Investors with questions: how a ‘clean food’ farm scheme born of Covid vaccine fears descended into rancour | Australia news

A promotional video for the Mount Lion Family Farm from last January shows soaring drone shots of lush paddocks filled with what it describes as “activated, wonderful, aware, awake people” at a party with pizza, live music and campfires.

One local in the nearby town of Kyogle in the northern rivers region of New South Wales described some people arriving at the farm in Teslas, while others “looked like they’d just climbed out of the lantana in Nimbin”.

Born out of a prominent pandemic-era group that opposed Covid-19 vaccines for children, the Family Farm project aimed to grow food outside what it called a “corrupt” food system and provide a sanctuary in an emergency.

After the pandemic lockdowns, the idea was enthusiastically received. About 400 investors poured an estimated $22m into buying close to 500 hectares of land across at least three properties in two states, in many cases using self-managed super funds.

“People in this community started discussing buying a farm and growing their own food,” said Adam Gibson, a key promoter of the Family Farm. “It was as simple as that.”

But the path out of the “system” is not always smooth. Investors have found it can be hard to run a property when hundreds of people need to agree, and some disputes have wound up in court.

‘A new model of farm ownership’

Parents with Questions (PWQ) emerged in 2021 and became one of the highest profile groups in Australia to resist the rollout of the Covid vaccine for children.

The group shared what it described as “notice of liability” letters on its website in an attempt to dissuade doctors and schools from Covid testing and administering vaccines and raised funds for legal challenges.

Gibson denies that PWQ is an anti-vaccine group. “Our intention was simply to remind parents that it is our role and our responsibility to make informed decisions for our kids,” he said in an email.

Gibson, who has long advocated for regenerative farming, became the group’s public face, appearing at anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine mandate events, such as the Convoy to Canberra in February 2022, and hosting a podcast with guests including Pete Evans.

According to court affidavits from two investors, this is where some future participants in the Family Farm project got to know PWQ. “It was at the rally in Canberra that I saw Mr Adam Gibson … speak,” one wrote. “I was very impressed by Mr Gibson’s stance and what he was doing for children in our country.”

While much of Australia tried to forget the pandemic, PWQ moved on to a fresh mission informed by feelings of vulnerability fermented over those years: the Family Farm website, now offline, warned that Australia’s food system had been corrupted. “Any threat of shortages, or lack of food supply, makes us collectively highly ‘coercible’,” it said.

In Zoom meetings, on social media and over email, the project was pitched as “a new model of farm ownership and food insurance for those who value freedom and autonomy”.

Responsibility for running the farm would be passed to those who bought in via a board and committees. A farmer would manage the property, while co-owners would get a place to camp a few times a year, a “bolt hole” and a regular source of “clean, chemical free, nutrient rich” food. There would be eggs, potatoes, fresh vegetables and beef.

A screenshot from an online presentation about the Family Farm by Adam Gibson. Photograph: Rumble

In some Zoom recordings seen by Guardian Australia, a slide referred to projected cash returns in the future of 2%-5% a year. Gibson’s partner in the project, Brian Sher, said in an email that profits were neither promised nor expected. “This was … more of a lifestyle choice for some and food security/quality choice for others – no return or any form of profit was the motive or intent.”

The Family Farm website said: “This is not a hobby farm, but jointly owned, professionally managed farm/real estate investment that not only delivers a commercial return p.a, but also supplies high nutrient, chemical free food direct to our families and the farm owners.” An FAQ document stated “no profits are promised nor assured”.

Gibson told Guardian Australia: “Certainly the intention in the long term was for the farms to be financially viable … but at not [sic] time did we ever make a claim that anyone should expect a certain amount per annum … this was made abundantly clear to everyone at every stage.”

At least three properties in NSW and Queensland were bought in late 2022 and early 2023 for a combined sum of about $11m, according to sales data. First was a dairy farm near Kyogle. Then one in Cambroon in Queensland, and another in the Hunter Valley.

