EPCBH: The co-op that’s creating new opportunities for Eyre Peninsula grain growers

How local grain growers and a mining company are working together

Interview by Michael Cavanagh and Lauren Moxey

The offices of Eyre Peninsula Co-operative Bulk Handling (EPCBH) can be found in the tiny outback town of Wudinna, right in the heart of South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula. Fittingly, the town is home to an enormous but elegant sculpture, The Australian Farmer, which was expertly carved from local granite by sculptor Marijan Bekic as a tribute to those who work the land. Indeed, the Eyre Peninsula is famed for its agriculture and aquaculture, and tourists flock to the region to sample its delicacies.

A beautiful and rugged region, the Eyre Peninsula has a strong agricultural history, with a focus on dry land agriculture owing to the lack of natural water. Despite the challenge of being a drought-prone area, many families have worked the land for generations. It also enjoys a very strong aquaculture industry on the coast, producing some of Australia’s best seafood.

Agricultural journalist Michael Cavanagh talks to Tim Scholz, who is a farmer in the region, as well as director and chief executive officer of EPCBH and principal of stakeholder engagement with mining company Iron Road.

While perhaps not as photogenic as a tempting meal of fresh seafood or beef, grain is nevertheless a staple on breakfast, lunch and dinner plates both domestically and in most cultures around the world. Its ubiquity makes it easy to forget the journey that grain takes from paddock to plate. However, grain must undergo a multi-step journey to be transformed into the various products we find on supermarket shelves.

A relatively young co-operative, EPCBH was formed in 2017 to “investigate opportunities that will improve competitiveness for growers and farmers on the Eyre Peninsula”. It is particularly focussed on transport, storage, handling and exporting of grain, and seeks to support farmers by increasing their business and supply chain options.

Tim’s involvement in EPCBH started many years ago, when he became Mayor of Wudinna. During that time the mining company Iron Road arrived to begin the process of activating a mine to the exploit the enormous local deposit of magnetite. The community decided that it was open to mining in the area, and eventually Tim left his role as mayor to work as principal of stakeholder engagement at Iron Road. He wanted to ensure that if mining was going to happen in the area, the community would have a voice and be able to give input into how it would work for them: “from my view, that was really to make sure that if the mining company was going to develop that mine, that we had as much say as possible as a community … I saw my role as assisting the company understand the culture and also assisting the community to try to get to grips with what the mining company could bring.”

Iron Road knew that engaging local stakeholders would be critical to the success of its project, and in particular saw the opportunity to work with local farmers to see how the mining infrastructure could benefit them as well. Because the mine meant a new deep-water port would be needed, and because the farmers only had one option for grain transportation, they realised that mutual benefit could be found in making the port suitable for both mining and grain exports.

After a workshop with interested farmers, a co-op was chosen as the best structure for the organisation to represent and benefit grain growers. Given previous experiences, there was a strong resistance to corporatisation among the farmers and a desire to plant a seed that would bear fruit for generations of farmers to come. As Tim notes, “I have 600 years of farming history around my board table.”

So, in 2017 Eyre Peninsula Co-operative Bulk Handling was born, with 12 farmers as the founding members and a volunteer board who were committed to seeing the region’s grain growers prosper. Tim is paid by Iron Road to support members of EPCBH and lead the co-op in his role as director and executive officer.

Assisted through the Farming Together initiatives, the co-op has gained significant ground in a short time, while staying focussed on the bigger, long-term picture. Tim notes he sees the co-op as a long-term project: “it's a matter of establishing some milestones and seeing if we can knock those over one by one, but understanding this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Members pay a $1000 joining fee and then purchase 200 shares. From the initial 12 members, EPCBH now has 138 farm businesses as members, representing 270 farm families. As in all co-ops, one membership equals one vote, which means big and small farmers stand shoulder-to-shoulder when making decisions about the co-op. Members must be grain growers and remain active participants in the co-op.

While there is no guarantee of success, given the co-op is a start-up in a challenging industry and began in a drought, member numbers have continued to grow.

The activities of EPCBH are centred around maximising options for its members, and consequently creating more choices for them to get their grain to market. One of the main current focuses of the co-op is the possible development of a grain port at Cape Hardy. As a small co-op involved in this enormous project, EPCBH has raised additional capital through Co-operative Capital Units, which have even been purchased by non-agricultural backers.

EPCBH has recently secured a large land base near the port site of 160 hectares, which will be vital to their operations. “Cape Hardy has huge potential because it is a 20 metre plus deep-water port that will not require dredging that is absolutely unique in Australia, and it's in an area where it would be a greenfield port without a huge population base around it” explains Tim.

Beyond this, new opportunities are emerging including in the area of green ammonia, which is sought after to reduce the carbon emissions in electricity production, and also reduces the need to use fossil fuels in the production of fertilisers. In recent months EPCBH has signed a MOA with H2U (a hydrogen infrastructure developer) to explore a possible partnership in creating zero-carbon fertiliser and hydrogen fuel.

The co-op has big dreams for the future and hopes to use some of its future surplus to support community programs. However, for now the board is focused on logistics and grain handling, being mindful to establish viability before tackling new initiatives. Tim says they would love to see other co-ops established within other industries to give more local producers access to the benefits of the proposed port.

Tim also envisages future opportunities to engage renewable energy companies in discussions about land use. He sees using the land to generate renewable energy as simply another type of farming.

Tim acknowledges that where there is mining, there is tension between farmers and mining companies, but he sees listening and respect as two of the keys to navigating this tension. He is well aware that the establishment of new mines can be life-changing for farmers, and his goal in his work with Iron Road is to give farmers a voice in this process while seeking mutually agreeable outcomes and mitigating the negative impacts of mining.

Similarly, mining companies have not always had a positive track record of successfully engaging local Indigenous communities and understanding their relationship with the land. Tim notes that Iron Road has worked to establish a positive relationship with the people of the Barngarla nation, and the importance of Indigenous culture is also embedded in the community.

While the future is bright for this young co-op, it is not without its challenges. Tim cites securing capital as one of the problems currently facing the co-op, especially given that banks don’t typically measure the social value of a business. He believes that there is an opportunity for governments across all levels to do more to support fledgling co-ops, as well as the co-op movement more broadly.

Tim also notes the need for farmers to learn to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate and the unpredictability it brings, explaining that farmers in the region “try to conserve every drop of rain that falls regardless of when it falls around the year”. He is hopeful, however, that work of EPCBH in green ammonia and renewable energy might make a positive contribution to reducing the carbon footprint of grain production.

The next time you sit down to a delicious breakfast, lunch or dinner, you might just be enjoying the produce of an EPCBH member farm. One thing that’s clear is that despite the enormous scale of the projects they are involved in, this little co-op has become a force to be reckoned with, and it’s here for the long haul.

Listen to our interview with Tim Scholz on our Meet the Co-op Farmers podcast.

Visit the Eyre Peninsula Co-operative Bulk Handling (EPCBH) website.

EPCBH Board 2021

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