YFM Co-Founder Joanna Baker was lucky enough to visit Bangor Farm in Tasmania to learn about sustainable meat production and consumption as part of the Target 100 sustainable farming initiative. Here’s a bit about what she found out.
Earlier in January this year, I asked a question that won me a trip to Tassie to meet with and learn from Matt and Vanessa Dunbabin who are 7th generation family beef and sheep farmers from Bangor Farm; a stunning 6,200 hectare property about one hour west of Hobart. The whole experience was captured as part of a series of short documentaries curated by the Target 100 Sustainable Farming initiative; a consumer education campaign to raise understanding around the sustainable meat production practices that exists within Australian agriculture.
So I can hear you all thinking – what could I possibly have asked to be chosen as one of three lucky winners who got to head down to Tassie and experience the workings of amazing farm first hand? Well my question was simple:
Is a key to sustainable meat consumption simply for us to pay more for it and maybe eat a bit less of it?
My rationale behind this question was that I feel like the current food system is set up so that farmers have to produce large amounts of meat in order to generate a reasonable income. So if we pay more for our meat, and maybe eat less of it, would this alleviate some of the pressures on farmers to produce such enormous amounts of meat and allow them to focus on farming regeneratively and in ways which enhance the wellbeing of the animals themselves?
We all know how much it ‘costs’ in terms of energy and inputs (land, water, feed etc) to produce animal protein and there is certainly schools of thought which suggest that this intensive meat production is now also at the cost of our environment, our health (potentially) and the welfare of the animals themselves. With all these factors in mind, one could very much argue that we are not currently paying for the true costs of its production – which was something I was keen to find out.
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About Bangor Farm
Bangor has a spectacular environment with 5100 ha of native forests and grassland, 1800 ha permanent forest reserves and 35 km of coastline. It has a long history of combining agricultural production with careful environmental management and over the course of the weekend, Matt generously took the time to show us the ins and outs of his farm; from land and grazing management, weed control, pasture and crop production to strategies that protect animal welfare. He also gave us some insights into the regulations and procedures that have to be adhered to ensure the health and safety of the final product.
There is no doubt about it, large scale conventional farming has come a long way and in fact, how Matt ensures the long term viability and sustainability of his farm, was certainly the key driver of the decisions he makes around how he rears his sheep and cattle and manages his land. While chemicals and fertilizers were certainly used in order to increase the efficiency of his land, it seems as though it is done in a way that ensures minimal use (as let’s face it, no farmer want to use more chemical than he needs, given the sheer cost of chemicals today) and in conjunction with techniques which harness the regenerative effects of rotational grazing and diversified cropping.
The balancing act of production
There is a large balancing act which goes on when it comes to food production at this scale, particularly given the demands we place on our farmers through our eating habits as a society, in terms of both enormous quantities and prices we pay. What I learnt was that a key to sustainable meat production was to produce meat in areas that are conducive to this kind of production, rather than grains and other crops. And, like any resilient system, diversity is the key.
It was an incredible farm and I was certainly impressed by the health (and happiness) of his animals and the biodiversity throughout the farm.
There is certainly a perception about ‘conventional farming’ but I was really encouraged by the innovation and farming techniques Matt uses to ensure the biodiversity of his land and health of his animals. We are extremely lucky in Australia in that our farmers are some of the best in the world when it comes to efficient food production systems and it certainly hit home how far agriculture has come.
In answering my question, to my surprise Matt did not feel we (as a society) need to eat less meat, instead suggesting that he was not producing beyond the capacity of his land and in fact he felt that with more research and innovation, he would be able to produce more and more in the years to come.
While this is certainly encouraging in terms of realising the increased capacity of our farmers to produce more food in ways that build the biodiversity of our land and preserve the welfare of the animals themselves, I couldn’t help but think of a system where ‘big and more is better’ and what this perpetuates within the greater context of the system – especially when looking at how new entry farmers are meant to gain entry into the industry when the capital need to invest in land and infrastructure is so high (because you need to produce so much for so little).
This trip certainly opened my eyes to the realities of farming and food production in the context of our current food system. It showed me how far conventional farming has come and the innovation that exists (and needs to be invested in) within the industry and certainly in the case of Matt and Vanessa, the perception surrounding ‘conventional farming’ being degrading to the land and unethical/animal welfare; in this case, this could not be further from the truth or reality.
Agriculture is finding a way to co-exist with the land and environment and this presents exciting opportunities in building a more resilient system. Whether you eat meat or not or agree with large scale or small scale food production, diversity is the key in any resilient system. What we actually need to be doing, rather than arguing about who is right or wrong, is supporting farmers at both scales, who are in fact working hard to create better, more sustainable and respectful systems.
In Australia, the best part about it is the vast majority are in fact producing food in this way. Farming has come a long way and there is certainly huge opportunity for the future.