Podcast: Farmer Stephanie Trethewey
by Stephanie Williams
Our editor Steph sat down with farmer Stephanie Trethewey for the latest episode of The Hobart Magazine Podcast. Stephanie is a co-founder of the Tasmanian Agricultural Company, a regenerative food brand on a mission to produce carbon positive beef through its farming practices. She’s also the host of the Motherland Australia podcast and a journalist.
You weren’t always a farmer. What was your journey onto the land? I had never lived on the land before we moved to Tassie 18 months ago. My background is as a TV journalist. I spent eight years working around the country for Channel 7 and Channel 9 for shows like A Current Affair and Sunday Night, until I interviewed a handsome farmer for a story for the Nightly News. And the rest is history. We did end up moving to Melbourne and working in corporate jobs and then eventually decided to move back to his home state of Tassie and start this business.
Where did you interview your now-husband, Sam? I was living in Rockhampton in Queensland at the time. I was managing the Channel 7 Central Queensland Bureau. And it was a really slow news day. There was a farming conference locally. I turned up and asked the local organisers who could I interview and they said, “Oh, that young bloke over there, Sam Trethewey, they’ve just flown him up from Victoria.” I tapped him on the shoulder and persuaded him to chat to me on camera and he got my business card.
For the rest of your life. That’s it. It’s funny because the story I interviewed him on was actually a story about meat. It was about how consumers have lost their connection with where their food comes from, particularly meat, because kids don’t go to butchers. Fast forward seven years, and we’re running a beef business.
It’s come full circle for you. Back to Tassie. Yes. Sam’s a third generation Tassie farmer. Like a lot of Tassie people do, he left school at 18 and decided to spread his wings and worked overseas on farms, worked on the mainland, cut his teeth in the agribusiness industry. 15 years later, we moved back here. Tassie is quite a special place. We are seeing an increasing number of Sam’s friends, people who are 35 plus that are moving back home because it is an amazing place to start a business. There’s so much opportunity down here. And a beautiful place to raise kids – we’ve got two kids as well.
Do you miss TV journalism? No. It’s much less glamorous than it sounds. And after eight years, I’m done. It’s a pretty high pressure industry and cutthroat. I do miss chasing the odd dodgy person down the street. I was that reporter that would chase people down the street. I loved it. It was this big adrenaline rush.
How is your business becoming carbon positive? We were sitting in Melbourne in our corporate jobs and started this idea for the business. We thought, what’s beyond sustainable? What if we could produce a regenerative and truly carbon positive beef product, because cows are the punching bag for climate change in a lot of situations. People don’t understand that it’s the ‘how’ not the cow. We’ve set out on this mission to do that, and we’re building a lot of data along the way.
And how do you do that? Basically, regenerative agriculture, which is what we do, uses a lot of non-conventional farming practices that are a bit more in sync with mother nature. So often in farming conventional farms fight mother nature. They don’t work with her. They want to dominate the soil, dominate pests, weed control. The reality is controlling mother nature doesn’t usually end very well as we’re seeing with a lot of the destruction to our top soil around the world. They say we’ve got 60 harvests left, which is pretty frightening.
Really? It’s one of those things you’re reading, and think that’s surely a media beat up. This is globally, not just in Australia. The way we farm is all about drawing down carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it back in the ground. And the way we do that is through plants. Specific plants that have really good taproots and root structure and the ability to draw down as much as possible. Ultimately our aim is, through many different regenerative practices, to show that we can draw down more carbon dioxide out of the air than our entire operation emits. So hence, being what we call truly carbon positive. We’re seeing an increasing number of businesses jump on the bandwagon of being carbon neutral and often buying carbon credits, offsetting their emissions. I’m sure their heart’s in the right place, in a way because it’s better than doing nothing. But it’s not really like boots on the ground, skin in the game type stuff.
We use organic natural fertilisers. We feed our cattle what we call a salad bowl buffet. Think of a leafy salad bowl, turnips, radish, peas, corn, oats, sunflowers we planted. We do that because this particular variety of plants are really good at drawing down CO2 and storing it back in the ground through its root structure. The bonus is our cattle get a really diverse, more nutritious diet than just grass and clover.
Has there been a transition for the property? It’s a huge transition for any property to get new management. You’ve got to be careful here because you don’t want to put your foot in it or offend people that have farmed a certain way before us. But we have chosen to farm this way. You take on a property. It’s like having a drug addict, right? Like you’re someone who has been reliant on chemicals, on various things that a lot of farms use to get the grass to grow and all that stuff. We quit cold turkey, which is typical of Sam’s approach. The landscape goes into a bit of shock and withdrawals. We have to increase the organic carbon levels in our soil and that takes time. They say it takes at least three years to really get things going. So we’re just over halfway.
