The Collaboration King: John Gladigau of Bulla Burra

All this week on Table Talk we are discussing Collaborative Farming Models.

Our three part series includes:

  1. Collaborative and Co-operative Farming Models: An Introduction
  2. The Collaborative King: John Gladigau of Bulla Burra Farms
  3. Where can I find more information on collaborative/cooperative farming models?

The benefits of collaboration are numerous and well-documented. As we outlined in our previous post, three main benefits include:

  1. Economic – a collaborative arrangement can offer farmers increased returns through the ability to achieve scale at a lower capital cost; the reduction of costs which are duplicated between farmers; and risk sharing.
  2. Skills – The possibility of sharing best farming and business management practice.
  3. Social – Joint farming ventures can help to address the social challenge of the ‘one-man farm’ model making farming a more attractive occupation.

So why aren’t more producers collaborating? Too difficult? Not sure who to collaborate with? Too little guidance? No idea how to start?

Although I can’t answer all those questions, today I’m so pleased to introduce you (for those who don’t know him – probably not many!) to the Collaboration King* – John Gladigau of Bulla Burra Farms (*This is by no means a self-proclamation by John, he’s rather embarrassed by it, but is one that many producers and commentators have called him and we definitely agree).

I’m incredibly fortunate to call John a peer, and now a friend, after working with him for two years as a member of the Industry Advisory Group for the Farming Together Program. John is innovative, driven, honest, kind and a damn good grain producer, and I’m so excited to share some of his story today.

 “Collaboration creates a synergy that can drive businesses to a whole new level”

Image: Bulla Burra Farms

What was the catalyst for you creating your collaborative farming venture, Bulla Burra?

When I came home onto the farm after leaving school I assumed management responsibilities in my mid 30’s of our 2,000ha farm.

Knowing that creating efficiencies and scale, and the utilisation of new farming practices (i.e. no till) were essential for future sustainability it led me on a journey looking at how this could be achieved without a large capital base behind you.

Working together with other farmers and sharing resources and skills seemed an obvious way to do this, but a culture of fierce independence and lack of transparency within farm businesses meant that this rarely seemed to happen.

In 2007, I travelled on a Nuffield Scholarship around the world looking at collaborative business models, which ultimately led to the creation of Bulla Burra in 2009.

Bulla Burra is owned by two farming families, ourselves (John and Bronwyn Gladigau) and Robin and Rebecca Schaefer. It is essentially an operations company and leases about 5,000 hectares of land owned by our two families, and leases/share farms another 6,000 ha owned by others.

The other catalysts were:

  • Wanting to create a farming business which would allow us to utilise our skills and passions in the areas where they would add the most value to the business
  • The desire for flexibility of involvement and to have a life outside of the business to spend time with family and pursue other interests
  • To create a model which allowed for our family farm to continue into the future, with or without direct involvement of the next generation.
Image: Bulla Burra Farms

What are the main advantages/stories of success thus far?

If you asked us in 2009 what our drivers were, we would have said it was about efficiency and profitability and retaining the integrity and heritage of the family farm.

Today, we would say that we have become a more professional farming unit with a focus less on economics and more on building quality relationships with all those involved with Bulla Burra, both internally and externally.

By creating a collaborative structure, one of the key focuses (and needs) is to have effective decision-making processes which is transparent and has levels of accountability built within it.

We have a board with an independent chairman which is focused on governance and strategy which is always looking at ‘where do we want to be, and what do we need to put in place to get there’. Day to day decisions are made at a management level, but accountable to the board.

In looking back, we would say that having a structure which is focused on being professional in all we do, has effective decision-making processes and looks to build effective win-win relationships with others has led us to our original goal of becoming more efficient and profitable, with the flexibility and involvement we desired.

For us collaboration was the catalyst, not the cure.

By not only becoming more efficient (and certainly more profitable) – it has in turn allowed us to access technology and systems which we could only have dreamt about before we joined our two smaller family farms together. Having a partner and other forward-thinking people within the business has enabled us to plan more strategically and challenge each other’s thinking – which has created a robust decision-making process.

We pay ourselves a commercial wage, which includes days off and annual leave – which not only has been great for our families but ensures that the business isn’t being subsidised and needs to stand on its own two feet.

We were very honoured and humbled recently to be named as one of three cropping finalist s in the Weekly Times Coles Farmer of the Year. While this was certainly unexpected, especially as Bulla Burra has only been in existence for 9 years, we see this as a recognition that the agricultural community is looking to explore new and innovative family farming models. We are happy to use the exposure to create more discussions and encourage other family farms to maybe look outside the square as they look to continue their farming legacies.

Some say collaborating doesn’t work. They are right. It doesn’t work if don’t do it properly. It’s not for everyone. And that’s ok.”

What are the main reasons you think more people do not collaborate in such a way?

When I did my Nuffield Scholarship in 2007 I asked all the collaborative farming ventures I visited the biggest threats to the success of their venture. Every single one of them said emotions and personalities.

“Relationships are just as important as economics”

After 9 years in Bulla Burra and having been involved with a number of other farmers who have set up similar ventures I would agree 100%.

No matter how well you get along with someone, or how well your values are aligned – our personalities and emotions drive our decisions and our relationships. Understanding and accepting this and being prepared to put systems and protocols in place to ensure there is a good decision-making process reflecting everyone’s differences (i.e. a board with an independent chairperson) goes a long way to mitigating this.

Also, farmers are generally fiercely independent people. The concept of collaboration sometimes conjures up an image of giving up independence, flexibility and control, when in fact if it is well structured can be the exact opposite. But collaboration is not for everyone, and farmers should not be coerced into it if they are not comfortable. When looking at the concept of collaborating with someone (or a group of people), while a lot of the initial discussion is usually around the economics, logistics and benefits – we believe that if more of the discussion was based around WHY you are looking to collaborate, IF you could work together, and HOW you would manage emotions and personalities then more successful collaborative ventures would be created.

It has been a very exciting journey for us over the past 10 + years, and we certainly don’t pretend to be experts or not to have made mistakes. As mentioned earlier, in looking to create a more professional, efficient and profitable farming business collaboration was the catalyst, not the cure. But it has set us on a path with a very positive outlook for the future, and we are excited about the future opportunities, not only just for us, but for others looking to also go down this road.

Image: Bulla Burra Farms

What’s next for collaboration in Australia?

There are many ways farmers can collaborate, and one which has always fascinated me since the formation of Bulla Burra is whether there are ways which farmers can share risk.

Over the past 2 years I have worked with a group of leading farmers from across Australia and insurance professionals looking at ways this may be possible. This has led to the formation of Farmers Mutual Limited in June 2018, a discretionary mutual fund set up to deliver risk protection products – owned by farmers, for farmers, and supported by the very successful Farming Together Program based out of Southern Cross University.

It’s initial membership base consists of farmers geographically spread across all mainland states, working together with a major international insurer with a focus on minimising risk for both parties, and lowering the cost of balance sheet protection for farmers.

It is an exciting, innovative approach being driven by grass roots farmers passionate about creating a culture in which collaboration can be successful.

Thanks, John! We can’t wait to hear more and witness your future collaborative ventures.

Next: Where can I find more information on collaborative/cooperative farming models?