Ben Cole Managing Director Wide Open Agriculture
Go to scale, or leave and get out – that’s the mantra in the Wheatbelt, a region of Australia with endless monoculture. Ben Cole, environmental engineer and CEO at Wide Open Agriculture (WOA), has developed a new business model for the region, including regenerative land ownership.
CEO of Wide Open Agriculture Ben Cole: “Large scale farming is really focused predominately on monocultures that decrease soil fertility. The result: very high salinity, encroaching the overall context of climate change. Farmers need to buy their neighbor’s farm and their neighbor’s neighbor’s neighbor’s farm. This is the situation in the so called Wheatbelt of Australia.”
The good news? Cole shows that a new food and farming system for a healthier world is possible. WOA focuses on transforming degraded and depopulated farming landscapes. They’re inspired by Dutch organization Commonland, a globally-focused landscape restoration organization, WOA have partnered with. Commonland operates on a principal of delivering four returns – returning inspiration through hope and a sense of purpose; the return of social capital by bringing back jobs; the return of natural capital by restoring biodiversity, soil and water quality; and the return of financial capital.
WOA has developed a vertically-integrated business model which includes regenerative land ownership. The company is growing healthy vegetables in a high-tech shade house and has created a premium food brand, Food for Reasons. In July 2018, WOA became the world’s first “4 Returns” publicly-listed company. With over 450 investors and A$5 million in capital raised from West Australians, farmers, Wheatbelt residents and Commonland’s own network, WOA is demonstrating how to shift a 4 Returns framework into a viable business model in the Australian Wheatbelt and beyond.
WAO’s first project has successfully grown a range of vegetables over the past year in a smart shade house at Wedgecarrup, between Arthur River and Wagin, in western Australia. Cole: “It’s in fact a smart greenhouse – one which has walls and a roof that can be moved depending on the weather, allowing it to regulate conditions inside, depending on the weather outside.”
“The greenhouse enables us to really optimize the Wheatbelt conditions, as we can reduce the impact of those peak heat and cold periods. The greenhouse also has a number of other benefits, including the ability to seek organic status as less pest controls are required, being very economical in water use with only one-third to half compared to traditional horticultural enterprises, and being able to grow produce year-round.”
Ben Cole: “6th of July was a very happy day for me and WOA when we formally listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. I like to think it sets a pathway for other companies, other young companies that are interested in listing. To say: ‘Ah, we don’t have to only talk about money.’ Obviously, money is important—financial success is a very important measure of productivity—but what about all those other things that give us our social license to operate: our impact on communities and farmland.”