EXPANDING and diversifying into the Kimberley region is what Andrew 'Twiggy' and Nicola Forrest's purchase of Jubilee and Quanbun Downs, near Fitzroy Crossing, will offer their existing beef cattle operation.
The Western Australian billionaires announced last week they were the buyers of the premium offering via their investment vehicle Tattarang.
The offering comprises 221,408 hectares across two leases and 11,500 Droughtmaster cattle, for which they paid between $30-$35 million.
Elders pastoral sales specialist and selling agent Greg Smith said the value of the cattle and land was about a 50/50 split.
The vendors were Keith and Karen Anderson, who were also managers for many decades, as well as silent partner, United States billionaire Edward Bass.
It's understood that the Forrests were not the highest bidder and that the sellers had a criteria they wanted in a buyer.
Mr Forrest said Mr Anderson preferred a buyer who would maintain and improve the quality of the cattle herd that had been built up over decades, invest in the property's production, respect the native environment and commit to working with indigenous people.
It's the Forrest family's first investment into the region and Mr Forrest said his family business appeared to suit those requirements, which he was committed to fulfilling.
"I think all that criteria came into our favour and we are very proud purchases," Mr Forrest said.
Station a good fit for current business
Mr Forrest said the property will give his businesses even more scope to increase productivity and will become part of his agriculture and food production business, Harvest Road.
"We grow for temperament, the right frame, weight, the highest quality kilogram and have WA produce value-added where we don't simply sell the beast onto a ship to be value-added and generate employment overseas, but we do it here in WA," Mr Forrest said.
"Now having capability in the Kimberley, through the Pilbara, Gascoyne, to the Great Southern and north and south of Perth, will now give us that productivity."
The offering was regarded as a premium listing, with exceptional country including about 90 kilometres of Fitzroy River frontage and Alexander Island, Mr Forrest said he was impressed by the property's beauty and productivity.
"Alexander Island, which is surrounded by the Forrest and Fitzroy Rivers, is one of the most unique pieces of land I've seen in Australia and is 100,000 acres (40,500ha) on its own," Mr Forrest said.
"The rest of the station is also absolutely unique."
Mr Anderson is a highly-regarded cattleman throughout the Kimberley and was recognised by the North Australian Beef Research Council with a Producer of the Year award.
The cattle herd included in the sale was one of the major drawcards for the Forrests.
"The line of cattle is probably one of the best lines of Droughtmaster that I have ever seen in my life," Mr Forrest said.
"There is consistent quality all the way through and that is the legacy of Keith and Karen Anderson, who have been developing and refining that herd over four decades.
"We have known Keith and Karen for a long time - they have always been a couple that has commanded respect in the Forrest family and they are a real joy to do business with."
Mr Forrest said he has someone in mind to manage the station, who is close to the Anderson family and comes with their recommendation.
Harvest Road manages five pastoral stations: Minderoo Coast (Urala station), Minderoo and Minderoo South (Uaroo and Nanutarra stations) in the Pilbara and Minilya and Brickhouse in the Gascoyne, covering 1.3 million hectares.
Harvest Road is also developing a major cattle finishing facility at Koojan, which will be operated by Harvey Beef and its partners and clients in the South West to create an integrated WA production hub.
Mr Forrest said the facility has full board approval but could not confirm a date as to when it will be fully operational.
He said it was designed to use best management practices for producing low stress beef, with the guidance of renowned animal psychological expert Temple Grandin, who visited the plant last year.
"We said to her that we want a no pain, no fear life cycle for our animals and certainly during finishing, we want the facility to feel like it's free range finishing and the cattle can come and go as they please and live the life they want to," Mr Forrest said.
"In the lead-up of converting cattle to beef, ensuring there isn't stress or pain and there is no reason why there should be in best management beef processes, is the future of the beef industry.
"The establishment of Koojan will create an interlocking beef production chain from the north to the South West of WA, based on the best ecological planning, combining preservation and enhancement of the local environment."
Family ties to the land
Sentimental value was likely another factor influencing the Forrest's decision to purchase the property.
The first explorers in the region were led by explorer Alexander Forrest, whose expedition in 1897 opened up millions of hectares of land that would be the foundation of the WA's cattle industry, including discovering a vast tract of well watered pastoral country on the Fitzroy and Ord Rivers.
"(The Forrest family) had stations up there and with other pastoralists set up this pretty rich tradition of looking after the country, as well as breeding fine cattle," Mr Forrest said.
"And Keith Anderson speaks of that really warmly."
Alexander Forrest was Mr Forrest's great-grand uncle.
Plan to preserve environment:
Mr and Ms Forrest claim to be passionate about the environment and pledged to conduct a native fauna survey on the property.
