October 8, 2015

A diverse family business built on sustainable practices

Mara Seeds is a diverse family company selling everything from organic soil treatments to cattle. Managing Director Stuart Larsson discusses his sustainable approach to business.

Stuart Larsson’s pioneering spirit led him to export grass seed to the Middle East, grow soybeans and develop a biological farming system at his former dairy farm in Mallanganee, northern New South Wales. He discusses the growth of his company Mara Seeds, commitment to innovation and selling organic products to Asia.

Stuart Larsson has always been quick to gain a competitive edge by doing things differently.

“When I took over the family dairy farm in 1967 I decided to switch to beef cattle,” he says. “I also planted soy, grass seed and winter crops. Then my brother-in-law Bill Allen and I saw an opportunity to export Rhodes grass to the Middle East and started the business Mara Seeds.”

When the Middle Eastern market weakened, the company pioneered the farming of soybeans in Australia. Then, when the cost of their inputs led them to question the long-term viability of the business, they made the shift to organic production.

“Like most people of my generation, I grew up with the idea that chemicals were synonymous with modern agriculture,” Stuart continues. “But, by the early1990s, the costs were skyrocketing, and the land was showing obvious signs of over-use. Yields were either plateauing or in decline.”=

A new biological system

Stuart began researching the alternatives, talking to leading scientists and even spending time with Amish farmers in the United States. This inspired him to create a biological farming system including custom-made composts, crop rotation and soil drenches or ‘teas’.

“This was 25 years ago, and we were largely dismissed as hippies,” he says. “But, since then, the mentality has been changing for two reasons. First, it’s no longer cheaper to farm with chemicals than in a ‘softer’ way. And, second, there’s a growing appreciation that soil isn’t dirt, it’s biology. It’s where everything begins.”

Stuart and his wife Katina worked together to develop organic products that would enrich their soil then commercialised the most effective ones. The range now includes Biochar, a form of stable carbon made from recycled organic matter, and MaraSOFT organic and mineral products, one of which won a 2013 Australian Organics Recycling Association Award for Product Innovation. Stuart also received the 2015 Carbon Cocky Award for Outstanding Product of the Year from Carbon Farmers of Australia.

The Larssons’ new marketing company, S.O.F.T. Agriculture, supplies several products to local and Asian markets and, in addition to growing soybeans for soy milk production, wheat for stock feed and pasture grasses for pasture seeds sales, Mara Seeds produces high-quality organic yearling beef.

“Our philosophy has always been to diversify wherever we can but only where supply and demand go hand in hand,” says Stuart. “At the moment, demand from Asia is huge. Consumers are very interested in the provenance of their food, so our transparent supply chain is a key advantage – we encourage our Asian buyers to come and see the farm for themselves.”

Four generations

The Larsson family has been farming in the Upper Clarence Valley since 1914. When Stuart and Katina’s son Ross took over the food processing side of business four years ago, he became the fourth generation to work on the land.

“We’re very committed to maintaining a viable family business,” says Stuart. “We have a succession plan in place, and the research we’re funding at Central Queensland University will secure the science we need to continue to innovate.

“There will always be something new and different, and I believe that, in agriculture, you’re vulnerable if you’re still doing the same things you were 10 years ago. If you don’t think innovatively and sustainably there’s a danger you’ll be left behind.”

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