How do you prove how regenerative you are? We are collecting and building data on everything we’re doing, from soil tests, plant nutrition, our cattle’s health, you name it. When it comes to our ultimate mission, which is to be truly carbon positive and to show that we can sequester more carbon than our entire operation and needs. In 2019 we became the first farm in Tasmania to register a soil carbon project through the Australian government’s Emissions Reduction Fund. And that testing methodology uses the only methodology that’s eligible under the United Nations Paris Agreement. What that means is that all future carbon credits will actually count towards Australia’s national target under that UN Paris Agreement. Now we’re not doing it because we care about the carbon credits, that’s the bonus. We’re doing it because we believe it to be the best testing methodology, that has the most integrity that consumers can trust. That was really important to us because you can do soil carbon tests. Lots of people do them, that’s fantastic. But for us, it was about what is the most trustworthy process and globally recognized that we can do. When they tested our farm they actually measured 18 randomly selected GPS locations across our farm and dug and measured down one metre deep to measure carbon levels across our farm to give us an average percentage. When we retest our farm, we’d like to do it in another two years. Hopefully by that time, we will be able to prove that carbon positive mission.
And does it make a difference to the taste of the beef? In the salad bowl paddocks, yes. We did a test run of our beef before we went to market and it was a real different flavor. We had a chef down in Hobart just try it, and he was like, “Oh, wow. Like it’s a grownup type of taste.” And we were trying to figure out why. Everyone’s got their own opinion, but I think we’re definitely starting to see some unique flavours peppered through some of our animals.
And your packaging is home compostable? Yes. We really want to be known for being transparent, and we’re trying our best. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying. I said to Sam, “I don’t feel comfortable with going to market and having any plastic in our packaging.” We’re trying to be beyond sustainable, then here we are with plastic trays. We found a company in New Zealand, called Econic, who supply us with these bags. You can get quite easily compostable packaging for all sorts of things, fruit and veg and things with longer shelf life. A lot of brands have been doing this for a couple of years. But raw meat, it’s got to have a shelf life.
Your podcast, Motherland, has just hit 100,000 listens, which is amazing. Why do you think it resonates? I was looking for something like Motherland myself. I definitely suffered from some level of postnatal depression after I had my son. Then when we moved here and being really isolated, I yearned to hear other people’s stories. When women come together to share their stories, amazing things happen. It’s like cutting back the BS. My life’s not perfect. And when someone else says, “Oh my God, me too,” it’s just so reassuring. Rural motherhood is a very unique kettle of fish. Having been a mum in the city and in the country, they are totally different experiences. And I just thought, “Screw it, I’ll just launch it and see if two people listen.” And it’s grown from there.
Who has been your favorite guest? There have been so many. But it’s Karen Brock, a Tasmanian woman. She actually won Agrifutures Rural Women of the Year for Tassie last year. She was on my 50th episode. For anyone who wants to go back and listen, her story is quite amazing. She talked about the domestic violence she suffered in her marriage and very deep personal things. She’s an experienced mum. I think for anyone with young kids, you’re in the trenches, you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. And to have someone who’s had all this experience to tell you that they’ve survived and that you can get through. If she can do that, you can get through your day kind of thing. Yeah, it was pretty amazing and very moving. So I feel very lucky that women open up to me.
It says a lot about your interview style, that someone would feel so comfortable to share that when it hasn’t been shared before. I’m just me. I love telling stories. But now that I’m a mum, I can genuinely put myself in other people’s shoes, because if you’re not a mum, with all due respect and I hated this when people told me before I had kids, they’re like, “Just wait till you have kids.”
It’s infuriating. I know. Then you have kids and you’re like, “Oh my God, I was such an idiot.” I was that person that realised how wrong I’d been. Women and mums, they just want to feel heard and valued. And I think that that’s what the show does. It’s about celebrating rural mums and connecting them from all over the country.
What does a day look like for your family? To be honest, at the moment, it’s absolute chaos. I just feel like Sam and I can’t catch a break. We’re so hard in the trenches of this new business, which we’ve been working so hard on for so long and we’re finally in market, but it almost feels like the hard work starts now. Throw a toddler and a four-month-old into the mix and that’s really tricky. I don’t know if anyone out there has got the juggle down pat. If you do, particularly in a family business, I think that adds a whole other layer of pressures and strains.
Where can readers find your beef? At the moment, we’re expanding to the Melbourne market very soon, which is exciting. We are stocked at all Hill Street Grocer stores across Tassie. A special shout out to them. They have been fantastic. They’re really big on supporting local Tassie brands. And Steve Longmore, from Hill Street, has nurtured us from the start and given us a crack. I think that’s really important. Particularly with these new movements like regenerative food, we need people and consumers to know what it is. Otherwise, they’re not going to demand it if they don’t know about it. When covid hit we were building our strategy around restaurants. So we totally pivoted and have gone really high on retail, which just turned out to be amazing. We’re growing in volume. And by the middle of the year, we’ll really have a lot of beef that needs to find a home. And we’re really excited for where that takes us.
When consumers are making a purchasing decision, what should they consider? Regenerative food is quite new and I think we’re going to start to see more and more credibility built around that. There’s not like a one-size-fits-all definition of it. But consumers have the power. The more consumers educate themselves about things like regenerative food – if you genuinely care about things like climate change, food security, the environment, animal welfare, soil health, all that stuff. If you care, then do some research. Some farmers will farm this way because they believe in it, like we do. Some will perhaps dabble in it or it’ll open their eyes to it because people will be demanding it. I think in five years’ time, you and I will catch up and it will be the norm. It’ll just be, that’s the way things are produced.
You can find out more about Tas Ag Co at www.tasagco.com.au. To listen to Stephanie’s podcast, search ‘Motherland Australia’ on all the good platforms.
To listen to The Hobart Magazine Podcast search for us on the same platforms.