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A look inside Andrew Forrest's growing 'agrifood' business

A look inside Andrew Forrest's growing 'agrifood' business
By: EIN Posted On: January 23, 2021 View: 22

A look inside Andrew Forrest's growing 'agrifood' business

In the past 12 months, billionaire Andrew Forrest has made some significant investments, but his latest endeavour is hay, sweet potato, and agave.

The centre of attention is Brick House Station, located in Western Australia's Gascoyne region, where Harvest Road Group continues to grow its agricultural food operations.

The station stretches across 225,000 hectares and is home to rich soils, varied pastures and 45 kilometres of Gascoyne River frontage, which can be irrigated.

Harvest Road Group general manager of agriculture Kim McDougall said the development of horticulture was key to supporting the agrifood business.

Landscape photo of plants in the desert.
Agave plants are native to Mexico.(Reuters)

Agave trial

Last year, 5,000 agave seedlings were planted across roughly 1 hectare at Brick House Station, with hopes to turn the crop into a marketable product if successful.

The agave plant is native to Mexico and is the base ingredient for tequila, but it also has other uses.

Mr McDougall said the planting of seedlings was a trial.

"At this state we are not looking at it for any particular purpose; we understand it has uses in livestock fodder, ethanol production, sugar production and, of course, tequila," he said.

"One issue we are having is the cockatoos have developed a liking to it, [they] can't help themselves. So, we must learn to manage it before planting on a large scale.

Homegrown tequila? Too soon to say if it's worth a shot

Mr McDougall said he could not comment on the agave's potential for homegrown tequila.

"There is plenty of speculation about what we are doing with the agave," he said.

"I can't speak to that until we prove it up and know the volumes we are working with.

"I think there are options for the product. Let's just leave it at that."

Huge need for stock feed

Harvest Road Group has also been busy growing hay to support the cattle business and it will become a critical asset, as areas of the pastoral leases battle dry weather conditions.

Mr Forrest's cattle portfolio includes seven pastoral stations in the north-west region, accounting for about 1.5 million hectares of grazing land, with estimates of more than 1,000 head of cattle per station, which fluctuate dependent on the season.

Photo of hay being cut down by a tractor on a farm.
Brick House Station's hay production supports the Harvest Road Group's cattle operations.(Supplied: Harvest Road Group)

Mr McDougall said there was an enormous need for stock feed in the Gascoyne and West Pilbara.

"We've got 10 hectares of hay at the moment; in summer we grow Super Sweet Sudan [a type of forage], and the winter crops will be oats and vetch."

The horticultural district of Carnarvon, where Brick House Station is located, relies on irrigated water from the Gascoyne River system.

Mr McDougall said they would utilise the good amounts of water available.

"Our irrigated areas would feed off a sprinkler system but we're also planning centre pivots for the hay production," he said.

"I don't think the hay would feed the seven stations, but it will form an important supplement, and — put it this way — there won't be a gram of it going to waste."

A photo of sweet potatoes stacked on each other.
Andrew Forrest hopes to market a sweet potato crop.(Flickr: Wally Hartshorn)

Homegrown sweet potato

Another critical part of the crop rotation is a 10-hectare sweet potato pilot that will be seeded this month, with expectations of growing 40 to 50 tonnes of sweet potato per hectare.

Mr McDougall said the impetus behind the idea was growth in the market.

"We've got a real opportunity to be the masters of our own identity here, and we're trialling four varieties including Beauregard, New Orleans, Northern Star, and Hawaiian to look for the best market suitability."

Interconnectedness

The Forrest family has invested heavily in agriculture and supply chains across Australia, which should help to get the product to market.

The Harvey Beef business processes 200,000 cattle a year and is the state's largest processor of beef, both export and domestic.

Mr McDougall said it would serve as the business model.

"Our experience with marketing beef out of Harvey is to 35 countries around the globe, supplying all the major domestic retail chains," he said.

"It is not a big switch for us to negotiate with the major offtakers of our beef to also stock good local produce from Carnarvon and bring it to market."

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