"We want to know what the rare and endangered species are and the area we need to protect and enhance to make those species more common," he said.
Management of water from the Fitzroy River has been a contentious issue since last year and with such large access to the river from the property, environmentalists and indigenous groups have expressed concern as to what the Forrest's plans could be for the river.
While Mr Forrest said on the ABC Country Hour that he had no plans to draw or not draw water from the river, he told Farm Weekly that his decisions for the property would be in the best interests of the land and beef operation.
"I think that premium beef can compete with the cotton and rice industry every day of the week for generating employment, the economy and certainly for preserving the land," he said.
"It outstrips any of those industries for looking after the environment and maintaining a sustainable ecology which supports the original species that deserve to still make it their home.
"I will be looking to make premium beef as competitive as any of those industries.
"I am not looking to switch Jubilee's priorities but to improve it further."
Desire to work with the Aboriginal community
The sale process was criticised when it was revealed that a consortium of Aboriginal parties, including the Yi-Martuwarra Ngurrara native title group, was a losing bidder, which offered $25m.
Yi-Martuwarra Ngurrara had the desire to utilise the land for tourism and sustainable development, and has expressed concern that the Forrests would take water from the Fitzroy River.
It was reported that Yi-Martuwarra Ngurrara were going to contest the sale by lobbying Land Minister Ben Wyatt.
But the government has little power to stop a private sale, especially seeing as no Foreign Investment Review Board approval was required.
Yi-Martuwarra Ngurrara could not be reached for comment.
Mr Forrest said he was on good terms with Yanunijarra Aboriginal Corporation (which represents Yi-Martuwarra Ngurrara) chief executive officer Peter Murray and that Mr Murray was aware of the Forrest's plans to work with local indigenous people and maintain and improve the country.
"Ownership is a bit of a white folk construct; indigenous people have been custodians of this land for tens of thousands of years and that's not going to stop and I see that when you fall in love with country, it owns you, you don't own it," he said.
"Their ability to maintain that custodianship, to be able to enjoy hunting and gathering rights, we would welcome.
"We haven't seen evidence where they haven't respected the country, they of course have to clean up after themselves, close the gates etc, but everyone expects that from anyone."
Mr Forrest said he's passionate about giving Aboriginal people equal opportunities throughout his businesses and plans to employ local indigenous people as part of the Jubilee Downs and Quanbun Downs operation.
"We really believe that all vulnerable Australians get weaker when there are no opportunities around and instead of opportunities, the white fella tends to just throw money to the issue," he said.
"However, we like to make all vulnerable Australians - it doesn't matter if they're black or white - stronger through training, employment and equal opportunities to allow them to stand on their own two feet to be proud of their own careers, to mentor their own children through the success of themselves and that's led to FMG (Fortescue Metals Group) being one of the largest employees of Aboriginal people in all of Australia.
"At any one time we have about 10-14 per cent of our workforces being indigenous and we have been able to grow indigenous careers from being unskilled to hyper-skilled, which is very much part of our 'non-handout but give you a hand-up culture', which is so critical for vulnerable Australians."
What this sale means for the market
Elders' Greg Smith said the sale met his price expectations and it demonstrated the strength of the market and agricultural industry.
"The high amount and quality of interest that was received demonstrates that there is a lot of confidence in the marketplace going forward," Mr Smith said.
"It reflects the strong confidence in the future of the cattle industry and, in particular, in the live export trade and it cements the Kimberley as a highly respected cattle breeding region."
While Mr Smith said the outcome was great news for the Kimberley real estate market, "one thing that can't be underestimated is the attraction of the ability to secure one of the finest Droughtmaster herds in northern Australia".
The cattle were one of the offering's biggest attractions, representing about half of the value.
"To get a breeding herd that has had 40 years of very stringent selective breeding is not something that is easy to do, especially in the current market - quality breeding cows are in short supply and the genetics at Jubilee Downs will go a long way to lifting the genetics across all of the Forrest's enterprises through the pastoral area," Mr Smith said.
It's unlikely that this sale will encourage other Kimberley pastoral leaseholders to offer their properties to the market, as he expects the market to remain very tightly held.
"All the fundamentals are positive - the cattle herd is as low as it has ever been, there are diversified markets for beef and the world demand for protein continues to grow," he said.
Public interest test
Seeing as the Forrest family own more than 500,000ha of pastoral land in WA, under the Land Administration Act 1997 they are required to pass a public interest test.
It is up to Mr Wyatt to decide if the transfer would not result in so great a concentration of control of pastoral land as to be against the public interest.
The department could not confirm or deny whether or not the deal was in the public interest as "the Minister for Lands has not yet received a request for the transfer of Jubilee Downs and Quanbun Downs pastoral leases".