Red Centre boasts certified organic beef country the size of small European nation

By Katrina Beavan on 15 June 2018, on

Outback organic beef is on the rise in Central Australia with the area’s certified organic pastoral land now equalling the size of a small European country.

ABC Rural estimates the region now boasts more than 8 million hectares of certified organic cattle land, or land in conversion to be certified, which is equivalent to the size of Austria.

Despite its smaller number of beef producers compared to the rest of the country, central Australia has long led the way in organic beef production.

Organic inquiries increase

Alice Springs became the first saleyard in Australia to be certified under both the National Certified Organic (NCO) and USDA National Organic (NOP) programs.

Now more and more stations in the area are seeking accreditation, but the increase is not limited just to central Australia.

According to Rhiannon Christie, communications and marketing manager for Australian Organic, there has been a significant increase in the amount of inquiries for organic beef across the board over the last 12 months.

“The [organic] beef market in Australia, in its entirety, is worth $564 million, [and] 20 per cent of all organic products are beef,” she said.

Ms Christie said beef had become one of the top two organic exports in Australia in tonnage, alongside processed foods.

General manager of the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture [NASAA] Mark Anderson said the growth was due to demand from the United States market.

“We’ve been very dependent on America and that’s because of their delight in eating hamburgers and their new-found delight in eating organic hamburgers,” he said.

Australian Organic’s 2018 market report found 90 per cent of Australia’s organic beef exports were to the United States, but Mr Anderson said the demand for Australian organic beef in China was also quickly growing.

Getting certified

According to Mr Anderson, rangeland areas are ideal for organic farming because they are usually in good condition already, being reasonably pristine landscapes.

He said in terms of becoming certified, the process could take one to three years.

“It depends how you’ve been managing the land,” he said.

“If you’ve been fertilising it and using herbicide to reduce weeds, from the minute you stop doing that, it will take you three years to become fully organically certified.

“If you’ve never used those kinds of products on your land then it’s only going to take you about 12 months to get certified.”

The process involves filling out an application form and then the certification body will send out an inspector to the property and it goes from there.

Neighbours influence decision

In central Australia, the Weir family is currently going through certification for their properties, Allambi Station and Todd River Station, south-east of Alice Springs.

Paddy Weir said the decision to go organic was made for a number of reasons, including the fact that most of their neighbours were certified.

“Technically, you could argue that all our beef has been organic forever but obviously, you’ve got to go through that formal process of getting recognised as organic,” Ms Weir said.

“Our meat processor in South Australia encouraged us to go for organic because I guess he knows that central Australia is a really clean product [to begin with].”

She said one paddock on Allambi Station was slightly marginal and when it gets dry, the family has to feed out lick for the cattle.

“After talking to different people — neighbours, nutrition livestock experts — we found out about an organic lick. We trialled it, and lo and behold, it’s successful.

“So that’s how it started; we went ‘right, we can do this’.”

However, Ms Weir did warn there was a lot of paperwork involved in going organic.

“We did think about it long and hard. It’s not the money, it’s the paperwork [as] anyone who’s been involved in the process will tell you,” she said.

Prices and consumer attitudes

Alice Springs Elders agent Herbie Neville agrees that organic certification is gaining momentum in the area and said there was still a premium for organic cows, which could vary from 30 to 60 cents per kilogram.

“Probably steers no quite as much, but your cows, you can get up to 60 cents premium for organic,” he said.

But Mr Neville said price could vary depending on market conditions around the country.

“The thing is at the moment, with the Thomas Foods fire, it’s put a strain on a lot of the other abattoirs, [so] there’s quite a delay now,” he said.

Not all properties are jumping on the organic train and one of these is the Consolidated Pastoral Company (CPC).

Though CPC was never accredited for its NT properties, it was for its Queensland properties until that organic program was suspended in 2015.

Furthermore, 2017 research from MLA shows that buying organic is not a priority for consumers across multiple markets.

In a list of top 15 things customers looked for when buying beef off the shelf, organic was number 14, while products labelled ‘all natural’ or ‘100 per cent natural’ ranked third.

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