A Williams-based ag business is growing its case for cultivating clean WA produce.
Wide Open Agriculture is rapidly building on its founders’ promise to deliver returns beyond the financial.
With its OatUP milk to be stocked on shelves in about half of Woolworths supermarkets nationally (up to 500) and cashed-up after a $20 million raising last November, Williams-based WOA wants to take its oat milk worldwide.
With a PhD in environmental engineering, experience working with UNICEF, and his own antibacterial mask business in Vietnam (he sold out before COVID-19), Mr Cole has an interest in building commercial business ideas that add more value than just financial returns.
WOA was formed in 2014 and incorporated in 2015.
The pair behind the now-ASX-listed business are clear that financial returns come first, but work to ensure social, natural and inspirational returns follow close behind.
So much so that these frameworks are incorporated into WOA’s constitution. When WOA was launched, the concepts of the ‘conscious consumer’ and socially responsible business were in their formative stages.
Now, the company’s founding principles around regenerative farming practices and connecting with food put it in a strong position amidst shifting consumer sentiment towards ethical production.
WOA and its food distribution and marketing business, Dirty Clean Food, started out by sourcing locally farmed grass-fed beef and grass-fed lamb, later adding poultry and pork.
It prompted Messrs Cole and Maslin to consider what WA producers did better than those elsewhere; the answer they came up with was oats.
“We grow such good oats in Western Australia,” Mr Cole said.
“So, we decided to focus on those strengths and look at value-adding.”
It was those discussions and the decision to value-add that drove the shift towards the new oat milk product.
Williams to Woolies
Less than 12 months after that shift in production focus, the business secured the deal with Woolies, which is expected bring $750,000 per annum for Dirty Clean Food based on sales of 10 litres per store per week.
“Woolies was really important to us,” Mr Cole told Business News, who added that a new warehouse space in Kewdale was allowing the business to grow its relationship with the retail giant.
The Woolies deal also acted as a prelude to WOA’s $20 million capital raising and the opportunities that sprung from it.
While an exact location is yet to be decided, the fresh capital will fund WOA’s own commercial-scale milk facility, bringing a significant part of the oat milk production process back to WA.
“So, the oats are grown in Williams, rolled in Wandering and then they go in bulker bags and out to Italy and then come back,” Mr Cole said.
“But the exciting thing is that a 100-day supply chain will become probably a two-day supply chain when we’re doing it here in WA.
“It [OatUP] will be made and grown in WA, which is such a strong marketing proposition not only for these markets, but we think for our existing ones in Singapore and now Kuwait.”
The business’s search for international markets has only gained pace of late, particularly in Asia, with WOA having announced distribution agreements for Hong Kong and Macau since speaking with Business News in December.
“We’ve come so far so quickly, there’s an energy of the work ethic that is driven by purpose but also by a really nice dynamic,” Mr Cole said.
Mr Cole acknowledged that OatUP faced stiff competition from producers such as Oatly, Minor Figures and the Alternative Dairy Co, but believed the WA element gave the WOA product a competitive edge.
He said Tasmania had done a great job of putting a premium on its produce and New Zealand was viewed as a premium producer.
“And that’s what Wide Open’s trying to do through Dirty Clean Food … really show that WA is more than just a commodity market and it’s actually high-quality food that we can produce,” Mr Cole said.
As well as oat milk, the business plans to build a research and development plant for a lupin protein, an ingredient the team believes has untapped potential for use in plant-based foods.
Once production of the lupin protein is under way, Dirty Clean Food will add the by-product to the oat milk to create a higher-protein version of OatUP.
WOA utilises regenerative farming practices to grow its oats, thereby closing the gap between producer and consumer.
The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development defines regenerative landscape management as: “The application of techniques which seek to restore landscape function and deliver outcomes that include sustainable production, an improved natural resource base, healthy nutrient cycling, increased biodiversity and resilience to change.”
When asked to define regenerative farming, Mr Cole offers two answers.
“If someone asks me in the pub and they look mildly interested, I’ll say ‘it’s farming with nature, not against it’,” he said.
“And if they ask what that means, I’ll say it’s really focusing on practices that achieve three outcomes: soil health, biodiversity and restoring the natural water cycle.”
Mr Cole said the benefit to producers of adopting regenerative practices was that they became part of a network and received a premium for their product.
“We provide a price premium based on market pricing that’s enough of a lever to show them we’re passing their story through to consumers … to bring that value back to them to enable more regeneration on farm,” he said.
“When we started it was very much personal contact and relationships, but now there’s an absolute wave of interest.”
Mr Cole estimates about 50 farmers across the state have engaged with the company, with Dirty Clean Food acting as a conduit to share that story of farm to plate.
“I think what we’ve done really well with Dirty Clean Food is that they [farmers] want to tell their story,” Mr Cole said.
“They grow food, and they are so proud of it.”
Less harm, more good
Mr Cole concedes oat milk is something of a fashionable food and that its current popularity has allowed WOA to make the most of the opportunity.
However, he believes regenerative farming is the core trend that will stick around even if a new plantbased milk comes along.
“In the early years, talking about regenerative farming, it was very few of us and limited investor interest,” Mr Cole said.
“But there was a shift in 2019. “COVID struck and then food scarcity became a question.”
However, he also makes it clear that WOA wants to push the story of regenerative agriculture to be beyond ‘clean and green’.
Greenwashing is a prominent counter-issue to the idea of conscious consumption, making transparency essential between a business and consumer.
Consumers worldwide have signalled a clear transition towards becoming more conscious in their food purchases.
For some, that involves eliminating animal products completely.
For other consumers, meat remains a key part of their diet, but where they get it from has become more prevalent when considering what to buy.
Those nuances are where Wide Open and Dirty Clean Food plan to push through, using the same core principles the business was founded on.
Mr Cole said these decisions about ethical consumption were difficult, but that smaller decisions were just as important to the big ones.
“In your daily practice you can make decisions that support your values,” he said.