Anna Hughes was 20 weeks pregnant with their third child when her husband, Lachlan, went to work on their farm and never made it home.
Losing the highly respected 36-year-old in a farm accident in 2018 devastated his close-knit family and a much wider network of friends and colleagues.
But Anna, Lachlan’s parents, Philip and Adele, brother Alister and his wife, Jules, mustered the strength to create a fitting legacy: mentoring farmers who wanted to heal their land and champion regenerative agriculture.
“When we lost Lach and we were going through a terrible, horrendous period, a friend of mine said, ‘Instead of having flowers at the funeral, why don’t you start a foundation?'” Mr Hughes Senior said.
“What we’re doing is taking life on, forward, from a rotten, diabolical situation,” Adele Hughes said.
“Lach was also very passionate about training young people in the industry.”
Applications are now open for the Lachlan Hughes Foundation’s (LHF) 2024 program, supporting people over the age of 25 to lead change in their industry and communities.
Lachlan and Anna met while studying Agribusiness at the University of Queensland’s Gatton campus and designed a plan to regenerate Heatherlea bordering Dulacca Downs, his parents’ beef cattle property on southern Queensland’s Western Downs.
“We were doing things like compost trials on different paddocks, rotational grazing, multi-species pasture cropping,” Anna Hughes said.
“And we had begun the process of fencing off specific regenerative areas that we deemed as high value ecologically and also probably high risk in terms of having stock in those areas, prior to Lachlan’s accident.”
Initially “dragged” along, his parents embraced the concept of better managing both “green and brown” seasons with fencing, bores, water reticulation, and paddock feeding systems across their combined 5,665 hectares.
Kilometres of level contour banks now snake across the properties. Instead of rain sheeting off, it is captured, to soak into the land.
“Everyone needs a plan on how to manage these lighter rainfall seasons and steadily implement it before they lose control — lose cattle or flog country so badly that it will struggle to recover in one season or have to sell into a depressed market such as this year,” Mr Hughes said.
“When we first started doing it, we came off a pretty raw base of very traditionalist how we did things, and our country was in pretty bad shape.
“What we were doing was bringing life back to the land.
“It’s incredibly empowering if you’re not in conflict with your environment because a lot of agriculture is in conflict with the environment.”
Using no added hormones or antibiotics, Anna and Phillip run paddock-raised cattle, finishing them on a grain ration.
Lachlan’s brother, Alister, oversees processing and selling the MSA-graded beef through the family’s commercial retail brand Rangeland Quality Meats.
They describe their business as a half-regen, half-commercial hybrid.
“You can’t really do all the beautiful warm and fuzzy regenerative agriculture without having an income to afford it,” Adele Hughes, who runs the LHF website and helps organise workshops, said.
The foundation is 100 per cent run on donations and has already helped educate 13 scholars.
Four times a year, recipients pay their own way to travel to the Hughes’s shearing shed, where they are coached in capacity building, business management, personal development, design, and regenerative agriculture.
Recipients can apply as a single or a couple and get help to plan their own projects.
“We can develop people personally and professionally,” LHF facilitator Barb Bishop said.
“We’re building them as influencers, they’re the people who are going to be spreading the word about regenerative agriculture and what can be done.”
LHF recipients Neil and Jan-Adele Reinke valued the chance to see how the Hughes operation had become “rain-ready” using leaky weirs, erosion repair, land rehydration, composting, and biodynamics.
“It’s been a great experience,” Mr Reinke, who owns a cattle operation north of Bundaberg, said.
“We’re really getting into natural sequence farming, so putting in vegetative contours and slowing the flow of water on our land, changing our grazing practices, looking at more holistic management, shifting and rotating cattle, and subsequent infrastructure changes to handle that.”
“The way that it’s delivered with the workshops has been really beneficial for us and also just being able to network with the people that it’s introduced us to has been really valuable,” Ms Reinke added.
Spending time with the Hughes family, you can’t help but be impressed by the respect they hold for each other and the courage they have shown in the wake of losing Lachlan.
William, aged 11, Georgia aged eight, and four-year-old Hamish are growing up on the land their father was so proud of, surrounded by love.
“Anna’s done an amazing job, we’ve always been there for support but it’s been her way, she’s always had her space to do it her way, which is really important. She’s a pretty special lady,” Mr Hughes said.
Asked how she thought her late husband would feel to see how the foundation is inspiring and supporting people in regenerative agriculture, Anna Hughes said she thought he would be “cross to be missing out”.
“But he’d also be chuffed to see that we’ve built something that’s really growing, that’s community-based, and that we hope is really inspiring for young people.
“To get them involved in the industry and thinking outside the square, like he did.”
Key stories of the day for Australian primary producers, delivered each weekday afternoon.