in Australian Agribusiness 100 is a joint initiative of Emerald Grain and Fairfax Agricultural Media supported by Syngenta.

Read more of our 100's stories here

Gregor Heard

Gregor Heard

is the national grains writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media


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