FARMERS put a lot of effort into producing agricultural exports, but few have found themselves embracing the rural export business with quite as much hands-on involvement as fourth generation New England woolgrower turned global trader Rob Ward.
Not only has he stepped out of his Guyra district grazing sector comfort zone to venture into international marketing, he has become a specialist in a whole new farm business category - farm machinery.
Mr Ward's Austarm Machinery sources hardy Australian-built tillage, seeding and spray equipment and ground engaging tools for buyers in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Australia's reputation for serious farming in relatively tough environments has generated a handy market for robust locally-built gear into parts of the world where equipment reliability and longevity are critical selling points.
From his new base at Armidale, Mr Ward identifies and sources gear across eastern Australia to meet orders from customers as diverse as land barons in Kazakhstan, to mixed croppers in Botswana and agricultural aid initiatives with African villages.
Australia's minimum- and zero-till revolution of the past three decades has contributed significantly to his export success.
Our rugged moisture seeking planting equipment has proven well suited to working in similar arable terrains and marginal rainfall conditions in remote and under-developed locations overseas, particularly Africa.
Mr Ward's customers typically crop anything from 1000 hectares of country to 20,000ha of cereals, summer grains and cotton, with his biggest client in Sudan using his Australian-sourced gear to farm 40,000ha.
"The core motivation behind most of our sales is the need for relatively simple and robust machinery," said Mr Ward, who began his unconventional shift from sheep to machinery in 1992 after wool's 1991 Reserve Price Scheme crash.
The initiative was prompted by his farm consultant brother-in-law working in Zimbabwe, who had lamented the lack of appropriate and tough gear available to his cropping clients.
A year later Austarm, initially formed with Uralla partner, Don McRae, sent its first Gessner and Connor Shea chisel ploughs to Tanzania and Botswana, steadily extending to South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Sudan, Israel, Russia and Kazakhstan.
Austarm has carved its niche supplying direct drill planters and boomspray gear and promoting the moisture conservation and yield advantages of no-till cropping, including supplying gear to World Bank and Arab-funded aid projects.
"In Australia our experience with marginal seasonal conditions produced gear that mostly can eliminate the dead years," he said.
"In good years just about anybody can grow crops in Botswana, Kenya or South Sudan - the soils are pretty good - but with the right technology and crop protection and some extra nutrition you can at least get your costs back in tough years when available moisture would otherwise be totally wasted.
"I don't promise to double a farmer's yields, but I can't recall our buyers having had complete failures since switching to zero-till."
Mr Ward's search for appropriate gear for different markets has opened export doors for a host of manufacturing names such as Gason in Victoria; Gessner, Simplicity, Norseman, Excel and Hayes in Queensland; Goldacres in South Australia, and Rogro, Boss and Countrywide in NSW.
Deals typically take 18 months to progress from an early inquiry through to providing quotes and specification options and finally a shipment.
Last year resulted in about 30 container-loads going offshore.
Planters 12-metres wide and spray rigs with 24m booms are the most popular sizes, and if needed, Austarm can source second hand tractors, harvesters or cotton pickers.
Apart from finding the gear and organising freight, Mr Ward spends considerable time overseas (22 weeks last year), mostly supervising the assembly of new machines on buyers' farms, and training.
Recognising about 80 per cent of his African graingrower buyers grew dryland cotton, too, he went "back to school" in 2000 studying cotton agronomy at University of New England.
Early this year he was in Ethiopia, invited to advise villagers how to potentially form co-operatives to lift malt barley supplies to brewers who want farmers to upgrade and achieve yields like those in Kenya where they now use Australian zero-till gear.
"It's not something that can be achieved overnight - in this case they'll be moving from animal-power to using small tractors and 2.8m seeders," he said.
"The areas we sell into still get plenty of offers from US and European manufacturers, but a lot of that gear is just not durable enough for the job - it's designed for more ideal conditions where a dealer is less close by to provide a service if something breaks.
"Australian gear is welded together well, with bigger, harder-to-break components and less likelihood having the bearings seize up."