Twiggy Forrest, farmer

Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest, farmer

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TWIGGY: Andrew Forrest and wife Nicola riding through one of their sprawling properties. Photo by Hugh Brown.

TWIGGY: Andrew Forrest and wife Nicola riding through one of their sprawling properties. Photo by Hugh Brown.

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Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest's life has had all the drama of a fairy tale that's forged a vision for Australian cattle farming.

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It's like any classic fairy tale: proud family ruined, boy grows up, defeats a monster, restores his family fortunes, and leads with compassion and wisdom.

Only, the monster that stole Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest's birthplace from his family happened to be drought.

The iconic Pilbara station, Minderoo, had forged generations of strong characters in the Forrest family over 120 years.

"I kind of grew up with that work ethic and integrity from being in a isolated, personally resilient part of the world," Mr Forrest said.

The family farmed sheep and cattle until, ravaged by the relentless dry and debt, the station was sold in 1998.

Still, Mr Forrest's love for the land burned strong.

"Sustainable agriculture is a noble, wonderful business and it's one I was brought up in, it's one which has an immense ecological impact so is terrifically important to all of the environment and humanity," he said.

When, 11 years later, Minderoo came up for auction again, the farmer's-son-turned-mining-magnate was able to buy it back.

But drought had left it wounded.

"We found a very, very unhappy, incredibly dry station, barren country and, for at least a large portion of the station, very skinny cattle," Mr Forrest said.

Nursing the beloved Minderoo back to health became something of a passion that extended far beyond station boundaries.

Mr Forrest is one of Australia's largest farmers and hopes his experience at Minderoo will help reshape the nation's cattle industry.

Slaking drought

Minderoo has morphed from a single cattle station into a massive enterprise running 25,000 cattle over six properties spanning 1.3 million hectares.

By 2021, Mr Forrest plans to have a feeding hub at Koojan Downs.

Harvey Beef already processes about 200,000 cattle a year to supply the domestic market and exports to 35 countries.

There are also aquaculture operations in different parts of Western Australia producing 200 tonnes of mussels and oysters a year.

It's all part of a master plan to farm sustainably on both a practical and more philosophical level born out of his own experience.

"The enormity of the consequences of drought, I think, has seared into my character and planning around Minderoo," Mr Forrest said.

"And led to the weir which blocks the groundwater, not surface water, which is now a technical and practical experimental success.

"It's one which we'll be looking at increasing because making water available in dry times is key to being able to survive them."

The weir is one of a kind in Australia, a type of huge, underground storage system.

"The major watercourses of Australia have, to a lesser or greater degree, a larger watercourse beneath them," Mr Forrest said.

"Even when the parent or visual river channel runs dry, generally there is a permanent flow of water draining out to the ocean from the subterranean drainage."

Stemming that flow raised the water table, making the flora and fauna of the area more resistant to drought, Mr Forrest said.

"If you have a look at Minderoo now, it has three major centre pivots and access to water which it never had," he said.

"And a much healthier river system, which over geological time may have been healthier but, certainly over the time of white settlement, has never been healthier.

"The fact we took a lot of risk in doing that is a hallmark of what I'd like to achieve, which is to show others the opportunity of what underground weirs can do."

No fear, no pain

But by far his grandest vision is to reshape the Australian cattle industry with one simple phrase: "no fear, no pain".

"I would like to cement sustainable agriculture into the psyche of all of animal protein production, at least in Australia, then hold Australia up as an example to the world," Mr Forrest said.

"What it actually means in terms of the production of animal protein is a no pain, no fear, life cycle of the animal and, in particular, when the animal turns to protein, be it from sheep to lamb or from from cattle to beef.

"That also is the no pain, no fear process.

"And I believe that it's completely achievable.

"We've proven it in the husbandry of the animals in the Minderoo organisation and the Harvey Beef and Harvest Road enterprises.

"And it simply must be the mantra because the call of the marketplace isn't to stop eating animal protein.

"The call of the marketplace is to stop any pain or fear in the lifecycle of the animal."

The Koojan Downs facility would be an exemplar of those principles.

"We're building a large operation, which I call 'free range finishing'," Mr Forrest said.

"Others call it a feedlot but that would be unfair.

"We've gone to undue efforts to ensure that the cattle are content and that they're not standing around in their own grime.

"They have range to move as much as they want to and, as cattle enter that facility and leave it for processing, no pain, no fear applies."

This, he said, is a model for Australian agriculture that once the "broad rump" of Australia could claim ethical livestock practices, could differentiate its products anywhere around the world.

"I think we've got a few years and some hard yards ahead of us but there is no doubt we will get there because we simply have to," Mr Forrest said.

"The marketplace will leave us behind.

"They will switch to plant-based meat and protein and leave behind unethical or unsustainable or unkind, immoral farming practices."

But his final comment was one of encouragement.

"I'd like to reach out to the young generations and say ... being a technically advanced, great, conscience-driven farmer, you'll improve the value of your land and the value of your stock through adopting leading edge, sustainable practices ... and still not be left behind by the advances of the rest of the world.

"You're just applying them in the country, which is a privilege to live and work in."

The story Twiggy Forrest, farmer first appeared on Stock & Land.

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