"Out of the box" farming approach creates brand value

Published: August 2019 I By: Jamie-Lee Oldfield, Photography: Simon Bayliss 

Placing a third of the property under a nature covenant hasn’t hurt production, but has added value to Clare Cannon’s Woomargama Station.

Clare Cannon in the historic woolshed of Woomargama Station. Photography by Simon Bayliss. 
SINCE inheriting historic Woomargama Station seven years ago, Clare Cannon has focused on a three-step approach: environmental sustainability, humane treatment of animals and making a profit. She might not have been in the game long, but she has so far kicked plenty of goals in all three areas. 

Before taking on the property, Clare worked in investment banking and the community sector, and also spent many years with United States environmental research organisation Earthwatch, setting up its first Australian office in 1983. Now she can draw on all that experience to run her farming business.

The 2,631-hectare Woomargama, near Holbrook in the NSW Murray region, runs 1,000 self-replacing Poll Hereford cattle alongside 7,500 fine wool Merino sheep, and is leading the way for producers to make more money by rejuvenating their land. 

The story of provenance is important to Clare. She believes current and future consumers will not only expect to know where their food and fibre comes from, but demand it. That’s why she did something some might describe as “out of the box” just a few years into her farming career. 

The historic woolshed on the station. 

Woomargama is home to 600 hectares of endangered box-gum woodlands, one of the few stands like it left in country. In 2016, Clare signed a covenant agreeing to manage a third of her property under the direction of the Nature Conservation Trust of NSW (now under the management of the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Trust), and never clear the land. While she was cautious about signing the agreement, Clare says it has been a boon for her business, despite decreasing the land value. 

“We valued the property pre- and post-covenant and found it took $150,000 off the value of the land,” she says. “But it adds way more than $150,000 to the value of the brand, because it is our story and we tell it.

“One of the ways we have marketed Woomargama Station is through its biodiversity. We are setting the way for farmers, giving them confidence you can be profitable and have a covenant.” 

Livestock still graze the conservation area six months of the year, with the woodlands locked off from September to March to allow native grasses to seed. Clare says this makes it a perfect spot for her grass-fed steers and Merinos to graze from April through August, describing it as a “symbiotic relationship”. 

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Pasturefed Poll Hereford cattle at Woomargama Station. 

“Sustainability, animal husbandry, environmental awareness – it’s all about positioning Woomargama Station as a top-end brand for those interested in the provenance of their food and their clothes,” Clare says. 
“Food provenance has become very well known, but clothes are the next thing because they are one of the biggest polluters on this planet” 

From the age of four, Clare spent every second weekend and her school holidays at Woomargama, which her parents Gordon and Margaret Darling bought in 1965. One of Australia’s oldest pastoral stations, it began as a 40,000-acre (16,000-hectare) sheep run in 1838. 

The homestead was built in 1911 and was modernised by Margaret, who ran the property by herself for more than 20 years after her divorce. It was only after her mother passed away, at the end of 2010, that Clare decided to “have a crack” at being a red meat and wool producer. 

Since then, she has built the Woomargama Station brand by doing what she thought was right, and being passionate about it. 

“One of the arguments with my family over this covenant was the cutting off of the commercial options of that land, and I said I wanted to legacy-build a business,” says Clare. 

“That country in 50 years will not just be the jewel in the crown it is now, it will be the most valuable part of the farm because wilderness will be so scarce.

“Also it is very hard as a farmer unless you are going to go right down the supply line to sell a branded product. We are in a group brand with grass-fed beef and wool accreditation, but what you want to do in that group brand is have a selling point.”
Looking out across the valley towards the homestead and the hills. 

Sheep and cattle property earns its place in the Australian history books

1800s In 1838 David Mackenzie and Robert Wylde took up 40,000 acres (16,000ha) for a sheep run. The station passed through different owners until, affected by downturn and drought, it was put up for sale in 1899.

1910 The 18,000-acre sheep and cattle station was sold to Captain Reginald Clarke for £80,000. He extended the woolshed and built the homestead that still stands today.

1920 Sir George Fairbairn purchased the property and developed a lake south of the homestead.

1965 Prominent Melbourne couple Gordon and Margaret Darling bought Woomargama, improving the homestead and the land. Margaret, a key figure in the National Trust and the Australian Garden History Society, ran the property alone after her marriage ended in 1989.

1973 The future president of the United States, then-Governor of California Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy paid a visit.  

Margaret and Gordon Darling with Californian guests the Reagans.

1983 The station was chosen to host Prince Charles and Princess Diana during their tour of Australia. Their nine-month-old son Prince William stayed fulltime at Woomargama with his nanny, while the royal couple jetted in and out to see him.

Princess Diana’s thank-you note for her stay.

2012 Clare Cannon took over the running of the station, and four years later placed a third of the property under a covenant.
Conserving threatened ecosystems on-farm 

Head of Sustainable Farms at the Australian National University Dr Mason Crane has been involved with projects on Woomargama, and says while the station is unique, it is becoming more common for farms to support conservation. 

“Woomargama is actively conserving some of the really threatened ecosystems such as the box-gum woodlands, but not fully excluding it from grazing, and hopefully consumers will support that management,” he says. 

Clare in the covented box-gum woodland. Under the conservation plan, seasonal grazing is still permitted, which in turn helps to control exotic plant species.

“Consumers are thinking more about what they are buying and want to be having a positive impact on the world by carefully choosing products they purchase and want to know where they come from and that they fit within their values.
“People are becoming increasingly aware that conservation and production aren’t two different things. They are closely linked.” 

