Episode 6

How travelling the world’s farms helped Emma discover the best way to run her huge cattle business

Interview with Emma Robinson, founder of the Beef Collaboration Project, about why local farming community can be more sustainable through optimising members’ production systems and creating new value in supply chains.

 

North Queensland-based Emma Robinson is passionate about family farming, beef and business models and believes the co-operative business model can help future proof the family farm. So much so, she founded the Beef Collaboration Project and has stories to tell about building producer membership and providing scalable opportunities in the bush. Listen to her fascinating journey spreading the word about collaboration in farming and how much it can benefit agriculture and the economy. In spite of her being in such a remote area, she travelled the world as part of a Churchill Fellowship, exploring and connecting with other farming enterprises – and she kept coming back to the co-operative model as the structure that seemed to stand out. In this podcast episode she talks about why that was.

Listen to Episode 6

Episode 6 transcript

Melina Morrison:

Hi, I’m Melina Morrison, CEO of Business Council cooperatives and Mutuals.  Welcome to our cooperative farming podcast series. Cooperative Farming is designed to support farmers, fishers and foresters through the formation of new farming cooperatives, and to foster the resilience and growth of developing farming cooperatives.

Today, Emma Robinson Founder of The Beef Collaboration Project.

Emma’s massive 55,000 hectare farm is based in the remote area of Charters Towers.  She is a big believer that farmers who share insights, knowledge and work together can thrive. even in such isolated environments. So much so, she founded the Beef Collaboration Project. Its vision is to make their local farming community more sustainable through optimising members’ production systems and creating new value in supply chains.

The irony about Emma’s story is that in spite of her being in such a remote area, through her Churchill Fellowship she travelled the world exploring and connecting with other farming enterprises. She kept coming back to the co-operative model as the structure that seemed to stand out. In this episode she talks about why that was.

Here’s our host, renowned agricultural journalist, Peter Lewis. Enjoy!

Pete Lewis:

Let’s get up towards Charters Towers in North Queensland, Emma Robinson is a cattle farmer in that neck of the woods, and she’s spent several years studying various farm models. She’s convinced that co-operative farming is the way forward for Aussie farmers and she has founded the Beef Collaboration Project Incorporated with a focus on enabling family farmers to leverage greater scale, optimise their production systems and create new value in beef supply chains. Welcome along Emma, and by the look of it you are coming from your kid’s classroom on your property there, near Charters Towers.

Emma Robinson:

Thanks, Pete. It’s great to be here. Yes, my kids do school there, and this is where we get the strongest internet connection. So hence why I’m in the classroom this afternoon.

Pete Lewis:

And I guess you must have watched with great interest as the rest of the country had to come to grips over the past six months or so with working from home, and particularly schooling from home?

Emma Robinson:

Well, it was really business as usual for us, Pete. We live in a fairly isolated area. So apart from a bit of grocery shortages, the old toilet supply shortages that everyone experienced, for us it was really business as usual.

Pete Lewis:

Now what is also business as usual is the ups and downs of some pretty volatile seasons. And going back over the last 12 months or so, it’s been a very character-building time for the northern beef industry, of which you are smack bang in the middle of it. If it’s not drought, it’s floods. And of course, we mentioned the pandemic. How have things been going for you?

Emma Robinson:

Look, it’s certainly been a tough period, I think, for graziers and particularly in the north. And I think, like a lot of graziers, we’ve gotten really good at managing variability. So whether that be a lack of rainfall and really looking at how we better manage our grass or its price variability, and we’re really looking at how we can maximise different prices in different markets. What we’ve certainly gotten better at is managing variability. So whatever the conditions, whether they be drought, flood pandemics, we’re getting better all the time at managing to all those different changes.

Pete Lewis:

Where do your cattle go? Where do you aim them? What are you trying to produce?

Emma Robinson:

So we run an extensive grazing enterprise. We have about 55,000 hectares over two properties in the north and a property in Central Queensland. And we’re all grass-fed. So we really target those grass-fed markets. But as you’d know, in the north, sometimes it doesn’t rain. So we’re looking at different markets all the time and looking to really optimise our production and also the markets to which we sell. So managing variability is really what we do. And I think it’s what we’re getting pretty good at.

