Revegetating Western Australia: Research to Reality
The story of the development of a unique company that now sells seeds and machinery around the world.
Mum read in the paper in 1957, in South Australia, that all the rich people and movie stars were going to Esperance. "If it is good enough for them," she said, "I'm going." And in 1959, Dad took us to West Beach Caravan Park in Adelaide. He said that was the far west. Finally, on my 16th birthday, we drove across the Nullabor, in 1961. I was driving at midnight, and Dad said to keep on driving. Suddenly, at 3:00 in the morning...where's the road? Nobody told me there was a Eucla pass in the Nullabor. So, we camped there the night. The next day we got to Esperance and found a block of land. John Brown took us up a scrub road. There was scrub this way, a plowed track that way, a fire break and a road that way. He said, "There's your block, Location 231, good on ya, Bob." That was how Esperance got developed.
I spent a long time in Esperance, knocking the trees down and trying to make money. What happened...the wool price collapsed, wheat quotas came in. I found out there was a big patch of Townsville stylo up in the Kimberleys at Kalumburu mission. Dad was in Esperance battling away at farming, and I found the seed up there. The people at the mission said to come on up and harvest the seed because Brother Dominic was going back to Spain for holidays, but the tractor was not working. So we hopped on the old Chamberlain and drove up, and that is how I started Kimseeds 31 years ago. And it was all good and I was going to get rich next year.
That first year, a mate of mine was going to buy all the seed. He was working for Hookers, that was all right. John Epworth was going to negotiate the next week, but then I found out lightning hit him at Robe River the day before he signed the order. So we put it all in the shed.
So, this is how we founded Kimseeds, responding to a market, chasing the stuff. I got a plan of a buffel harvester from Queensland, gave it to Esperance Engineers, and made one and put it in front of another tractor and trailer, and up we went again and harvested buffel seeds. We used to cart around those tractors and trailers. I got picked up for driving a road train without a license, because we used to tow the tractor and the trailer and the truck broken down all behind.
Anyway, we built the sheds and got going. A nice Irish bride came out and I put her in a caravan next to the shed. Her mother said, "Come home, you married a gypsy." She is still a gypsy, wandering around the world.
We slowly built Kimseed, because I was going to get rich. The industry was booming: revegetate the Ord, etc. We found patches, but we had to make the machines, the technology. We had to make the seed cleaners, because ordinary seed cleaners didn't work. We ended up making the seeders, we made the harvesters. Torbin Sas Nielsen, a Dane who wandered through ended up my partner. A precise bloke. He scratched it out on the floor at the engineering shop and made a machine. We did it and it worked perfectly. We seeded the whole lot. Then Cyclone Vern came through, dropped 28 inches in three days and destroyed the lot, but that's alright, that's God. We were lucky we went under the tree because that destroyed the lightning.
Meanwhile, everything collapsed. I had an order from Wesfarmers, 30 tonnes of buffel grass seed for Mexico. We got all excited, this was fantastic. Guess what, we missed out on it. Next time it was 30 tonnes of buffel grass seed for Iran. We wondered, where is Iran? We missed out on that. Then I was told to go down to Perth and "the Government helps you! AusTrade has this export grant, you can go through the Middle East!" My Irish wife said she was going to go back and stay in Ireland if I didn't come with her. AusTrade took us through the Middle East. I went to Ireland--bloody mad--you can get shot there. When I was in Ireland I said I was going to go to Beirut, and they said I was crazy, I would get shot there. So, it is relative to where you are.
Slowly, we went through. I was selling pasture seeds and everything else. But they didn't want pasture seeds, they wanted Atriplex seeds, eucalyptus and acacia seeds. I wondered what Atriplex was. So I rang Kuwait. They showed me Atriplex plants and the eucalypts. So, I went around the world, I came back and got an order from the Kuwait Dairy Company for 20 kg of buffel grass seed or rose grass seed, the first order they had ever brought in, in 1975. It was wonderful.
Meanwhile, I went out into the desert (tape ends, is turned over)...
...rich and traveled the world. As I traveled the world and the Middle East they kept on wanting to buy these seeds. I said "these won't grow there, but those will." They were going to chuck the seeds out in the desert from an airplane. I said, "Hang on. That is all very nice, but you need to have pitters, you need water harvesting, everything the Ag and the Ord had done..." They asked where they would get these things, and I told them they were not commercially available.
