Market understanding a foundation for mungbean operation

Vertical integration a winner for Queensland mungbean producers and processors

Grower Stories
Damien White, left, and Craig Bovey at the Australian Mungbean Company's grading plant. The central Queensland grading and packing business typically handles between 7000 and 15,000 tonnes of beans each year. PHOTO Katja Anton

Damien White, left, and Craig Bovey at the Australian Mungbean Company's grading plant. The central Queensland grading and packing business typically handles between 7000 and 15,000 tonnes of beans each year. PHOTO Katja Anton

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Thorough market understanding helps Queensland mungbean business succeed.

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During a busy season at Central Queensland's Australian Mungbean Company (AMC), managing director Damien White might be found on the office floor in his swag catching up on some well-earned rest.

Peak processing time sees the company operate 24 hours a day, six days a week - and can last up to five months.

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Getting started

Damien and his wife Jonnie began setting up the AMC in 2006 when the opportunity arose to purchase a pulse grading and packing facility in Biloela.

The pair have the perfect background mix for such an endeavour. Both started their careers as agricultural scientists - in plant physiology (Damien) and soil science (Jonnie) - and, after careers in government and private enterprise, had also started farming.

"I don't think there is anyone else out there who can offer the depth of understanding of the mungbean industry that we can," Damien says.

"From the perspective of growing them, the agronomy, processing, logistics, international market intelligence and end customer requirements - we have first-hand experience in all those things."

I don't think there is anyone else out there who can offer the depth of understanding of the mungbean industry that we can. - Australian Mungbean Company owner Damien White

Damien says he has always been a believer in vertical integration.

"The biggest advantage has to be in the understanding and the information flow that goes both ways when producers are closely coupled with the end customer," he says.

Road to integration

Damien White, left, talks to fellow grower Richard Fairley about mungbean agrononmy. Damien's background makes him a great sounding board for mungbean growers in the central Queensland area. PHOTO Katja Anton

Damien White, left, talks to fellow grower Richard Fairley about mungbean agrononmy. Damien's background makes him a great sounding board for mungbean growers in the central Queensland area. PHOTO Katja Anton

Damien and Jonnie's journey to a vertically integrated business began with agricultural studies at the University of Queensland's Gatton College.

After graduating in 1994, Damien went on to do a Masters in Plant Physiology at the University of Adelaide. This saw him investigate chickpea breeding for drought tolerance before working as a researcher in new crops and mungbean agronomy with the Queensland government - leading him to Biloela.

In 2001, frustrated within the public service system, he moved into private industry, managing Selected Seeds in Biloela as well as a short stint as the regional manager for Queensland Cotton.

Jonnie's journey followed a similar route. After completing a PhD in soil chemistry, she ran the Australian and New Zealand research program for Canadian fertiliser company Canpotex for eight years.

In 2003, they purchased 80 hectares at Biloela to start farming. That has since expanded to 2800ha across four properties, including 115ha of centre-pivot and roll-line irrigated land, 220ha of dryland cultivation and the remainder running a Brahman cross breeder herd.

They grow mungbeans, chickpeas, wheat, barley, sorghum and seed crops - such as millet and forages - and hay, primarily winter cereals and lucerne.

Three years later they bought the Biloela facility and the AMC began.

Today, the grading and packing business typically handles between 7000 and 15,000 tonnes of beans each year. It has 5000 tonnes of storage across three sites. The storage is in small silos to ensure segregation of lines.

Market development

Demand for mungbeans can see product exported anywhere. But the majority is sent to China, the subcontinent and South-East Asia.

The segregated storage is not to 'play the market', which Damien likens to gambling at the local casino.

"Australia is such a small producer on the world stage that we need to differentiate our product and we do that with our quality and traceability," he says.

He says the beans are not marketed as a commodity but as individual lines with varying qualities.

"We try to produce and offer what the market is looking for and every bag sold overseas can be traced back to the paddock it was harvested from," he says.

Demand will strengthen, but being such a small producer on the world stage, Australia will be at the mercy of international markets unless we differentiate with our quality and traceability. - Australian Mungbean Company owner Damien White

Damien says the couple and their team use their expertise to ensure growers get the best price possible.