Pete Lewis:

Now as I said in the introduction, you’ve been scanning the horizon, studying the business of farming and looking at various different options and different farming models. What got you interested in the co-operative approach?

Emma Robinson:

Well, I cut my teeth out of uni as an extension officer. And I guess, pretty quickly, I saw the great value in farmers sharing knowledge, sharing insights and working together. So that’s something that I’ve always been really passionate about. Now in our own grazing enterprise, I guess we’ve experienced firsthand some of the challenges that family farming enterprises face. So I guess key to that was 2014 with the shutdown of the live export markets, we magnified the issue of drought. We were looking at six months to get cattle into a meat works in the north. So we really felt like we were living life at the end of the food chain. And I guess, in that period, we used those insights and that frustration that we were feeling to really start thinking about is there more to simply being a producer of a product?

Emma Robinson:

And at that time, we were getting very low prices for cattle at a time when the beef market, the prices for beef, were at world highs. And I guess we’re seeing the reverse of some of those trends at the moment. But it really highlighted the cyclical nature of the industry that we’re in and really got us wondering about what can we do. We’re passionate about where we are and what we do, but there’s got to be more to it to be here in the long-term. To pass our enterprise onto the next generation, we’ve got to be thinking outside simply being farmers, I think. And there’s a great quote from Teddy Roosevelt, and it says, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” And I guess that’s the approach we’ve taken. How can we leverage what we’ve got? It’s not about doing something completely different, but how can we leverage and build on what were already the great things that we’re already doing?

Pete Lewis:

Now, you were awarded a Churchill Fellowship, which I guess was another opportunity for you to think a little bit outside the square. You got a chance to study abroad. What did you pick up on on that journey that really helped inform your approach and particularly hone you in on the co-operative approach?

Emma Robinson:

Absolutely. So I applied to the Churchill on the basis of that frustration that we were feeling in regards to profitability, primarily. And I really went wanting to see what other family farmers were doing around the world and how they were leveraging profitability. How were they making their businesses more profitable? So I spent three months looking at farming models in the UK, in Canada and the US. And I saw lots of similar challenges to what we’re facing in Australia. Issues around scale, process of consolidation and long-term issues about the profitability of the family farm. And I didn’t seek out just co-operatives. I looked at lots of different models. But wherever I went, I certainly saw the co-operative structure, particularly in the UK and the US.

Emma Robinson:

They have a history of co-operatives, primarily co-operatives have been used as a model to deal with a problem that they have. So when the local pub shut and they wanted to keep it open, they formed a co-operative to keep it open. When they needed power through the US Midwest, they formed a co-operative and they made it happen. When they wanted to get cheaper fuel, they formed a co-operative and they made it happen. So co-operatives were through the landscape, really responding to issues that farmers had, not just farmers, rural communities, issues that they had around wanting access to services that they couldn’t otherwise get through mainstream business models.

Emma Robinson:

So I certainly saw co-operatives. I saw lots of examples of family farmers being in the supply chain. So not just selling to the supply chain, but being in the supply chain. And I also saw lots of examples of enterprises leveraging the value of the family farm. So that idea of the family farm being used as credit in terms of how they were marketing their products. So a lot of businesses were really leveraging their story on the idea that they were based on family farmers. So I really saw the credential, the value of that.

Emma Robinson:

And just one quick example of a co-operative that I saw, that I keep talking about because it’s such a great example. So I turned, turned up in a small town in Kansas and had a meeting in a very nondescript office, which was their co-operative headquarters. So there was a few meeting rooms, a couple of computers, and a few staff. And this co-operative was turning off over 600,000 head of cattle to a major processor. So they were feedlotters, they formed because they were frustrated with the prices they were getting as small feedlotters. They aggregated their pool of cattle and they really went and knocked on processors’ doors and asked how they could add value.

Emma Robinson:

And they were really interesting, not only because they obviously significant producers running on very streamlined system. But they weren’t about doing everything themselves. They were really looking for how they could add value. And I think that was a great example. And so from all of that insight, I guess I came back really passionate for the cooperative story. And seeing that as a great vehicle, particularly for family farmers, in leveraging your value on top of what they’re already doing.