So then, I came back and said, "Righto, we will have to make all these machines." As usual, someone said to go get a government grant. We made seed cleaning, seed threshing, planting, pitting, all the machines for the whole process. In the arid lands, if it rains once you have to convert one inch into forty. We got everything up and running. The day we finished those machines, the Libyan Minister for Agriculture turned up at Dowerin. I wondered where Dowerin was. We turned up at the field day, he saw our machines, everyone was trying to impress him. He said, "These are the machines I was asking John Deere to make this morning. How did you know?" He gave us first class return tickets to Libya. We typed out a list of seeds that would grow in the desert. That was when the WA farmers were all working on the big projects over there.
So I went to Libya but what I found was that I was putting together research to reality. I would go around a work on the Ag Dept. people to find out what they were doing. I would go past, look at this, look at that, and take photographs of this result or that result. Then, blow me down, the Arabs loved it and they would write me cheques. The Ayatollah Khomeni had a big ad. A telegram came in from Iran. Then another telegram came from the Trade Commissioner came saying I was going to get an inquiry for a heap of machines. So we put a deal. We sold 120 machines to Iran, which is very good. Particularly because the post hole diggers...what happened to them? Well, I think they ended up in the front digging mines against Saddam. But, it was very effective.
So we sold...and Charles was there when we did it. "We want seedling planters...Hey, Charles, come here, where is your bloody machine?" And he would trundle down in front of the hotel. They would look at it and in ten minutes they would all get excited and say, "We'll have ten of them." They wanted ten of everything. Habib said they might as well double it. We sold 120, did the letter of credit and put the whole thing through. I will never forget that day when we got drunk, when the bank manager walked in and said, "Here. One million one hundred fifty four thousand five hundred and forty one dollars in your bank account today." We built the technology and the team together.
Clive Malcolm was doing a few trials with saltbush around the place. So we came up with the salt land seeder and the seeds and we revegetated the saltland in the early '80s. I looked at all the people who had done a bit of research--a trial plot here, another there. Once again, we needed someone with a big chequebook. Sir James McCusker said he wanted to plant tagasaste. We had a trial, we had done a hectare, but he wanted 400 acres. So we got the cheque and we pioneered the revegetation of the salt land in the early '80s, direct seeding. Charles was planting from seedlings, I was direct seeding. Nurseries are bloody hard to manage and do that sort of stuff.
Then the Germans started getting excited about it so we ended up with a whole heap of machines in Germany, German aid in Morocco. There is nothing like having your machine with a broken-down old whatsit out in the Moroccan desert, revegetating out there. The amazing thing is, they were trying to work out here, research Argania plants. They had a conference...why aren't Argania plants growing in Morocco? You can get a card showing the goats living among the Argania plants. Sometimes I wonder why we do that sort of stuff. Australian trees, eucalypts, are all the way through there. So we got in to sort that out. Saudi Arabia...control the desert, bit of irrigation. We were doing wonders. We were about to negotiate a huge....what happened? Oil price dropped from $30 per barrel to $10 per barrel, 30th of January, l986. Our chequebooks disappeared again.
We came back to farming again. While we were doing the farming, working with Charles, variety selections, beavering on doing the stuff. And then, mine rehab. Some of the work we did for Hammersley Iron, the first work in mine rehabilitation in 1976 in the Pilbara. We kept on saying you need it. But every one of our clients said, "We don't know the law, so you have to get in and analyse and put the package together." Now there are a lot of experts come in. The first time I put my native seed price list together, which was a copy of Barry Vaughn's, I said, "Let's find the information about it." There was Beard's little book, there was a little bit here, a little bit there. There was no information. I decided I needed a botanist. The phone rang. A bloke said "Hi, my name is Greg Corman, I'm a botanist from Tucson and I specialise in arid land plants. I'm riding my bike around Australia. Can I have a job?"
Anyway, I put Greg on and we started to compile a book on all the plants. It was bloody hard, buying computers to do it. Greg ended up in the Middle East, but we still keep in contact. But that is where we were with that little bit of knowledge here, little bit of knowledge there. How do you package it? Now it is all on CDs and the latest technology. Where has Bill Davey gone? Bill, I disagree with you: keep the money pouring in from the government so we can use the knowledge, put it together. You just have to kick them in the bum a bit to make sure they are focused.