The Lardner Park Steer Trial in Victoria is the only grass-fed-based beef trial held in Australia, making it the best benchmark for Woomargama steers fed only on grass. Entering the competition in 2018 for the first time, the station achieved the third-highest score for a Hereford-sired pair of steers, and placed seventh overall out of 32 teams.

One of the steers in the pair scored the fourth- highest points overall for weight gain and carcase quality, and both came in the top 25% band on the Meat Standards Australia grass index, indicating eating quality.

Clare says this gave her confidence in the grass-fed product she markets through JBS Australia’s Great Southern brand, selling 16-17-month-old steers at 400-450kg liveweight. The herd is certified through the Pasturefed Certified Assurance System, and is also European Union-accredited. 
Adding value accreditation in sustainable agriculture practices

“I am all for accreditation. It is key,” Clare says. “It is obvious the carbon footprint of grass-fed-only beef is drastically lower than grain-fed beef. It is around educating the consumer that grass-fed has higher omega-3 fatty acids and is the premium product for better eating – for me it is all about being at the premium end.” 

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Artificially inseminating the heifer drop each year and the introduction of bulls from Injemira Beef Genetics at Book Book, NSW, and Days Whiteface stud at Bordertown, South Australia, ensure the constant improvement of herd genetics. Low-to-medium birthweight bulls are selected to avoid calving problems, and an oral anti-inflammatory is used at marking to improve animal welfare. 

“A friend of ours used to say you don’t own the land, the land owns you – you want to create resilient landscapes, they are resilient when it is dry and when it is wet,” says Clare.

Having access to spring water and burying 1,000 tonnes of silage in better years has been a lifeline during the ongoing drought, as has growing lucerne on creek flats, Clare says. But she strongly believes tree cover was the big saviour when temperatures skyrocketed early in the year. 

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“I think that if you maintain your tree cover it really does help your stocking, particularly in those terrible hot days. More tree cover and shelter is so necessary,” Clare says. 

Poll Hereford cattle rest in the shade.

Up to 100,000 trees have been planted on Woomargama in the past 30 years, thanks to 
Clare’s mother, previous station managers and Holbrook Landcare Network. Kylie Durant, biodiversity project officer with Holbrook Landcare, says revegetation has been used strategically at the station. 

“Once trees establish they can be used as a haystack, which can be a benefit in these tougher times,” she says, referring to the practice of using tree foliage as fodder. 

“The shade resource was so important in ridiculous temperatures, and it all contributes to productivity if stock have access to shade.” 

While there is an expense involved, Kylie says: “The drought is offering producers a real opportunity to plan better. The liabilities on properties are showing up, so people are thinking about how to manage it better for when it happens again. A lot of creeks and dams are liabilities with stock going in and getting bogged, so fences allow people to control what is going on.” 

Clare Cannon in front of a dam in the covenant area of Woomargama Station.

Restoration and management of creeks through fencing off over the past two decades is also proving crucial in maintaining ecosystems, even in the long months between rain. 

“What we have seen now is a reduction of the debris in the water, and all the marsh grass returning. There are still nice pools of water even though the creek is dry, and those pools have endangered pygmy perch,” says Clare. 

“And from a commercial point of view, if we have a weather alert day, these are great places to put the sheep in for shelter, not long-term grazing, but excellent areas to shelter. When I run my eye over a property, the soil, the trees and the stock have all got to be looking healthy, and if they are looking healthy, your bank balance will be.”  

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Clare’s tips to managing the land

1. Planting and protecting trees in the paddock provides the best shade and shelter for livestock during extreme weather events, and increases the area’s biodiversity.

2. Managing and restricting stock access to water sources such as creeks, rivers and dams can improve water quality and therefore stock health.

3. Fencing creek lines encourages revegetation and improves stock management by eliminating time spent mustering.

4. Improved vegetation on the banks of creeks stops banks eroding in floods, reducing impact on fences and infrastructure.

5. Sustainability is a branding opportunity. Woomargama is now home to one of only three populations of the endangered fish, the southern pygmy perch, in NSW, despite the creek not actively flowing.

A fashion statement

Merino sheep in the greener pastures. Sustainable management of the flock is core to the business ethos.

Next time you are admiring a Hugo Boss suit, you could also be appreciating Woomargama wool. The station sells to superfine Merino wool buyer/exporter New England Wool, which supplies two of the leading Italian fabric makers responsible for cloth used by high-end fashion labels. 

The station is part of New England Wool’s SustainaWOOL Integrity Scheme, which, according to the company’s website, “promotes the production of the highest quality wool via the sustainable management of natural and physical resources”.

“It is not just animal husbandry,” says Clare. “It is around transport, around non-mulesing, it is about the customer. This is the trend, where do you want to be at, the beginning or the end? Well I want to be at the beginning. 

“When I took over the farm, everyone was saying, ‘everyone is getting out of wool’, and I said fantastic, I am staying in. 

“Now I have brokers coming, looking to have clothing manufacturers to the property and buy all our wool so they can do single-source clothing.”

The Woolshed at Woomargama Station.

Woomargama’s self-replacing Merino flock cuts an average of 5.5kg fleece, measuring 18 microns. Clare says her wool report shows the station’s Poll Merinos (Bogo and Woodpark Poll-blood) graze the covenant area, which gives the wool a marketing edge. “This is what the Europeans are really interested in.”

And it’s not just what’s on the sheep’s back that is in demand. Butt’s Gourmet Smokehouse in nearby Albury has launched Woomargama Station smoked lamb. The product is made from Merino wethers, 24-26kg carcase weight, up to two-tooth. 

Some of Woomargama Station produce, smoked Lamb.

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