Pete Lewis:

So if I’ve got the story straight, you traveled the world, soaked up all that information. You turn yourself into the Wizard of Oz, click your heels, you back in Charters Towers, and you decide the next thing you’re going to do is create something that you call the Beef Collaboration Project. Tell us how that came together and what you wanted it to achieve.

Emma Robinson:

That’s right, Pete. I mean, you can’t do a Churchill fellowship and have that insight and do nothing with it. I mean, you’ve got to take that leap and you’ve got to have a go. And I guess my having a go was forming the Beef Collaboration Project, a number of years ago now. We were lucky that at the same time I was talking about co-operatives, a lot of other people were also talking about the power of co-operatives. So we got some really invaluable seed funding through the Farming Together program, funded by the federal government and that was invaluable. And really establishing some capacity to lay the foundation. So we formed a founding group of members. And we started the process of building the business model around how can we leverage value? So that was the question we were trying to answer, what can we do differently to really leverage value? And that was really the start of the process.

Pete Lewis:

Everybody gets the idea that there is strength in numbers. And yet you are in a business that is notorious for rugged individuals who like to go their own way and do their own way. What was the selling point? How did you get them over the line? And how hard was to get them over the line and get them involved?

Emma Robinson:

Look, I think there are a lot of businesses like ours that are profitable businesses, that are humming away fairly well, but looking for something more. And I think it’s about tapping into those enterprises. So there’s a group of people out there like us, we don’t count ourselves as a large producer. We’re not really a small producer, we’re in that middle ground. Producers like us, humming away, that are asking, “What else is out there? How can we do more?” And I think there are certainly a lot of producers out there that are getting bigger themselves and driving that opportunity themselves, going into looking at value adding and processing and marketing. But I think there’s a lot of us in that middle that want to like that idea, but also like the idea of how can we share that journey? How can we leverage what we want to do collaboratively? And is there an opportunity to do that? So I think it’s about tapping into those people that are in that middle ground, that are looking for the next step beyond simply running their own farms.

Pete Lewis:

And how’s it gone? Have you kicked the goals that you expected you would?

Emma Robinson:

Look, I think even the fact that we could get ten enterprises together talking about opportunities and starting to build the model is a huge win. We are certainly taking a long-term perspective. So this isn’t going to happen tomorrow. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. So this is a hard slog and we’re dealing with a lot of competing factors. But I haven’t had anyone tell me that it’s a really dumb idea. I mean, I love listening to people’s opinions about what we’re doing and what’s wrong with it. I love hearing that because I think we’ve got to take on board that feedback, and we’ve got to understand people’s concerns. But I’ve really had no one say, “That’s not going to work.”

Emma Robinson:

I there’s a couple of things that are happening around producers and where productions at. And then I think things are happening in the external environment that mean the timing’s right for farmers to move beyond production and start really looking at opportunities outside their farm gate that can leverage what they’re already doing, make them do what they’re doing better, but also create new value in the supply chain.

Pete Lewis:

Yeah. One of the things we’ve heard a number of times in the course of this series is how generous other co-operatives are in sharing their hard learned lessons. Did you reach out to any that were in your space, or even some that were in completely different commodity sectors, for a little bit of advice so that you didn’t make the same mistakes they did when they set up?

Emma Robinson:

Absolutely. I mean, that’s one of the values of being a co-operative, is that co-operative community. And without a doubt, I’m confident that I could ring the chair of any cooperative and they would answer my questions. They would help me deal with any issue that we’re dealing with. And I’ve done that, I’ve spoken to lots of different cooperatives. Not just farming cooperatives, but across the board. And that support is certainly there. And I guess it certainly makes you feel that you’re part of something that’s really quite significant. And that’s exciting.

Pete Lewis:

Now, in terms of identifying the people that you wanted to work with and get involved in the Beef Collaboration Project, how did you go through that process? Was it just a natural extension of the relationships you already had in your area or were you looking for people to meet certain criteria and bring something to the table, to the organisation?

Emma Robinson:

We didn’t have any set criteria, we didn’t do a public notice and invite people along. We really just used our own networks and people kind of found us. So we certainly put the idea out there and people that were interested approached us to be involved. And interestingly, we attracted a certain kind of producer. We attracted producers who have done other things. So, a lot of the guys in our group have been involved in other fields. We had an accountant, we had a lawyer, we’ve got a vet. So, we’ve got different skills across the broad. So people that are bringing with them really interesting perspectives beyond simply production. And I guess we also got people that were looking for something else beyond simply producing.

