THE FOOD ISSUE
Beef pioneer David Blackmore, Cargill Australia CEO Philippa Purser and farmer Stewart Hamilton give their takes on the challenges in agribusiness
David Blackmore’s wagyu steaks are found in only the most exclusive restaurants in Australia and overseas. “It is quality that sets us apart,” says Blackmore from his Goulburn River farm at Alexandra in northeast
Victoria. “Our beef has a unique flavour and texture that international chefs have compared favourably with the best Japanese wagyu.”
Back in the 1980s, Blackmore, a fifthgeneration farmer, and his wife Julie, became fascinated with the Japanese breed with its world
class meat marbling, taste and tenderness. They developed contacts with traditional Japanese beef breeders, although exports of cattle were banned as the nationalistic Japanese wanted to protect their unique industry. Then in 1992, the Japanese unexpectedly relaxed their restrictions and, for the
first time, cattle breeders in Japan allowed wagyu cows to be exported to theUS and then to Australia.
Convinced that Australian beef should taste better and be of higher quality, the Blackmores
secured exclusive rights to import full-blood wagyu embryos and semen into Australia for their own use and for sale to fellow cattle breeders. In 1996, the Japanese shut the door again. But Blackmore maintained his devotion
to the business and has become Australia’s bestknown breeder of wagyu cattle with a herd of more than 1200 cows — the largest herd of full
blood wagyu beef outside of Japan. It’s a business worth millions every year as Blackmore’s wagyu steak is served in the country’s best restaurants, including Neil Perry’s Rockpool in Sydney with an unprecedented price tag of $115 a steak, while also being exported to restaurants and hotels in more than 14 countries for about $150 a kilogram.
Blackmore’s work on developing the wagyu breed of cattle in Australia has led to him being compared to John Macarthur, who developed merino sheep in the colonial days.
Breeding wagyu beef is a complex business, especially when keeping detailed records to show that every cow and its progeny can be traced directly back to Japanese ancestors. None of Blackmore’s herd has had its bloodlines — or its meat quality — “diluted” through crossing with “inferior” breeds such as Angus or dairy cows, as in other commercial wagyu operations such as the large herd developed by AACo.
It has been a time-consuming business but has
meant his wagyu beef rapidly became Australia’s
best-known “super-top” meat brand. “Our success
comes becausewe are always chasing carcass and
meat quality in marbling score, texture, flavour tenderness and dressed weight,” Blackmore explains early one golden morning on his lush
farm located in the bends of the Goulburn River. “It requires an attention to detail and a passion for creating the best beef in the world. I purposely built a herd to produce the best beef carcasses, not bulls. Withwagyu, the meat is more valuable than I would be paid if I sold stud animals.”
Blackmore is a great believer in the ability of Australian food products to capture the prestige end of booming Chinese demand for high-quality, safe food. He is meeting this need already, selling his wagyu beef into five star-restaurants and the best hotels in Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
It has not been easy competing against the belief that real wagyu comes from Japan. He has done it, he says, in a way he believes more Australian food brands and products should build on. “That point of difference is that our wagyu meat is produced in a clean, green environment. Our cattle are raised humanely, are not kept in feedlots, our animal welfare standards are high, chemicals and hormones aren’t used routinely, we are disease-free and have lifetime traceability of every animal.”
To rear wagyu cattle producing premium beef outside an intensive feedlot environment— such as is used by most other big commercial crossbred wagyu enterprises in Australia including Rangers Valley and AACo — Blackmore has invented and patented an “eco-feeding” system. At Alexandra, 25 young cattle are run in each 2ha fenced paddock of grass by the river, but they are
also fed rations of grain, fibre, hay and other natural foods to eradicate seasonal variation in pasture quality and ensure they gain the target weight of 0.8kg each day. “They eat the rations but they are not feed-lotted animals,” says Blackmore. “We also
findwhen they are kept ina grassy paddock they put on 20 per cent extraweight because they are happier and can lie down and engage in natural behaviours.”
He made the switch from feedlots — where cattle are kept in outdoor yards and fattened daily via trough feeding for the last few months of their lives — a fewyears ago. He is convinced that cattle perform and grow better in open spaces. And he also believes cattle feedlots have a high chance of eventually being phased out, just as a consumer backlash against battery hens and sow-stalls in piggeries led to eggs, pork and bacon from such farms being blacklisted by Coles andWoolworths.
“Until a fewyears ago, mostAustralian farmers were at odds with the animal welfare groups and called them all crackpot greenies, but we have taken the opposite approach,” he says. “Whether they are right orwrong, animalwelfare groups have the public ear and have changed theway the poultry
and pig industry farms. I decided not to fight it but to embrace what they are saying and to make sure we are always one step ahead of any change in consumer and animal welfare thinking.”
Blackmore is an equally forward thinker on other issues facing Australian agriculture. He believes the right of farmers to farm their land must be better protected, whether from mining interests competing with food production, the encroachment of hobby farms and suburbia on some of the best agricultural land, or city folk moving next door to working farms for the rural ambience then promptly complaining about the noise of the milking shed, the cows or the tractor.
He would like to see a renewed political push to develop outback northern Australian for irrigated agriculture and crop production— helpingAustralia become a food bowl for Asia, according to populist theory. He believes that trying to farm in the Gulf and Northern Territory by damming wet season, intermittently running rivers and installing vast irrigation schemes is a nationalistic pipedream. If Australiawants to double its agricultural production by 2030, he argues, it would be better to work on increasing the productivity of existing farms, since mostof thebest agricultural landhasbeendeveloped and farmed over the past two centuries.
“Just look at the Ord [Irrigation scheme]; it’s taken 50 years to get to the point where anyone
is making a profit up there and it is still a really
tiny scheme. It would be much better to work on improving, revitalising and investing in existing farms, including with better government advisory services.” He has no doubt this would lead to a doubling of overall production in Australia. “You only have to look what the best farmers are doing and duplicate that more widely.”
Blackmore also wants to see Australian farmers and food exporters get more aggressive with theirmarketingandtostopcompetingonprice because quality inevitably suffers. “Australia has so many advantages over the rest of the world yet we often seem scared to ask for a higher price for our [food] products or to build on our strengths. We should be out there shouting from the rooftops that our food quality is the best in the world; that it is safe, healthy, chemical-free and traceable, governed by strict animal welfare, environmental and food standards, and that we don’t have nasty diseases like foot-and-mouth and mad cow here.”