Greenhouse plan for Wheatbelt

Brad ThompsonCountryman
Wide Open Agriculture soil expert Raju Dhakal, chairman Anthony Maslin and executive director Ben Cole stand on farmland outside of Williams.
Camera IconWide Open Agriculture soil expert Raju Dhakal, chairman Anthony Maslin and executive director Ben Cole stand on farmland outside of Williams. Credit: Michael Wilson

A WA start-up agriculture company is about to build its first greenhouse in the Wheatbelt under ambitious plans to deliver financial, social and environmental returns to the region.

If Wide Open Agriculture is successful, the greenhouse will be the first of many growing new crops and bringing new faces to Wheatbelt towns.

WOA has raised $450,000 to fund a pilot greenhouse covering about 1500sqm. Inside, the company will grow herbicide-free red capsicum, cucumbers and tomatoes in the summer and brassica crops such as broccoli in winter.

It is the start of a long journey to turn WOA into a publicly listed company with a patchwork of greenhouses on farms across the Wheatbelt. The workforce needed for such intensive horticulture would be sourced locally, from migrant centres and Australia’s humanitarian resettlement programs.

WOA chairman Anthony Maslin said the company’s name was a nod to WA band the Triffids and their song Wide Open Road, as well as the vast opportunities in the Wheatbelt.

The founder of Solar Energy Systems (now Solco Ltd) and former Buxton Resources managing director said WOA would not exist if he had not sought out Hans Schut, an old friend in the sustainable banking industry in the Netherlands.

“I was looking to find some meaning, some reason for being,” he said.

Mr Maslin said what he found was hope in the wake of a personal tragedy in 2014.

Mr Schut drew his attention to Netherlands-based Commonland and its business model for land restoration projects based around four returns — return of financial capital (sustainable profits); return of natural capital (restoring biodiversity and soil and water quality); return of social capital (bringing back jobs, business activity and education opportunities); and return of inspiration (giving people hope and a sense of purpose).

“Initially I sat there and thought ‘the return of hope and inspiration’ what the hell are they talking about,” Mr Maslin said.

His thoughts soon turned to the Wheatbelt and people who arrive in Australia on humanitarian grounds after fleeing wars and persecution.

“If there is a place that needs the return of inspiration it is the Wheatbelt. The farms are getting bigger, the population is getter older and people are leaving,” he said.

“If there is a group of people who need hope and inspiration it is humanitarian migrants, or as we prefer to use the term New Australians.”

Much of the inspiration behind WOA came from environmental engineer Ben Cole, who shared a family connection and had just moved to Narrogin with his young family after a decade working overseas.

More came from acclaimed Wheatbelt farmer Stuart McAlpine who, along with other broadacre producers, saw the potential for diversification into greenhouse horticulture and reintroduction of livestock using water from keyline or roaded catchment dams.

Commonland became a cornerstone investor, Dr Cole took the job as managing director and Mr McAlpine agreed to act as a senior adviser.

WOA also formed ties with the Shire of Dalwallinu and supported the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to stop the closure of Buntine Primary School.

The company tested interest among potential employees by running a workshop in conjunction with the Muresk Institute that was advertised through a migrant resource centre in Mirrabooka.

The first person through the door was Nepalese-born Raju Dhakal, who came with a masters degree in agronomy, specialising in water management.

Mr Maslin said others with similar qualifications were close behind.

“That is the sort of talent out there,” he said.

“We see the greenhouses as the key to opening up the opportunity to attract families out into the Wheatbelt.

“Once the people are out there we can work with them on what they want to do to diversify. We’ll eventually be doing vegetables, crops and livestock, but doing it in a sustainable manner.”

Dr Cole said WOA had an aggressive growth strategy, with greenhouses the first step to introducing regenerative farming practices across broadacre operations, and other diversification.

The company’s goal is vertical integration from production through to distributing and selling produce locally and overseas.

Mr Dhakal, who came to WA to study for a doctorate in water management at Edith Cowan University, said he would grab the opportunity to move to the Wheatbelt with his wife and family.

The first greenhouse is earmarked for a farm near Arthur River with others to follow as WOA works towards listing on the ASX.

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