Emma Robinson:

So I say to people that there’s lots of low-hanging fruit in the beef industry, production wise, to pick. If you’re still picking that low hanging fruit, well that’s where you’re best focusing your efforts. But if your business is humming along and you’re profitable, then you’re the kind of candidate that we want. Our model is not for everyone. I mean, I think that co-operatives are for everyone, but it depends on the business model that’s being developed. But certainly, for us, we’re about attracting a certain kind of producer. And the way we’ve gone about it is just by talking about our ideas and seeing who turns up. And that seems to have worked really, really well in getting a group of members who have some really passionate and exciting ideas about what the opportunities are.

Pete Lewis:

Look, there’s been some eye-watering prices paid for beef in your neck of the woods in the last little while. How do you corral that focus for them to be in for the long hill when they see wonderful opportunities, albeit short-term ones. How do you emphasise the fact that for this to really work, we’ve got to be there through the good times and into the not so good times?

Emma Robinson:

Yeah. I mean, that’s a great question. I think certainly momentum has slowed because prices are so good. So I think most of us are making hay while the sun shines and we’ve got to do this. This is a big profit year. But as producers, we know that we’re all still largely in the commodity game, and we know that the price of commodity always falls to the lowest cost of production. So that means in low supply years, we make money. So that’s this year, we’re in a fairly low supply year. That’s driving prices up. We know in high supply years, we lose money. That was 2014. And we know in those middle supply years, we’ll cover our costs.

Emma Robinson:

So we’re trying to get out of that cycle. We’re trying to look at value beyond that cycle. And I think the reality is there are going to be times in the co-operative where there may be prices outside the co-operatives that are higher. But you’re certainly in it for the long term. You’re certainly not committing all of your animals into the co-operatives, so you’ve got that flexibility. And our model’s not just about selling cattle and selling beef. So we’re looking at creating other value beyond simply selling an animal. And I guess that’s where we focus. In years like this year, there are other things the co-operative can offer. So the focus is very much on adding value, not simply pooling animals and selling them. So that’s, I guess, have we can manage those.

Emma Robinson:

And I guess the other point is that these highs, it really illustrates the opportunity for supply chains to think differently about the way they connect. While this current high’s great for producers, it’s not so great for processors. And we need a model where we’re all able to make a profit in an enduring way. Our profits shouldn’t be at the sake of someone further down the chain and vice versa.

Pete Lewis:

And one would suggest that the history of the Australia beef industry has tended to be that they’ve taken short-term profits when they couldn’t at the expense of maybe some long-term relationships. Why is it, do you suppose, that co-operatives who tended to flourish more obviously and more successfully and more sustainably in commodities like dairy and grains and not so much in beef?

Emma Robinson:

So I think there’s the obvious perishability issues. So dairy, you can’t hold your milk for another week. It’s a perishable product, it’s got to be sold. Whereas beef, if you don’t like the price this week, you can put them back in the paddock and see what you get next week or next month. I mean, I’d argue that that’s changing now with the high value of animals and the specifications around carcasses. Once those animals are ready to go, they’ve got to go. So I think traditionally, the reason that there aren’t as many co-operatives in beef has to do with primarily with processing and the consolidation around processing. It’s a very hard industry to get into. It’s very complex industry. It’s very capital intensive.

Emma Robinson:

So it’s all very well for producers to say, “We want to sell our own beef.” You’ve got to get access to a processing plant, very hard to do that without a huge capital injection. So that is a huge hurdle. That’s different to say a horticultural cooperative, where you might need to simply build a packing shed, which has less capital requirement. I also think the variability of our production systems in the north mean it is very difficult to commit to long-term supply arrangements when you’re really juggling the variability of climate. So I think that’s also a challenge.

Emma Robinson:

But I also think what’s happening now in the external environment is there’s external drivers around beef and the value around beef. Beef used to be the noun, now it’s all the adjective of beef. It’s about the organic beef. It’s about the different breeds. It’s about the values that consumers are looking for. So things are changing, branding’s changing, technology’s changing. The opportunities are evolving, which start to open the door for a beef cooperative. And those sorts of things didn’t exist 10, 15, 20 years ago. So I think, historically, that’s why we haven’t seen the beef co-ops. And I think there’s also a school of thought that the fact that we are such rugged, independent beings means that we want to roll out of bed in the morning and do our own thing. The idea of having to align our business with others can be a challenge and still is. So I think that historical character of farming and the farmer certainly has played a role.