PWQ charged a 7.5% fee to cover its costs. An affidavit filed in a Queensland court case to wind up the company that owned the Cambroon farm – now discontinued – alleged that $649,875 was paid in commission to a company controlled by Gibson and Sher.

Gibson said he didn’t know where that figure had come from. “Our costs in delivering this Farm to the owners … well exceeds what was paid to PWQ and in the wash up we are out of pocket,” he said.

“PWQ did everything it could do to ensure this was done legally and properly,” Sher said. “It was not simple or straightforward and could it have been done better – anyone would say it could have.

“But … like anything new or a start up, it’s done with the best knowledge you have at the time and things had to be improvised.

“No one has made a fortune out of this.”

Co-owners ‘pretending to be farmers’

The northern rivers is no stranger to alternative ways of doing things, but for a project involving hundreds of people, the farm near Kyogle dubbed Mount Lion went largely under the radar.

As with the other farms in the project, major decisions were meant to be taken by votes of the investors, but many didn’t have a background in agriculture and were not familiar with the area and its demands. The farm should be “100% free of chemicals as soon as possible” and co-owners did not want pesticides used on the property or in some cases, to have livestock vaccinated. When Guardian Australia visited in February, parts of the property seemed overgrown compared with their neighbour’s more manicured paddocks.

The Mt Lion farm near Kyogle. Photograph: Jay Penfold/The Guardian

A farmer had been tasked with carrying out the group’s plans, but he didn’t last. One investor in the Kyogle property said she bought in because she thought there would be a “proper farmer” in place, but instead found “co-owners pretending to be farmers making decisions about all our cattle and our chickens and our eggs”.

“If the co-owners want a professional farmer, they need to recruit and appoint one, is my opinion,” Gibson said. “I agree the farm will run better with someone qualified and committed in that farming role.

“There are 100-150 owners in each farm, they all have opinions on how it should/could be run, and the owners in positions of leadership are constantly balancing the democratic process against making speedy progress.”

David Nielsen and his wife were investors in the Kyogle and Cambroon properties. He went to the northern rivers farm to try to get things off the ground, but said he gave up when no one could agree on what needed to be done.

In his view, the structure that required a high voting threshold from property investors to make major decisions was a leading source of the farms’ problems. “You’re lucky if you can get 10 people to agree on the colour of the grass,” he said.

The Queensland property also faced challenges, according to claims made in court documents.

They claim there were troubles with water, chicken and turkey production and “heated discussions about pricing” in the chat groups. There was also a claim that promises that investors would get food at “wholesale prices” were not fulfilled.

Gibson disputes this view, and maintains the property was producing well. “Some co-owners compared this premium, healthy organic free range product to the price of buying a factory farmed chicken at a supermarket and therefore made this ill founded claim,” he said.

Directors of Family Farm Hunter told Guardian Australia in a statement that the property had “no formal connection” with Mount Lion or Cambroon.

“Family Farm Hunter was established to allow several individuals and families to join together to own and operate a sustainable farming enterprise,” they said. “The Farm has no connection to any anti-vaccine campaign or any other organisation.”

Shares for sale

The money raised to buy the farms was invested via a platform called Bricklet – a fintech startup owned by the Sydney venture capital fund Lakeba.

Bricklet has sold itself as “the future of property ownership” by letting people buy small portions of property.

Dozens of the farm shares are now listed for sale on the Bricklet website, with some owners in Mount Lion and Cambroon trying to offload theirs at a 25% loss just a year after purchase a situation affected, according to Gibson, by board disruption and disagreements. “I’m sure you would understand that when a company is in a legal fight it is not exactly flattering and helpful to its share price,” he said. Only the Hunter farm’s bricklets have not dropped in price.

Bricklet’s documentation states that members acquire an equitable interest in the property, which means they are not an owner in the traditional sense.