So, there we are. Mine rehab, having a bit of a hard time. In Australia gold mining collapsed so Greg hops on a plane and gets to the biggest copper mine, and we become the environmental consultants to do the complete revegetation and planning of the biggest copper mine in the world in Indonesia. We helped looking after the geckos a bit.
Basically, what we have done is service the following areas: mining and construction, we do the rehab, environmental management, planning and training. One of the major things is we get newsletters out. I have been working with Aborigines since Kalumburu, working and training them up and teaching them how to do it, and set them up. We have high and low technology. Every group has our seed cleaners--Greening Australia, you name it, they have to come to us for something: their seed, or if they collect their own seed they have to buy a machine. We are a sort of a one-stop shop.
Environmental reporting: people like to know what has happened or not. We do that. Revegetation and rehabilitation, supply and equipment: a complete package. If they want a machine, we design and make it. Waste management. A lot of the mining companies want reafforestation around, and we do that, best management practice. We have some real experts at our place. We have 35 staff, good people who can get in and do all this stuff. We do selection of species, equipment, supply and training for hydroseeding, training and supervision of local personnel, schedule and planning environmental works, monitoring of performance, inventory control. We do this all over Australia. Some of them only want a bit here or a bit somewhere else. We have to supply them. We export all around the world.
In 1996, the Libyan Minister for Agriculture (a different one) decided they should buy all the things they didn't buy 15 years earlier, so we went out and sold 80 machines and 100 tonne of seeds. They paid us in Swiss Francs and we did very well, thank you. The same year we did a big deal with the Oil for Food project to supply machines to the Kurds in the north. We sold 24 machines there. We did an Indonesian project, then we knocked off a huge AusAid project to revisit Mongolia and do the salt land there. Here we were, sitting, waiting, and suddenly it all came in. It was very exciting.
We got an export award. They always say you can export one year and go broke the next. But we are still going. We get heaps of awards. They even gave me a Rolex award for protecting the world's environment in 1990. It's bloody ugly, I don't even like to wear the thing, but I suppose you have to. We got a BHP award for designing their machines. And a Small Business award.
Meanwhile, we were also doing forestry. Charles got us into contract planting trees in the south west. We decided that Esperance was the place, because the old farm that we had got back in 1961, we reckoned we could grow on. We started growing in 1994; we copied CALM techniques. What a disaster. CALM had a report to say that you can't grow Blue gums in Esperance because they did some trials. But I looked at all the trials and guess what? They hadn't looked after them. They planted them and pissed off. They hadn't fertilised or managed them. In Esperance, if you don't add fertiliser, you don't have any trees or grass or anything else. There is some basic common sense, but CALM wasn't interested. There was a thing called Pinus pinaster, or something like that that they were promoting.
We do all the same things that ITC do, we don't do them quite as pretty and flash as them. Down at Esperance we did drainage, ripping and fertilising, mounding and doing it, and you can see why the mounding works. We used the same contractor and the same nurseries. So Esperance has gone purely from the commercial side to a forest industry. You still have to talk to all those people; I asked a couple of CALM blokes to come over and report. They said, "Where? Esperance? no way." You have to take this research to reality and do that sort of stuff. My floor at home is made out of Blue gum.
You have to learn to be patient. When I look at Charles, I got years to go and do that sort of stuff. The Esperance port--the infrastructure is wonderful. I have to digress a little bit. As far as I am concerned, we don't have enough land there; there is too much competition in buying the land. Where are we going to go? I have been out doing the research and development...the thing that has done me is Cape Lilac. Ross Goby walked in and said, "Try that, Steve. It will kill the bugs there." We respond to inquiries and do it. With seeds we have collection and handling machines, separation, threshing, cleaning. All the research organisations around the world buy our machines, dehulling, scarifying. ITC, Timber Corp, have our vacuum separators, heat treatment, cooling, stratification, smoke treatment. Every time you read something in the paper, new technology with seeds, the phone rings at our place. "Have you got this, have you got that?" We have to have the research; we have to supply people in different levels and all the different seed. Pure seed, we have found...down in Esperance, Drew who supplies us and them...if you come up with pure seed, you only have to plant one seed. You get rid of 50% of the rubbish. If you try to grow the rubbish, smaller seeds, and the seedlings are only half as big. We saw the path of that: provenance selection. Alcoa got a medal to revegetate their mines; to do a mine, you can't take seed from 30 k away. You have got to do this, that, then you have to go to CALM. So we got that provenance advice, soil types, all that stuff. The end result, people want natives crop, which is what you are doing, and the fodder shrubs, tagasaste, wattle, atriplex. Human food around the world, landscaping, doing all the freeway work, supplying seed there.
