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Nathan Free takes out 2017 emerging agri leader award

  • By: Farm Tender "Prime"
  • Oct 26, 2017

Victoria’s largest organic producer, Nathan Free has received the 2017 Rabobank Emerging Leader Award, recognising outstanding new leaders in Australia and New Zealand’s food and agribusiness industries.

Mr Free, production manager of the family business Duralgai Horticultural, was presented the Trans-Tasman award at the annual Rabobank Leadership Dinner, in Melbourne last night.

Presenting the peer-nominated and judged award, Rabobank Australia and New Zealand Group managing director Peter Knoblanche said Nathan Free was “a force to be reckoned with” in the horticulture industry with his ambition to make organics mainstream and a bigger part of the consumer shopping basket.

“As someone with a huge thirst for knowledge, and passion for organics, Nathan’s potential is enormous – to not only grow his business, but to exponentially grow the retail market share of organics,” Mr Knoblanche said.

“Since returning to the family business nine years ago, Nathan, now 29, has helped transition his family’s fresh produce conventional farming blocks in the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District into a highly-productive organic fruit, vegetable and cereal operation.”

Under Mr Free’s leadership, Mr Knoblanche said, the family’s certified organic business had evolved into a more customer-focused business, with on-farm packaging facilities to distribute produce directly to major supermarkets and wholesalers around the country, as well as to export markets – including the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Dubai.

“Nathan’s focus on the end-consumer drives every decision, whether that be around what variety to grow or how to present the produce in its packaging, and it is this mindset and thought leadership that has seen him propel his business to where it is today,” he said.

As the fifth recipient of the annual Rabobank Emerging Leadership Award, Mr Free, who is also managing director of marketing business Wattle Organic Farms and sole director of Evolution Agriculture (an organic consultancy business) said the announcement had left him speechless. “And I don’t often get speechless.”

With a lifelong association with farming, having grown up on the family property at Lake Boga in Victoria’s north-west, Mr Free started growing vegetables at the age of 15 which he then sold at a roadside stall.

“If I could give myself a piece of advice when I started farming, it would be to make sure I always kept an open mind,” he said. “Being in organic farming, the perception is that I must be very open-minded, but you can sometimes close yourself off, or think you know it, but you never know it all.”

As someone who believes leadership is based on “good knowledge of what they’re doing”, Mr Free said he was always keeping his eyes open to see how people innovate or do things differently.

This was the main reason for pursuing a Nuffield Scholarship in 2015, which saw him travel throughout America, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and France to study sustainable organic production methods.

“Before Nuffield, I got my information from neighbours, the internet and industry newsletters,” he said.

Since his Nuffield travels, Mr Free said he would like to see greater collaboration within the industry through the development of an organic research farm (similar to one he saw in the US), where growers and researchers could learn from each other by testing and trialing ideas around varieties, weed suppression, soil health and nitrogen levels.

“Can you imagine if everyone put their cards on the table and could trial ideas without testing their own back pocket?” he said. “I would love to be involved in something like that to get the organic business really up to speed.”

Duralgai Horticultural – which grows 23 lines of fruit, vegetables and fodder, including broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, pumpkin, zucchini and beans in row crops – relies on crop rotation to build the soil and plant health as well as organic compost which is made on-farm.

“I’ve tried taking a leaf out of the modern agricultural book and brought back some of the precision agriculture techniques to drive the efficient production of organic row crops,” he said.

With his eyes firmly set on the future, Mr Free said in the next five years he would like to see the business grow from its current size of 300 hectares to 4000 hectares under irrigated row crop organic production.

While this would make Duralgai Horticultural the largest organic producer in Australia – and Mr Free concedes it is a “big goal” – he said his aim was “not to be the biggest, but the best”.

“I need to keep an open mind all the time, as otherwise some ideas or opportunities will slip by,” he said, “and this has given me a huge fuel and a huge energy to be able to push into organics well into my future.”

Mr Free believes there is huge potential for the organic industry to develop, and market data is showing demand is increasing exponentially, but the more demanding crops and the ability to achieve higher yields is holding the industry back.

“Organics currently make up three per cent of the total retail market here in Australia, where as it is around 10 per cent in the US,” he said. “And in some supermarkets in The Netherlands it is rare to find conventional produce like lettuce, which are being replaced by the organic equivalent.

“The organic industry shouldn’t sit at the sidelines to the conventional industry, rather it should be able to stand up. Frankly, I would just like to see organics taken seriously.”

Mr Free, who holds committee positions with Horticulture Innovation Australia and AUSVEG as well as locally as a representative on the Goulburn-Murray Irrigation District, was also named the Young Grower of the Year in 2014 at the AUSVEG National Awards for Excellence.

As part of his Rabobank Emerging Leader Award, Mr Free will receive business mentoring sessions with the 2017 Rabobank Leadership Award winner David Crombie – who received the flagship award in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to the meat industry, and the wider agri sector.

Mr Free will also be offered a place on Rabobank’s Executive Development Program in 2018, an intensive business management program for leading farmers in Australia and New Zealand.

Mr Free and Mr Crombie were presented their awards at the Rabobank Leadership Dinner, held at Mural Hall in Melbourne. Keynote speaker was Executive Chairman of Bega Cheese and 2011 Rabobank Leadership Award recipient, Barry Irvin AM.

Previous recipients of the Rabobank Emerging Leader Award are fresh leaf herb producer Jan Vydra, South Australian viticulturist Zachary Caudo, Queensland beef producer Bryce Camm (from Camm Agricultural Group) and Australian Institute of Food Science and Technology CEO Georgie Aley.