The titles for all three farm properties are held by companies that were originally owned by Gibson and Sher, but the pair are no longer shareholders, except in the case of Cambroon, where Gibson remains the sole shareholder – a position he said he would have willingly given up.

However, Bricklet holds a caveat on the property title, meaning it cannot be sold without its consent or a court order.

Francina Cantatore, a property law expert at Bond University, said the scheme “appears to be more in the nature of a financial product than an interest in land”.

In February, then directors of Family Farm Cambroon applied for the company to be wound up, alleging it was an unregistered managed investment scheme (MIS) – where money is pooled by investors for a common enterprise, and which generally requires a financial services licence – and a liquidator be appointed.

Dozens of bricklet holders in the Cambroon farm turned up at the supreme court in Brisbane in mid-April, leading to a vocal crowd outside the court, many of whom wanted the farm to stay.

Sher told Guardian Australia that he and Gibson chose Bricklet because it had provided legal advice that the platform was not an MIS. “Had [we] thought otherwise we clearly would not have recommended Bricklet,” he said.

According to emails seen by Guardian Australia, the directors behind the Cambroon winding-up application were removed by Gibson, as sole shareholder, in early April. On 17 April, with him back in charge, the case was discontinued.

Justice Thomas Bradley said of the situation: “The general … framework that confronted the court last time was a bit disturbing in that the person who was said to have been one of the promoters of the alleged scheme asserted his right as a shareholder to remove the directors a day before, or so, the hearing.

“It did look like someone whose conduct was called into serious question was exercising rights to avoid any scrutiny of their conduct.”

Gibson denied avoiding scrutiny and said he has answered questions from regulators: “I am glad this has come to this conclusion and steps are now being taken to remove any grey areas around Bricklet’s structure, their advice, and any concerns around this being an MIS and how it should be best managed.”

Both he and Sher said it was a minority of investors who backed the action. “The majority of people still want to keep and enjoy the farm they bought,” Sher said.

A Bricklet spokesperson said the company was not a MIS. “The Bricklet Marketplace enables the buying and selling of equitable interests in property. Bricklet does not provide financial advice, or advice on the structure of the entities which may use the platform,” she said.

Leavers and believers

One investor in the Queensland farm – who was not party to the court application – said for her the dream was over. “There’s so much division in the farm now,” she said. “It certainly hasn’t come from a place of love.”

An application is also under way in Victoria to wind up the company that owns the Mount Lion farm up on the grounds of insolvency. The company said it was solvent and opposes the action.

Harry Scheule, a professor of finance at the University of Technology Sydney, said schemes like this can be “a little bit like the wild west”. One concern he has is that the farm investors may find it hard to get out if they can only sell their share via Bricklet.

“There’s not an infinite amount of potential investors who are going to trade in this,” he said.

Nielsen still thought the project was a good one and could succeed, but with a different structure to the one created by Bricklet. He said he sold his Cambroon bricklet for less than he paid for it and is hoping to get out of Kyogle. The cost of a bricklet in the Kyogle and Cambroon properties has now fallen by about $10,000, according to the Bricklet website.

He wondered if there would be many buyers after so much strife between investors: “That’s what’s sad, because the people who … rallied together to get involved will be the people who get stuck.”

Many other investors are also firm believers. One said in a letter included with an affidavit to the Queensland court case that neither “the property nor the farmers were given a decent chance … due to most co-owners having inexperience in farming and opposing points of view”.

“Adam and Brian were trying to start something that had never been done before and that takes time, effort and money,” she said.

Gibson said the vast majority of owners wanted to keep the farm “for the long haul”.

“I believe we have just experienced some relatively easily corrected issues which in retrospect will become insignificant bumps in the road.”

Others, however, are moving on. One disgruntled investor told Guardian Australia: “There’s still people out there that think his Lord and Saviour Adam Gibson is the man who wrote the holy book himself.

“People still think he’s fucking Jesus.”

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