We supply Greening Australia, Aboriginal groups, native stuff, FAO, we got big tenders out going at the moment. The Danish tree programs and all the tree seed centres around the world, Canadian Aid for the Southern African Development Corporation, Iran, Iraq, Libya, you name it where there is a problem. We were going to make heaps of money, we were going to negotiate. Remember, Bill, when we were going to do this big project in Kuwait? I was just driving in to have a meeting when I heard on the radio that Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait. That was the end of our export market, but we are getting organised. At the same time, Keating invaded Australia and destroyed our local markets. It was difficult times.
Getting down to it, Bill, I reckon Sugar gums are the greatest. Do you know why? Because while I was trying to revegetate the Murray lands with Bob Peace, the old fencing contractor who developed the electric fence, he turned up in his Subaru and he had all these slats on the top. I asked what they were there for, and he said that we need new hardwood to grow. I am weather-testing Sugar gum slats. He had them on top a whole year. He said, Sugar gum is the one. I have been gathering, looking, observing, taking photographs, putting it together, but, blow me down, here I am doing all this little bit and getting organised, and, blow me down, the government is getting organised too. Right here: "Emerging products and services from trees in low rainfall." Everything we are talking about is documented in research programs founded by the Research and Development Corporation, joint venture, agroforestry. Then, "Trees, water and salt, Australian guide to using trees for healthy catchments and productive farms." Bloody marvelous, all you have to do is read this research and put it together, collect the money first, plant the stuff, keep it there, grow it, and do it. That is what we do, when we are not bored and doing everything else.
By the way, we are environmentally friendly: in the middle of our forests you can grow yabbies, we haven't killed any. Geoff Brewer did some trials in Esperance 20 years ago, direct seeding Sugar gums. Look at these 20-year-old Sugar gums--they are straight, provenance selected. He is a pretty good member of Parliament. Here is all the different trials all around the place. Here are Spotted gums in 16 inch rainfall, 20 years old, as good as any you can get. Right, when they have cut down all the bloody trees along the road and made furniture our of all the local stuff. That's the market. The only thing I can't really handle is bloody pines. Someone else has to look after them.
I will not put a propositiion up to somebody, because they have a bit of a system there. That is where you have got to get to the same thing, like the blokes up in Kalgoorlie talking about the tax problems. Chew the ear of the Prime Minister, because that is the only way you will get the results in the end. Carbon credits...we all have to work together as a team. ITC and the rest, they have a nice little group on their own and say, "We don't want you. We are big, you are little." They actually advertise out there to say that ITC, APT, Timber Corp and Great Southern are big and the little blokes are useless. That is what happens in the industry. I don't mind, we can live with that. We just have to show the photographs of the results. And we learn from them and they learn from us.
The answer is to go from wood chips to the next regime. Andy, what is the recovery rate of Blue gums? (Answer: a rate of 3% for unimproved genetic stock, which is terrible, and 30 or 40% for improved genetic stock.) That is where the industry is going to get one day. They might ask us little boys to come along with the big boys.
Gmelina (?) is an oil tree. We were approached by a mob a few months ago who wanted to thresh it. So we are doing it. There is a pharmaceutical firm in Switzerland trying to develop this new oil. We researched it in Tanzania and we sent a small machine for threshing. Then we got an e-mail from a bloke who wanted to do it in Australia, we got heaps of it. He said it was a special oil, and it was very quiet, but he was doing it for a big pharmaceutical firm in Switzerland. I said we were supplying them already. By now he was getting all excited about doing that and carbon credits, but he has access to humongous heaps of money. So we talk to him all the time. The biggest problem is that the Australian market for the money is tiny. The tax-driven money is a baby. It is really overseas. That's where I reckon it is. Part of our skill is to do it from the ground up to the top. The answer is that if you do not do each step, research it, do trials...in the end it is the product. In the end, it is the men with the chequebook you have to convince.