Standing atop a red sandhill and surveying fat Hereford cattle, green outback plains and water-filled lakes and swamps after a magnificent 2016, Birdsville cattleman David Brook is a happy man.
This year his joy has an added facet; while cattle prices are at an record high, the outback company he founded 21 years ago is now the biggest organic beef producer in Australia, and demand for its products is doubling annually.
OBE Organic now has 30 outback properties supplying its business with about 15,000 head of organically reared cattle a year. Every station down the legendary Birdsville Track has now converted to organic production since locally born Mr Brook showed the way on his family’s five stations.
Organic graziers are paid an average 20-30 per cent premium for their organic cattle by OBE.
“My idea originally was that if (by going organic) we could get enough of a premium price for our beef to cancel out the disadvantages of remote agriculture, that would be great,” Mr Brook recalled from his Birdsville home, 1600km west of Brisbane.
“But the advantages are much bigger than that now; out here in the Lake Eyre Basin there are no pests and no diseases; no drenches, chemicals, fertilisers or hormones are needed and our animals have space, room to move, clean air and water and are only grass-fed — what could be more authentically and genuinely organic than that?”
Mr Brook quickly grasped that the Channel Country and its surrounding outback areas were naturally suited to organic conversion at a time when organic food was starting to become a niche trend, though he admits the speed and scale of the global organic boom has surprised him.
The latest figures from IBISWorld show Australian organic food production is now worth $920 million, growing at 17 per cent annually since 2011, as more farmers switch to organic fruit, vegetable, poultry, grain and meat production.
The report identifies organic farming as one of the best performing sectors in Australia’s economy — mainly driven by demand from high-earning local consumers and overseas buyers — and predicts it will be a $1.2 billion industry within five years.
Largely because of the formation of OBE Organic and its outback suppliers’ sprawling properties, Australia has the largest amount of registered organic farmland in the world. More than 22 million hectares are certified for organic food production, an area equivalent to Victoria or seven times bigger than Belgium.
OBE Organic chief executive Dalene Wray says the key issue for the bigger and more experienced organic producers, especially as they start to sell overseas, is convincing sceptical consumers they are genuinely ethical and natural organic farmers. “It’s no longer good enough to say on your products that you are organic and expect that will be enough; everyone is now saying they are natural, clean and green to the point where it doesn’t mean much anymore,” she said, describing the 50-60 per cent of OBE’s beef that is exported to the US, Middle East and Asia.
“We say there is a big difference between ‘naturally’ branded organic beef from cattle penned in a feedlot and fed grain in America, to ones grazing on native pasture in the Channel Country.”
OBE farmers are being encouraged to tell their own stories using their station and family names on social media, so global customers can see from where their beef is coming and who are the farmers producing their beef — and to clear up misconceptions about Australian conditions.
OBE Organic recently had Korean buyers visit outback Birdsville, clearly sceptical about how so much land could be certified organic, and asking where were the big cow barns to house the cattle during the winter snows.
“Meat buyers around the world have wised up to some smart and clever marketing — we now have to be prepared to prove what we are saying,” Ms Wray said.
Organic farmers cannot use manufactured fertilisers, or spray pastures and crops with weed and insect-killing chemicals or treat their animals with hormones, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals.