It's taken just eight years for agronomist-turned corporate farmer, Liam Lenaghan, to build a $1 billion cropping business, thanks largely to a strategy of upcycling farmland for more intensive use.
However, he concedes it will take more than enthusiastic growth plans, timely property purchases and fortuitous financial backing to sustain the profitability of his 85,000 hectare enterprise - or Australian agriculture generally.
Much will depend on a deeper understanding and acknowledgment of the mysteries underfoot in the soil to ensure farming can sustain greater investor and production expectations.
"People talk about the oceans as the unexplained universe," said the goFARM founder and managing director.
"I think our soils and soil microbial life are just as much a mystery and hold great promise if we appreciate that challenge properly.
"I guess I've made an investment in the microbial business, and fortunately I like the people and technology and opportunities that come with agriculture.
"It's about having a keen interest and commitment in the game and acknowledging there's a whole world of new stuff to explore and lots of opportunities to be taken."
Leap of faith
Mr Lenaghan, who began his career as an agricultural science graduate at the Walpeup research station in western Victoria's Mallee, has proven an avid seeker of farming opportunities, including taking a leap of faith to launch goFARM in 2013, without any investors or investments.
Despite a sluggish start, by 2015 the farm boy from Ballarat had teamed up with Victorian horticultural produce giants, the Costa family, which still owns half the venture (Costa Asset Management chairman, Robert Costa, is also goFARM chair).
One of the company's first acquisitions in 2014, a mixed farming property in southern NSW near Narrandera which expanded into a 11,200ha irrigation aggregation, sold early this year after listing with a price tag of more than $60 million.
Under goFARM management, 100 kilometres of fencing and other livestock infrastructure at Yarrabee Park were removed and 88 per cent of the property converted to minimum tilled, controlled traffic cropping, with stubble mulched to protect the soil bed and other carbon and nutrient building strategies adopted.
Similar programs apply in northern Victoria's Goulburn Valley on goFARM's 6500ha of former dairy farmland, Sandmount Farms, acquired in 2018 and 2019.
Irrigated and dryland summer and winter cereal, oilseed and fodder crops and 270ha of almond and mandarin orchards watered with drip irrigation have replaced flood irrigated pastures, while an extensive array of soil pits have been dug to monitor soil conditions.
There's a view that sustainable agriculture and profitable agriculture are pretty much diametrically opposed, but that's absolute nonsense- Liam Lenaghan, goFARM
The top 30 centimetres of soil profile have been deep ripped, limed and targeted with gypsum and compost to rejuvenate the structure and biological activity after 50 years of intense cattle grazing.
Irrigation water use efficiency has risen about 200pc.
Across the goFARM portfolio about 13,000ha of uncropped land is set aside for bio conservation and carbon sinks.
Sustainability means profit
"If you aren't being sustainable, you can't be profitable, and vice versa," Mr Lenaghan said.
"There's a view that sustainable agriculture and profitable agriculture are pretty much diametrically opposed, but that's absolute nonsense.
"If we expect to produce good crops, then we're using and exporting nutrients, and we need to understand that picture better, and put back into the soil."
Most of goFARM's 120-strong staff work on its Victorian, NSW and Tasmanian aggregations, where they are encouraged to think ahead with management to upgrade their own skills and help the business find more efficient and sustainable ways to operate.
A minimum of 5pc of its gross payroll is set aside for training and development, with staff urged to plan personal continuous improvement pathways for themselves.
"We've just run a driverless tractor demonstration day at Sandmount, initiated by our own machinery operators," Mr Lenaghan said.
"I was a bit anxious about tractors without drivers moving through rows of valuable trees, but no trees, tractors or humans were harmed, and we learnt a lot.
"We work hard on our respect, reward and recognition processes and want our staff to utilise that money set aside for their improvement.
Continuous improvement is something of a continuous theme for goFARM, which sees its conversion of "underutilised" assets as more than just upscaling productivity.
It's also about upskilling human resources, creating more jobs over time, contributing economic and social good in regional communities and pushing the wider ag sector's potential.
Mr Lenaghan said those who appreciated agriculture understood it was about more than just opportunities for excellent investor returns.
GoFARM's asset transformation template has been underpinned by a relatively small group of about 25 family investment offices, like the Costas, who believe "there's so much opportunity in ag and plenty of good news stories to be told".
"If you have a good opportunity, and do the research, and have a good team, you'll find money when you need it. It probably only takes us a couple of months," he said.
"The investment community is waking up to agricultural assets, natural capital and environmental services, and increased consumer interest in the food we eat.
"A growing pool of investors is asking how to get involved."
New era investors
New pools of capital had also emerged with investment mandates for non-financial deliverables like water use efficiency, or ecological and soil health goals.
"And, you don't have to be a corporate," Mr Lenaghan insisted.
"Plenty of ordinary farming families have their own recipes for ag success.
"I don't think it matters how much money you have on hand to execute a good business idea, it's undoubtedly a good time to find funds - just focus on things you can control and make it work."
GoFARM's own portfolio includes a 10,000ha joint venture project with US investors which began converting nine grain properties into almond orchards at Balranald in South West NSW in 2016.
The Canally aggregation is set to be Australia's third largest almond producer when fully developed next year.
Since 2020 the company has bought four grazing properties in Tasmania's Tamar Valley with a view to producing grain, nuts, tree fruits and grapes.
"Tasmania has 15pc of Australia's fresh water, reliable rainfall and an irrigation infrastructure program to enable significant land use change - its a logical location for many high value crops which are constrained on the mainland," Mr Lenaghan said.
His longer term plan is to have farm aggregations Australia-wide, developing what grain or horticultural options best suit the land available.
"There's no rigid formula, but we don't do livestock and tend to focus on non-perishable crops which can be mechanically harvested," he said.
However, while an "intrigued follower" of the cotton industry and its recent rush of land conversion activities in northern Australia, goFARM was not keen to join the pioneers, at this point.
"You can't underestimate the value of pre-existing infrastructure, including proximity to people, technology, water and markets," he said.
"We won't dismiss any opportunities in cotton, but in those pioneering areas there's still a lot of difficult scaling up to be done.
"Pioneers tend to get the arrows, settlers get the gold."
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