"The beans come in, we match them with buyers, process and pack them, and they go out," he says.

"Even if the shipment of beans is spread over some time, they will be priced and sold as soon as possible - as we are not interested in taking on the risk of sitting on product and trying to pick market movements.

"We are lucky that the overseas markets are quite well-matched to our harvest times, as mungbeans are considered a cooling summer food in the Asian market and they are looking to buy and restock in their spring and summer."

Damien says their business success is partly due to staff.

"We've got a pretty low turnover in personnel, which means they have a lot of experience," he says.

"This pays dividends both for the business and for our customers. While we cannot compete with mine wages, we are committed to making ours a fulfilling place to work."

This has seen the company encouraging staff to gain experience outside the plant. In 2019, it sent a younger staff member to Scotland for three months to work in an ice-cream factory.

Farming challenges

Like many growers across the northern region, the Whites are making decisions on whether and when to plant their usually more predictable summer mungbean crop.

In central Queensland, mungbeans can be planted twice a year. The typically smaller and riskier spring crop is planted in September and October and harvested in late December. The more predictable summer crop is normally planted from January up until late February. It is harvested in March or April.

In 2018-19, Central Queensland missed out on both crops - the only time this has occurred since the couple formed the AMC.

Although average annual rainfall is 680mm, in 2019 the White's received 223mm at their home block near Biloela and 275mm at a grazing block at Calliope, 100 kilometres closer to the coast.

They use an irrigation allocation of 400 megalitres and access to alluvial water to supplement rainfall, not fully irrigate.

"So, we restricted ourselves to 5ha of lucerne for hay, 35ha of mungbeans and 17ha of sorghum this spring," Damien says.

"Mungbean yields were disappointing at less than 1t/ha, but weather conditions during the growing period were extremely hot and dry.

In contrast, dryland areas have not been planted for two years. Rain in mid-January 2020, with a good prediction of follow-up rain, saw the Whites planting most of their dryland area to sorghum and mungbeans.

This was especially important to establish some ground cover on their alluvial soils.

"We were lucky that quite a bit of our alluvial country has stubble left from winter cereals in the lead-up to this hot, dry and windy summer because those areas that did not have cover have suffered shocking wind erosion losses," Damien says.

Business challenges

Damien and Jonnie White at their property in Biloela, central Queensland. PHOTO Sally Chilcott

Damien and Jonnie White at their property in Biloela, central Queensland. PHOTO Sally Chilcott

Damien says that for both growers and exporters, market access remains the greatest challenge - with the changes in foreign government policy and implementation of non-tarriff trade barriers extremely unpredictable.

"The China Free Trade Agreement has freed up that market considerably, which is just as well because in 2018-19 the Indian government banned all mungbean imports without warning and China took up much of the slack," Damien says.

"In a big season like 2017-18, these two countries can take up to 80 per cent of Australia's beans.

"If there is another big production year without one of these players in the market, it will be extremely challenging."

That said, mungbeans are a staple protein source in the diet of growing Asian markets, while plant proteins are becoming more popular in western diets.

"Demand will strengthen, but being such a small producer on the world stage, Australia will be at the mercy of international markets unless we differentiate with our quality and traceability," Damien says.

Agronomically, he thinks there is a need to research specific production practices for irrigated production.

"The error associated with the environmental component of genetics by environment (GxE) equation in dryland experimental programs is so huge that once the obvious low-hanging fruit issues have been resolved it is very difficult to keep fine-tuning because of environmental noise," he says.

"Mungbeans have made a lot of ground moving into irrigated systems and I think that is where the yield gap is largest and most quickly closed with targeted research."

As this new decade begins, Damien says stability remains the focus for the business.

"The ability to ride out the highs and lows of agricultural production will be important," he says.

"Higher capacity processing and mechanisation costs big dollars and, as we have seen in 2019, production can shrink to near zero pretty quickly.

"We have set up our processing capacity like a lung that can expand and contract as the seasons dictate."

More information: Damien White, AMC, 07 4992 1133, damien@australianmungbean.com.au, www.australianmungbean.com.au

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