In celebration of the newly-awarded 2024 Nuffield Scholarship recipients, Nuffield scholars from across the country shared stories from their life and careers after the prestigious scholarship, at a national conference held last week.
WA farmer John Foss was awarded a Nuffield Scholarship in 2001, which allowed him to conduct research into food trends - and saw him develop and lead several companies within agriculture.
He looked at how our diets and lifestyles were changing, and noted more people eat on the go, turn to convenience and pre-made foods, are environmentally conscious and are more aware of health and nutrition.
Mr Foss said in his presentation that he came across an article which discussed new consumer eating habits and found parallels to his own research two decades prior.
"They're the same topics and issues, 22 years later," Mr Foss said.
During his travels to Mexico in 2001, Mr Foss learned of the nutritional benefits of chia seeds, which he said was then unknown to western markets.
In 2003, Mr Foss quickly established a new market, utilising a growing consumer trend towards health foods and launched The Chia Co.
The Chia Co. is now the largest producer of chia seeds globally.
Learning more about health foods and nutrition made Mr Foss tired of seeing his grain harvest go into processed foods.
"I was researching food and agriculture trends in Australia, and how Australian agriculture can keep ahead of the curve based on these food trends," he said.
In 2003, anthrax attacks were a major concern for the general public, who feared it may enter the supply chain.
With a few other food supply chain scares in the decades since, Mr Foss prioritised traceability within his business.
"People want to know where it's (food products) come from, who processed it?" he said.
Traceability is one factor which inspires many consumers to buy from farmers markets, despite the convenience of supermarket chains.
"I was trying to understand the behavioural psychology behind it, so I got talking to some people at a farmers market," Mr Foss said.
"Their number one thing was having a connection with the person who produced the food.
"So I was thinking how do we use our abilities to have sort of a global farmers market? How do we use technology to modify supply chains to replicate what consumers are looking for?"
Mr Foss established a chia seed farm in the Ord River valley, chosen for its climate and growing conditions, and later, in 15 countries within Africa and South America.
He said learning how to grow chia seeds in this part of the State was a learning curve for his employees, many of whom had come out of the sugar cane industry.
"We had to work out how to harvest it, seed it, clean it, put a nutritional value on it, get the food industry to understand how to use it and why," Mr Foss said.
Early on, chia was transported from the Ord River to the Wheatbelt to be cleaned.
"It's been an amazing experience teaching people how to grow chia around the world," he said.
Years later The Chia Co. came out with a chia pudding, which is chia seeds soaked in milk, typically coconut milk.
This product inspired a new business venture named Fancy Plants, which sells a range of plant based foods.
Post-Nuffield, Mr Foss's dedication to research has been ongoing.
Only a couple of years after the launch of The Chia Co., Mr Foss developed Living Farm, a research and development company and research service provider, focusing on plant breeding, crop trials, horticulture, ag tech, carbon and agronomy.
Living Farm works with the Grains Research and Development Corporation, Crops WA, the National Variety Trials project, as well as ag chemical companies, such as Syngenta, Bayer and Corteva.
Based in York, Living Farm operates on 500 trial sites around the State.
In 2015, the Ord River District Co-operative, The Chia Co. and Kimberley Agricultural Investment combined to form the Northern Australian Crop Research Alliance (NACRA).
NACRA was a response to a decline in government spending on research and development and an increase in funding from the private sector.
For the past few years, NACRA has focused on cotton research.
Esperance farmer Andrew Fowler was a Nuffield scholar in 2000 and is a former chairman of both Nuffield Australia and Nuffield International.
Mr Fowler's family farm, Chilwell, runs on more than 50,000 hectares and produces canola, wheat, lamb, wool and beef.
The business runs 30,000 Merino ewes, a few thousand grassfed Angus steers and heifers and crops 37,000ha.
They also run a feedlot to finish lambs, about 20,000 per year, which goes mostly to Coles and Woolworths.
For the past 10 years, Mr Fowler has been working to improve his farm's soil quality, in what has been a "massive effort".
He's implemented methods such as pasture rotation and growing legumes, deep ripping, spraytopping and applying lime and gypsum.
Growing pasture legumes has been one of the key drivers for productivity gains.
"It's all led to an increase in our yield potential and resilience in wetter years," Mr Fowler said.
He said the soil has vastly different types, from sand to heavy clay and loam.
"It gives us great flexibility," Mr Fowler said.
The lime is sourced onfarm, crushed, screened and sold, diversifying the agribusiness.
Mr Fowler said they used between 10,000-20,000 tonnes of lime per year and sold about the same amount.
Land and livestock aside, Mr Fowler said the most valuable asset on his farm was his staff, and with the right balance, makes a huge difference to the way the farm systems flow.
"Managing people, getting the culture right, getting the structure right, is absolutely the number one thing I do every day," he said.
"I think you have to have the mindset to continually improve the culture in the workplace, and that's all encompassing.
"It's the housing, the way their families interact with the community, kids going to school, catching the school bus, the whole thing has got to be right to get good people.
"And ideally, you want to be employing people who are way smarter than you are."
The theme of a casual, transient work culture within agriculture was a conversation many of the conference speakers touched on, however Mr Fowler said he doesn't often encounter this problem thanks to his focus on employee wellbeing.
"It's hard to get a casual back on a tractor or a header season after season, but if you have good people who have a great experience, it self-refills," he said.
"We get way more people ringing up or emailing looking for work than we could ever employ.
"You can't train values and ethics, but you can teach people skills," he said.
The Chilwell farm was established in 1969 by Mr Fowler's father.
At the time, it was about 6000ha, half of which was used for cropping.
"When he started it was just bush, there wasn't even any gravel on the road," Mr Fowler said.
"I think my dad is very proud of where we've gotten to, with our family and the business over time," he said.
Mr Fowler said a lot of people didn't believe the high rainfall zone of the State's south could be used for cropping, back when his father was establishing the land.
"Our focus has always been thinking of new ideas and putting them into practice as quickly as possible."
About 12,000 hectares of land, under a hybrid lease, is currently being converted from a blue gum tree plantation to farmland.
"I think for us, it's really important to lease land," Mr Fowler said.
"The long-term lease of a good farm has generated a lot of profits for us to keep expanding and buying other farms."
However Mr Fowler emphasised the importance of getting the lease agreement right.
"You've got to have certainty in your leases to justify the expenses, you need to put in the capital, and the machinery," he said.
"It's a really good way of leveraging your capacity to increase operating profits.
"It's a little bit out of your control when timing happens and when opportunities arise, and what is for sale versus what is for lease."
At the time of Mr Fowler's Nuffield Scholarship, he was producing about three tonnes of crop per hectare and now his yield sits at about 4.5t/ha.
"It's going to keep growing, and I'm excited as ever for that potential," he said.
Mr Fowler also spoke on the importance of "not burning out by the time you're 50", stating with any job, balance is important.
"I see it a lot in agriculture, people work so hard," Mr Fowler said.
"You've got to have some perspective and do the things you enjoy."
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