A different way to farm

By Sophie Baldwin

A burning desire to own land in his home state of Tasmania led Stephen Fisher on a journey he couldn’t possibly have foreseen.

Mr Fisher is the driving force and director behind Circular Head Farms (CHF), a community-based investment group milking 3700 cows and producing about 1.6 million kilograms of milk solids across five dairy farms in the Circular Head area of Tasmania.

While CHF has a desire to be profitable, its number one goal is to provide a pathway for people into the dairy industry based on a successful share farming model, a process which helped Stephen himself get a foot in the door of what is an extremely expensive industry.

“Obviously we need a robust system but it is not one dictated by profit; we put our people first and that is the important bit.

“Structured correctly, a share farming arrangement provides a strong incentive for both the share farmer and business partner to succeed, and the success of arrangements like this really relies on all parties succeeding,” Mr Fisher said.

He said CHF aimed to attract the right people, regardless of their financial status.

Circular Head Farms is a community-owned dairy farm milking 3700 cows and producing 1.6 million kilograms of milk solids at Circular Head, Tasmania.

The other main driver behind the group is to help retain local ownership in land.

“Around 60 per cent of the milk produced in Circular Head is now owned by foreign corporates, and I know around 10 farms in the last month that have been sold or are close to being sold to overseas owners.”

He said it was important Australia maintained long-term ownership of land to ensure a pathway for future dairy farmers.

“Working on the farm you survive, thrive and own it and that is where wealth is created in our communities; and rather than complain about foreign ownership, collectively we must maintain ownership of our most precious resource — land.

“If we want young people to enter the industry and have future ownership too, then there needs to be an opportunity for that to happen. CHF provides an investment vehicle to achieve ownership and keep land in our local communities.”

Cody and Denieka Korpershoek were the first of four share farmers to be employed by CHF and they have gone on to invest in the business model themselves. The couple also won Fonterra's Share Dairy Farmer of the Year award in 2017.

“This is exactly what we were hoping would happen; when you employ the right people and give them the right opportunity, everyone can win,” Mr Fisher said.

He said CHF had grown steadily during the past six years; and, while it did not tend to pay large dividends, but rather chose to reinvest back into the business, its unit value had grown from $1 to $2.18.

Some of the investment has included purchasing 890 ha of failed tree plantations to convert back into dairy support pasture, and the first block of 311 ha has just been completed after a three-year process to harvest the trees, remove the stumps and plant pasture.

CHF has ended up with 260 ha of perennial rye pasture and about 50 ha of native bushland.

“The soil is good, it is just a bit hungry after a lack of inputs over the last 15 years,” Mr Fisher said.

“We will continue to purchase land if the opportunity presents itself. Potentially, it could lend itself to a dairy conversion if the numbers stack up.”

Growing up on a small dairy farm, Mr Fisher initially chose to follow a career in agriculture outside the family business.

“My first job was in agribusiness and then I decided to obtain an associate diploma of applied science — all the dairy subjects were what attracted most of my interest, and I had a very strong desire to own my own land.”

Mr Fisher decided to quit his job, and at 32 he entered into his first share farming arrangement, milking with his brother and family. Initially it was meant to be 400 cows but soon turned into 700 for Van Dieman's Land Company.

“We were there for five years and in hindsight working with big herd numbers was a good baptism,” Mr Fisher said.

Former plantation land has been converted into pasture to support the dairy operation.

Then, he and his family decided to hit the road and travel around Australia for three years.

On their return, Mr Fisher joked that he had his biggest midlife crisis ever, resulting in the purchase of 750 cows.

“We weren’t looking for a job but rather an opportunity to grow the busines,” he said.

``We were fortunate to be given an opportunity to share farm 50-50 and we could see this was the opportunity we were looking for.

“I am a strong believer in share farming arrangements, and the success of ours relied on fairness to all parties.

``People are the key to farming businesses, and this is something that can be overlooked in corporate farming which is often driven by profit and the bottom line.”

A few years ago, Mr Fisher and wife Karen purchased their own 450 cow farm to diversify some of their investment away from CHF, and now have their own share farmer running that particular business.

The temperate climate, reliable high rainfall and the region's ability to grow grass make Circular Head the perfect place to farm and attract investment.

“We are really confident in the industry model we have used to develop future dairy ownership,” Mr Fisher said.

``Would it work in other areas or other industries? I don’t really know.”

He said having an experienced board who shared the same principles had made the process of running such a large company easier.

“Having good governance and the right people involved when you are dealing with other people’s money is essential. I am fairly satisfied with what we have been able to achieve so far.”

CHF has just released the information memorandum for the annual capital raise to continue the growth strategy.