“I’m the first in our line of Arnotts that didn’t ever go to the biscuit factory,” muses Charlie Arnott as we walk among Shorthorn cattle on his family’s farm near Boorowa, NSW.
“My grandfather was in the factory his whole life; dad did it for a while before choosing farming and well, I was born out here and couldn’t imagine not being on the farm.”
In 1997, soon after Charlie committed to running the family property, the Campbell’s Soup Company (a shareholder since the 1980s) bought out the remainder of the biscuit business, ending a 120-plus year dynasty.
Charlie sees parallels in the beef industry, with some of Australia’s oldest farming families selling their properties and herds to multinational corporations.
“We’ve got to encourage young farmers back to the country,” he insists. “We need those farming family principles of participating in the local community as well as long-term stewardship of the land for sustainable produce. I think beef (or other primary producer) brands can be more personal too – you have to really add value to the product and share that story.”
- Charlie Arnott is a great-great-great-grandson of William Arnott – the man who started Arnott’s Biscuits. Charlie’s line of the family has been raising Shorthorn cattle at ‘Hanaminno’ near Boorowa since 1958.
- In 1997 he chose to work on the land and looked for ways to promote grass fed beef as a ‘happier’ alternative to mass-produced, grain-fed meat.
- It took a few years to fully convert from conventional to biodynamic/organic farming. These days the philosophy behind the product is part of the brand, as consumers are more eager to know the origin story of their food from field to fork.
- In late 2014 Charlie started selling beef direct to consumers online.
“I’d been back on the land about five years and I had one of those moments where, although everything was working with conventional farming, I just wasn’t content.
“I set some goals to make the farm a better, happier place to be: I started getting rid of our chemicals and looking for cleaner ways of doing things. I set goals for our landscape, for our production and our lifestyle – all of them had to be simplified.
“We had fat lambs, we grew wool, we raised trade steers, cows and calves ... it was just too busy! I did a lot of research, and the more I learned about holistic farm management, the more I could see we’d be happier with a simpler farm, where we’re looking after the land, the cattle and the people. Working with nature, with the seasons, is one of the simplest and significant agricultural lessons I’ve gained.
Rural communities need care
“It worries me that our farming population is ageing. The business of farming can be tough – we put up with a lot of adversity – but it can be a wonderful lifestyle if you’re part of a great community. Country towns survive on the strength of their communities – we want to do the best we can to look after the land and the people in our local area.
“I love the community of Boorowa: I’ve played football here, I’m involved in groups such as Landcare, the Boorowa Business Association and the Show Society because that’s what being part of a community is about.
Paddock to plate, farm to fork
“A lot of farmers aren’t very good at marketing their products. They’re just producing things and sending them off wholesale to market.
“Not really knowing where your product is going is one of the worst business strategies, yet for years we’d been sending our cattle to the market and had no idea where they ended up. The saleyards, the abattoirs, the wholesalers and the retailers all take a fair margin. So if we wanted to get more for our product we had to cut out some middle-men, do some more value-adding.
“The next chapter for Charlie Arnott is Natural Grass Fed Beef, our boxed beef – straight to the customer. We’ve been selling direct to a butcher in Sydney for a while, which has been great for turnover, but their customers don’t always know the brand and that it’s our beef.
“With online ordering and cooler courier boxes, we can sell from our farm to the customer’s kitchen. The meat is all prepared by our professional butchers, all branded, and I think it’s a great way of engaging our customers – that’s one of my passions.”
Who is your farmer?
“I love asking people in the city: ‘Who is your doctor?’ And they say: ‘Doctor so-and-so’, and I ask them: ‘How often do you see them?’ And it’ll be, ‘every few weeks or every month or so’.
“And then I ask them: ‘Who’s your farmer?’ And they say: ‘I don’t really have a farmer ...’ and I reply: ‘How often do you need a farmer?’ And they’ll say: ‘Oh, three times a day’.
“People are starting to think more about where their food’s coming from and how it was produced. They want it to be natural, not chemical, so that’s a big part of our brand.
“When you think about it, farmers practically invented branding: we used to brand our stock to identify them in the cattleyards, so it’s about time the brands on our cattle become known by the consumer, not just the butcher. To make that work, the brand has to stand for something.
“I want people to know our product by name, so when they have a dinner party they’re boasting about this farm they’re getting their meat from. I want to inspire people to get in touch with their food, get in touch with the country and country people – get to know a farmer. Get to know me!”
“I first heard about biodynamics about 10 years ago from Hamish Mackay and I was really inspired,” recalls Charlie Arnott. “I wanted an alternative to the conventional farming methods using chemicals on pastures and in our cattle. Most of the people in the room got that, but not the planetary, cosmic stuff ... the moon’s influence on many things in the earth, from tides to plants and beings. I’m more interested in working with nature’s forces, using natural substances for vitality, but I appreciate the cosmic side too. I love getting out there with my manures and composts and herbs and doing this stuff – it just feels good.”