The murky world of Middle Eastern politics, Islamic extremists and terrorism seems far away as a mob of sheep with young lambs at foot quietly graze the daisy-flecked paddocks of Barton Station against a backdrop of Victoria’s spectacular Grampian ranges.
Experienced agribusiness boss John McKillop hopes it stays that way.
Mr McKillop heads Hassad Australia, the agricultural company established eight years ago by oil- and gas-rich Qatar to buy farms in Australia to ensure the rich Gulf nation and its 300,000 locals would not run short of food.
Hassad has since spent $500 million quietly buying dozens of sprawling grain and sheep farms in four states, turning the state-owned Qatar Investment Authority into one of the largest foreign investors in Australian agriculture.
It owns more than 172,000ha of highly productive rural land spread across Victoria, NSW, South Australia and Western Australia in 12 regional clusters, including Barton’s 8244ha of lush sheep pastures.
Mr McKillop says Hassad’s main reason for its Australian farm investments — a progression from its initial mission of food security — is to make profits for the sovereign Qatar fund.
Last year Hassad’s Australian farms produced 194,000 tonnes of wheat, barley, pulses and oilseeds and turned off 140,000 lambs, including 40,000 prized Awassi Persian sheep. Less than 10 per cent was bought by Qatar.
“People have this perception that everything we grow and produce bypasses local markets and goes directly to feed Qatar; that’s not correct, most of what we produce is sold and eaten here in Australia or exported by someone else,” Mr McKillop says.
“We are owned by a sovereign wealth fund and most of our benefit is as a cash generator, or as a food-price hedge and insurance policy.’’
But early last month, when the key Middle Eastern nations of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Libya and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with the small state, accusing it of funding extreme Islamic groups and harbouring terrorists, the ground shifted for Hassad.
The presence of Qatar as a major Australian landowner was immediately questioned, with conservative federal politician Cory Bernardi calling for Hassad to be forced to divest its farms.
“Unless they back out of their terror links, we don’t want Qatar here; why are we allowing a state-sanctioned funder of terrorism globally to invest in prime agricultural land in our own country?” Senator Bernardi asked parliament.
Qatar is also a major buyer of Australian produce, importing $130m of sheep meat, $32m beef and some grain annually. Almost half a million sheep were also exported live to Qatar last year.
Hassad is filling an order from Qatar for 340,000 lamb carcasses over the next three months. Only 10,000 lambs will come from its farms, including Barton Station, with the rest bought from other farmers, boosting saleyard prices and keeping local abattoirs busy.
Barton farm manager Robert Cooper says that since Hassad bought its Moyston farms six years ago — to much local consternation — new fences have been built, pastures improved, eight jobs created and there are nine more kids on the school bus.
“Some of the locals are aware of the hoo-ha (the Qatar embargo) and have asked me if it will make a difference. I say we are all part of the local community and nothing here happens different from the farm next door,” Mr Cooper said yesterday.