Stephen Creese has taken the term ‘mixed farming’ to a whole new level by building a farming empire based on a combination of business structures and partnerships.

Farming and business principles

Tasmanian farmer Stephen Creese had formed his farming and business principles by the tender age of 20.

“My father had a dry-land sheep farm in the Midlands and supplemented his income as a local agricultural spraying contractor,” Creese explains. “At the age of 20 I bought a second-hand grain harvester and started contracting in the local area and later on in New South Wales.

“I used to analyse what everyone else was doing. I looked at these vegetable farmers who were making a good living on small farms while we were battling away on a larger sheep farm. I thought, ‘This isn't right. We’ve got to do something about this.’ Then my thought was, ‘We’re on a river, we can irrigate and grow vegetables right where we are.’

“Irrigation transforms the land. It’s the biggest thing you can do to make a difference to your business. That first year we irrigated eight hectares, today it’s nearly 3,000.”

Creese also decided that contract farming was the way to go. “I saw that contracting mitigates price risk for the landowner because you get a guaranteed return.”

He got his first contract to grow potatoes for Simplot and, 25 years later, Creese North East still grows about 500 hectares for the company.

Adding value to land not product

For Creese, developing the land and farm infrastructure are the most effective forms of investment. “We try and make farming as efficient as we can,” he says. “Our big innovations have been in land development, especially turning dry-land sheep farms into irrigated cropping farms.”

Creese North East has also improved potato yield by repurposing existing technologies. “Some of our coastal sandy soils are very dry so we developed a planting aid for the potatoes,” Creese explains. “We electronically map the paddock so that when the planter comes to a dry bank, it knows to plant the potatoes in the flat, and when it goes into a wet area, it plants them on the raised mound. He says the results have been yield increases of 25 per cent and water savings of 15 per cent.”

In 2014, Creese added carting business, Spudtrans, to his stable of companies. It helps make sure Creese North East has control over the potatoes from paddock to factory, as well as minimising costs.

Creating connections

Whether it’s business partners or farm staff, Creese nurtures relationships.

“My background made me realise there’s nothing wrong in going into business with people,” he says. “I’ve always been open to opportunities, and surrounding yourself with good people is how you grow your business.

“We run quite a flat line management system, with everyone specialising in one thing,” he adds. “Once people reach management stage, I try to let them specialise in what they like doing. I sit across the top and juggle all the balls.”

Creese is known as one of those ‘good people’ himself. His success at turning underperforming farms into highly efficient commodity producers has earned him an international reputation. Ten years ago he teamed up with a UK farmer to buy some land. Together, they now own a couple of farms around Forbes in NSW that Creese manages remotely.

“It’s pure wheat and canola so it’s very much about diversification.” he says.

In 2002, Danish company Ingelby was looking for a long-term sustainable property in Tasmania. It turned to Creese for advice and asked if he knew of a farm ripe for upgrading. As it happened, he did.

“The only reason I hadn’t bought Clovelly was because I couldn’t afford it,” he says. “I had my Simplot potatoes and my own farming business running beef and sheep, so I thought I could manage Clovelly as another diversification.”

Creese adds that while Clovelly began as a potato farm, he spotted the opportunity to turn it into a dairy.

Not content with improving the land through irrigation, the farm has a system for using the cows’ run-off from the milking shed: “All the solids are spread on the dry sandy banks and the liquid we put back through the irrigators and lightly spread over the paddocks.” he explains.

Sixteen years later, Creese is now managing 18,000 hectares for Ingelby across Tasmania, Victoria and New Zealand.

He also still has his own farm aggregation near Bridport in Tasmania’s north-east that has grown to 4,000 hectares.

Playing the long game

Creese believes in maintaining relationships long-term.

“You have a history of decision-making. It’s the same with NAB, which I’ve been with for 25 years. When I talk to them, it’s like, ‘This is what I want to do and let’s make it happen.’ You can’t do that when you’re chopping and changing all the time.”

Looking to the future, he believes he has enough critical mass. “We have the scale now that if we increase production by 10 per cent, it’s like adding another farm. So our focus is basically refining what we’re already doing.”

Creese’s business philosophy is just as tempered.

“I’ve always believed in leaving a bit on the plate for someone else. You don’t have to have done the best deal. What I’ve learnt, as a contractor, joint venture partner, owner and people manager, is that if you rule with an iron fist and try to win every game, you won’t be playing long.”

Important information

The information contained in this article is correct as of July 2019 and is intended to be of a general nature only. It has been prepared without taking into account any person’s objectives, financial situation or needs. Before acting on this information, NAB recommends that you consider whether it is appropriate for your circumstances. NAB recommends that you seek independent legal, financial, and taxation advice before acting on any information in this article.

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