Pete Lewis:

Look, one of the things we’ve also heard in the course of this series is that farmers involved in cooperatives get an enormous kick out of seeing what they produce marketed and sold within their local community. They draw an enormous amount of satisfaction and pride from the whole community knowing that they’ve got a lot of skin in the game and that they are employing people in their area and producing something worthwhile and the best quality that they possibly can deliver. Is that something down the track we want to really get into?

Emma Robinson:

That’s right, yeah. Absolutely. I think that idea is what initially gets people interested in the corporative. They want to sell their own beef. I guess the journey we’ve been on, while that might get people in the door, we pretty quickly realised you’re not going to get there tomorrow. So we’ve looked at well, what can we control? What do we have control over? So we’ve looked at how can we create value in different ways? And I guess that leads us towards getting to a point where we can start to optimise supply and get into the supply chain.

Emma Robinson:

And the second comment I’d make is that I think the idea of farmers selling their own product and being, and being close to the consumer is really such a powerful one. Because my key mantra is that family farming is more than just production, it’s about all those other things. It’s about integrity, it’s about that commitment, it’s about community and the environment. And if we don’t, as farmers, leverage that value, it’s someone else in the supply chain that does. And we know that it’s the person closest to the consumer that can leverage the most value. So if that’s not a farmer or a farmer cooperative, then it’s someone else in the supply chain taking that value. And I think that’s why our eye, it needs to move beyond that ideal to it’s a real business proposition and there’s real value in building that model and taking that opportunity.

Pete Lewis:

You’ve obviously had a very clear purpose and you have enjoyed the opportunity to not only study systems here, but abroad. But I guess along the way, there must’ve been some very character building tests as well. What were some of the obstacles that you needed to overcome, and how did you go doing that? And are you still trying to overcome them?

Emma Robinson:

Absolutely. I mean, this is a long-term proposition and there’s certainly been challenges. I think when you’re living in a rural community and you’re putting yourself out there with a vision, you’re taking an enormous risk personally. So I think that takes a lot of courage and that’s hard work. That’s not easy. I think, in terms of a co-operative, there are some unique challenges. I think like any business, where we’ve been in the start startup phase, we’ve been down in the trenches building the model. When you’re doing that within a co-operative construct and looking at running the process democratically, now that can be challenging. Most startups are one or two people getting together and building the model. We’ve done it collaboratively and so you’re having some tough conversations. And there’s been frustrations and there’s been people leave the group because it’s been too time consuming. So there are certain realities around that, as there are in any business. A co-operative, it’s not unique in that sense.

Emma Robinson:

I think there’s also the reality that we are all farmers running our own businesses. So this is a side hustle, if you like, in terms of what we’re trying to do. I’m not full time on the co-operative, being paid a wage. So that’s a real challenge, you have to balance the realities of what you’re already doing with the opportunities going forward. And that’s been a challenge, but we’re still here and we’re still very much optimistic about what the opportunities are.

Pete Lewis:

And have you found that there’s a developing level of cooperative literacy among banks and financial institutions? because sometimes they’re a bit leery about how they can actually interact and who they’re dealing with and things like that. What’s been your experience on that level?

Emma Robinson:

We haven’t taken it to the banks yet. But I think it’s getting harder to get a home loan, so without a doubt it’s going to be hard for co-operatives to also access capital. And this is a challenge that I think beef co-operatives often have, is if you’re talking about processing, you’re talking about that large capital injection. In the US, I’ve seen models where co-operatives raising capital through their members, through their shareholdings. They’re then getting their members to commit to delivery. And on the basis of that commitment, they’re able to go to the banks and leverage capital. Again, as I said, that’s difficult in the north. Producers are very reluctant to commit long-term supply based on an uncertain price. So that’s challenging.

