Small-scale farming in Thora, near Bellingen
A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 25.9.10
It’s no secret that small farmers are an endangered species. The logic of food production worldwide is ‘get big or get out’. Estimates suggest that Australia alone has lost as many as 50,000 farmers in the past 35 years.
The so-called ‘cost-price squeeze’ bears a lot of the blame. The cost of farm inputs, freight and packaging costs keep rising – particularly when the price of oil shoots up – while the farmgate price has barely moved for many items since 1980.
How do most farmers survive? Through off-farm income.
So it’s both refreshing and remarkable to discover small-scale growers who are now managing to support themselves entirely through the sales of their farm produce. This is Kathy Taylor and Bob Willis, of the Thora Valley, about 20 kms from Bellingen.
Their secret? Biodynamic methodologies, a willingness to experiment, and finding a reliable market in Melbourne through the Demeter Biodynamic Marketing Company.
Kathy and Bob have approximately one acre under intensive cultivation, with another acre used for mulch: the ‘agricultural silver’, as Kathy calls it.
Like many growers in the region, their principal commercial crop is garlic, a mix of Italian and Russian varieties. In the past year they’ve experimented with two other crops, both of which have been very successful.
The first was broccoli, a sprouting variety that produces side shoots after the initial head has been taken off. Kathy and Bob sowed 800 seedlings in March, and began harvesting in May. They sold the big heads locally, and since then have been sending the shoots – the ‘tender tops’ – down to the Demeter wholesalers in Melbourne, at a wholesale price of about $10 a kilo.
Why were the shoots not sold locally? Two main reasons. The first is the absurdities of the freight system, the logic of which is centralisation in the big wholesale markets: it costs Thora growers $8.80 to send one five-kilo box to Coffs Harbour, while they can send up to 11 boxes to Melbourne for a standard charge of $18.50. “It’s quite difficult to go against [the logic of the system] and do something different”, says Kathy.
The second reason is simply that Kathy and Bob’s tendertops would be perceived as competing against standard broccoli heads, whose price was much lower. But as Bob points out, normal broccoli production – whether conventional or organic – is highly energy intensive:
“They use a tractor to cultivate…a tractor to plant, and to weed [and] to mulch-mow…And to help them harvest…And the output of that is a head which is anywhere between 200 gms to 400 gms. And then it all starts again…”
Independently of fuel usage, there’s a lot of waste in such a system, because anywhere from 25-40% of the broccoli sold in retail outlets is the stalk, which most people just throw away. With tendertops, everything is used.
The system is labour-intensive rather than energy-intensive, as Bob explains,
“We cultivate with a tractor, but then we plant by hand, we weed by hand, we harvest by hand, and once the main head’s gone, we can get the secondary side-shoots. And that allows us to have these plants in here [for a whole season] – with one use of the tractor, and not multiple uses, and we get five-six kilos off a single plant.”
Their other main crop this year was tumeric, which they also sent to Melbourne, again at around $10 a kilo. Tumeric is a highly nutritious root that can be eaten fresh and added to almost any savoury dish. Unlike garlic, it can be left in the ground until the grower is ready to sell it.
Ideally, Kathy and Bob would like to sell locally, and they have began experimenting with veggie boxes on a small scale, collaborating with a few other local growers, and with a small buyers’ group. They want to expand this in the coming years.
“I really think that in the future, the local sustainable seasonal veggies has got to be the way to go”, says Bob.