THE young lamb lifts itself up off the green pasture briskly once it notices the four-wheel-drive inching across the paddock.
It has a white face, white ears and a wobbling white tail — yet every other inch of its body is chocolatey brown.
The picturesque Western District farming scene of healthy green pastures, mature red gums and hundreds of ewes and lambs framed by the stunning peaks of the Grampians.
But this is not your traditional Western District merino lamb.
For a start it is brown, its prime purpose is to produce meat rather than wool and it is a cross-breed, half merino and half awassi — a breed very popular in Middle Eastern kitchens.
The lamb belongs to a flock of many thousands of sheep on five properties at Moyston, near Hamilton, known by its owners as the “Barton aggregation’’.
The aggregation covers 8200 hectares and is owned by Hassad Australia, a subsidiary of the Hassad Food Company, which is funded by the Qatar government.
The awassi sheep is central to Hassad’s operations.
It plans to transition its flock in Australia to pure-bred awassi and it aims to export vast numbers of the sheep to the Middle East each year.
Awassis store fat in their chunky tails.
‘’The fat tail breed is culturally significant to the Qatari people and the Middle East in general,’’ says Hassad Australia’s southern regional manager Peter Nilon.
“It’s really what you would describe as an indigenous breed to the Middle East.
‘‘I suppose the driving feature of the organisation is to eventually produce about 100,000 of these animals per year and they will be exported back into the Middle East.
“They don’t necessarily have to go back to Qatar, although we’re assuming that they will obviously be a very interested buyer.
“So our brief is to run a dedicated commercial business built around these awassi sheep and built around the grains strategy — which is about 150,000 tonnes per year.”
Hassad Australia chief executive officer Tom McKeon sums up the choice of awassi sheep for Hassad’s properties succinctly: ‘‘If a market wants apples, you don’t try and sell them bananas.’’
Hassad has become a major landholder in Australian agriculture, owning farms in every state except Tasmania.
Its 11 operations total 250,000 hectares.
As the debate about foreign investment in agriculture continues in political circles, Hassad answered questions about its plans for the farms and its export goals, its workforce (all Australians), its buying strategy (buy goods locally as much as possible), its relationship with local farmers and its likely further expansion.
The Australian network is likely to grow a bit beyond the 250,000 hectare total, but not by too much.
“We are approaching towards where we want to be, we’re quite a way through the business plan,’’ Mr McKeon said. ‘‘We do have a little bit more to bed down ... we would hope to see the completion of that within the next six months.’’
Presumably because of the combination of its Middle Eastern background, the sheer scale of its operations and local curiosity, Hassad attracts attention in the communities where it farms.
Mr McKeon acknowledges that Hassad’s arrival in some places was met by some concern.
“In some areas when we’ve first been in those areas there has been some concern about how we operate,” he said.
“I can honestly say that in all areas that we are now up and established we are very well accepted.
“We are just a normal commercial operation, there’s nothing sinister about how we operate.’’ THE AGE