Emma Robinson:

I think for us, it’s about starting small. We’ve got seed funding, we’re charging a subscription. We are looking at an initial founding shareholder class. So we’re raising capital step-by-step, funding our mini enterprises and then leveraging that to take the next step. And I think the other thing I would say is that I think there are really non-traditional capital sources. So, who’s to say McDonald’s doesn’t want to fund a beef co-operative, will provide some seed funding for us to do some different projects or some different activities? There’s different opportunities beyond what banks can offer.

Emma Robinson:

So, we’re not looking for large chunks of capital quite yet. But I don’t think I’m put off by what the banks may or may not do. I think there really are other players out there that can play a role if you’re able to create value. So it comes back to really what your offering is and how you’re able to sustain that. And if that works, I think the capital will be there. Whether it’s through members, shareholdings, debentures, or whether it’s through other banks and other players.

Pete Lewis:

Well, hey went to extraordinary lengths during the Royal Commission to say these days that they learned a lot of the lessons of the past of how they treated particularly regional, rural, and remote parts of Australia. And allegedly they’re all ears, let’s hope that’s the case. Which leads us to a reminder about tonight’s poll question. And that is, what is the biggest motivator for starting a co-operative? Have a go, click on the poll in the live chat to the right of this stream to select your answer.

Pete Lewis:

We’re with Emma Robinson from North Queensland, a beef producer and the founder of the Beef Collaboration Project. So crystal-ball-gazing now, Emma, what do you see in the medium to long-term?

Emma Robinson:

What we see is they were very much doing what we’re already doing in terms of our production business, but we’re able to leverage new value. So where we’re buying our inputs collaboratively, we’re sharing the cost of some of the systems that we’re introducing on our properties, such as our OH&S systems, our labor systems. So we’re reducing our costs. We’re also looking at data and how we use technology and how we can leverage the data between members. And hopefully, down the track, we’re actually optimising our cattle supply and looking at how we can either work differently with existing processes or start to get into the value chain in our own way and branding our own beef and marketing it.

Pete Lewis:

One of the things we’ve heard also during the course of this exercise, this series, is that the longer that people are involved in co-operatives and the more collaboration that they are part of and the mentoring that they see, they actually do a better job on their own place. They tend to lift a cog and they tend to be probably slightly more optimistic about the future as well. Has that been your experience?

Emma Robinson:

Absolutely. I think we live in an isolated area, it is quite easy to feel like you’re not part of something bigger than your own farm. So I certainly think peer-to-peer support through a co-operative provides lots of opportunities. And there’s lots of talk about the low uptake of R&D in particularly Northern Australia, of beef R&D. I’ve got no doubt that if you look at the adoption of some of those processes through a co-operative, you’re going to really accelerate that. Because people really value peer-to-peer support. They want to know what other farmers are doing and how they’re utilising technology. And that’s a great way of fast-tracking different adoption techniques. So absolutely, I think it creates a great community for farmers that certainly makes them better farmers.

Pete Lewis:

Emma, it’s been terrific talking to you. We really appreciate the opportunity for you to join us today from the kids’ classroom. It’s obviously school holidays in the great state of Queensland, so they’re off obviously doing far more interesting things. But it’s fantastic that the strongest signal in your house is in the school room and I think there’s a message in that for all of us. Thanks so much for your time and your insights, it’s been really good to have you back on Co-operative Conversations. And all the very best for the Beef Collaboration Project, it sounds like you you’re on the right track.

Emma Robinson:

Thanks, Pete. Thanks for your time.

Melina MorrisonL

I hope you enjoyed this episode. Emma is really at the beginning of the co-operative journey.  She’s building a membership.

If you are interested in starting or joining a co-op you can’t miss a great round table where Emma and I were joined by some respected ag leaders to talk about the importance of the people factor – the membership base of a co-op.   It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, often the most crucial part of forming and growing co-operative is engaged membership.

You can watch this excellent round table on demand by going to conversations.co-opfarming.coop.

Don’t forget to subscribe now to the cooperative farming podcast series and rate us.

I hope you’re inspired to find out more about the fantastic benefits of cooperative farming, and how to realise the incredible potential for your business, as we future proof Aussie farmers.

Join us at coopfarming.coop, and in our next podcast we talk with Kerry Murphy Secretary of TAFCO Rural Supplies.

Remember, in a challenging world, we are all “better together”.

I’m Melina Morrison, thanks for listening.

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