Feature

Fresh off the farm

G Magazine

This year, 2012, is Year of the Farmer. A time to pay overdue recognition to our nation’s hardest workers. Our farmers overcome increasing adversities including climate, labour, urban sprawl, and long, hard hours, as they grow our food & materials.

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Jane Campbell from Barambah Organics in Queensland.

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Hapi Fiefia from Field to Feast in NSW.

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From left to right: Jilly Middleton and partner Kris Tysonwith their daughter Georgia, at Huon Choice Organic Blueberries in Tasmania.

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From left to right: Stewart Seesink, son Lee and Bee Winfield at Merri Bee Organic Farm in Western Australia.

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Greg Palmer from Spencer Gulf King Prawn Fishery in South Australia.

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Ben Falloon from Taranaki Farm in Victoria.

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We caught up with farmers and their families from six very different farms across Australia, all with one thing in common – they believe in the power of farming sustainably and with our future in mind.

Barambah Organics, Qld

Ian Campbell, 41, wife Jane, 40, and daughters Hannah, 8, Lilli, 7.
ORGANIC DAIRY PRODUCTS; MILK, CREAM, YOGHURT, CHEESE.

Ian: “We’ve had Barambah for 10 years – we sent out our first bottle of milk in March 2002. However my family have been farming, and have had the original property, since 1912. We are primarily organic dairy and produce some organic beef as well – we keep all our calves and grow the male ones to 2–3 years old.
A lot of other brands of milk put things like permeate in the milk, homogenise it, and we don’t do anything like that; ours is like it is straight out of a cow. By law we have to heat the milk to pasteurise it, so that’s all we do. People appreciate that I think, they can taste the difference.
My father farmed conventionally, though was a low input farmer. We choose to farm organically because we care for the planet, and we care for our customers. We’re not cheating, we’re wanting to leave this place a better world. We’ve also got small children and love them to bits; there’s no way we’d spray our paddocks with chemicals and then feed them with the milk that’s produced from those paddocks, we don’t want to do that to anyone’s children. There’s no need to anyway, it’s all management and how you do things.
We were originally across 1000 acres with 150 cows, but we’ve since closed that dairy and moved down towards Goondiwindi on the QLD/NSW border, and we’ve been out there for about six years with a couple of thousand acres on the river. Where we began it was much harder to be organic than where we are now. Now we don’t have obnoxious weeds, cattle ticks, buffalo fly and things like that so it makes it much easier.
We’ve got five people working on the farm and 26 people working in the factory in Brisbane. I’m at the farm half the time and at the factory the other half. Jane’s in charge of all the office work and runs the factory in Brisbane.
I love that people appreciate what we do. We’re very happy, everything feels right about it. We work a lot of hours, Jane was in here ‘til 11 o’clock last night, and on the weekend we were planting trees all weekend. We’re tired all the time, but it is rewarding when the cows look great and they’re milking well, and they’re all healthy and happy, and then you make yoghurt and cheese and milk that everyone raves about. Everything’s good about it, it’s just really hard work.”
Jane: “For our girls we love the sustainability side of it all. We love going out and explaining to them about the soil and how it has got to have the right minerals and we love getting them out of Brisbane because it’s so important that they get out of town and understand food production. They get on their little quad bike and see how they can help, and it’s the reason I suppose that we keep going through all this adversity – because we can do this as a family, with our children.
January last year we got wiped out by the floods at the farm and the factory, a double whammy, and it was a hard 12 months coming back, but we’re back. We had 30 m of water through our factory and lost all our stock and insurance. On the farm it wiped out all our fences, you couldn’t access the dairy farm for 10 days as
the roads were inaccessible, so we just had to keep milking the cows and pouring the milk into the paddocks, it was a cruel, cruel game and it’s just what farmers do. There’s some wonderful moments, but so much hardship too, and you’ve just got to pick yourself up again and keep smiling. There’s plenty of uplifting moments, and that’s why we keep farming.”

Field to Feast, NSW

Hapi Fiefia, 59, and wife Cath, 49.
CHEMICAL-FREE VEGETABLES AND HERBS.
Cath: “We have an eight acre farm in Catherine Fields, this is our fifth year on it producing vegetables and herbs. We also have a new 15 acre property we’re working on in Mulgoa, which is closer to our home and we plan to do vegetables and herbs there too. We started work on that four months ago; it was a virgin farm that hadn’t ever been under crops, so we had a man come in with a huge tractor and plow and prepare the fields for us and then we planted several thousand dollars worth of seed. However once the rainy weather hit Sydney we couldn’t get in there, so now it’s been taken over by weeds and all the rain washed down the humps that we’ve built so we’ve got to go right back to square one. We did four months worth of work and we’ve lost it all with all this rain. Its annoying because you work really hard, it costs a lot of money and we have to go back and get it all redone again.
Hapi grew up as a farmer in Tonga so he’s farmed for a lot of his life, and I work as a graphic designer and always had an interest in food. We met and realised that we both had this interest; so we decided we’d lease some land. Then Hapi started growing some stuff, and we tried to sell it. There was no plan, it just grew organically.
We farm more like an old fashioned Italian kitchen garden. We don’t use any of the chemicals that the organic certifiers say you can use; we lose crops, we have holes and bugs on our stuff, but we just don’t believe that you should be putting any of those sprays and things anywhere near your food. We aren’t certified organic – it makes it dearer for you! We were next to a guy at a market who was selling certified organic Cos lettuce, and he had to sell them for $5 each! We sell them for about $1 to $1.50. Otherwise it makes organic prohibitive for many people.
One of the biggest problems that we experience here is being able to get people to work on our farm. We’ve found that average Australians won’t come and work hard, they’ve lost the connection between food, the land, and a bit of effort. So we can’t get them to come and work here, the wages aren’t great. But another problem that we have is that because of companies like Woolworths and Coles bringing prices down, for a farm like us where we do everything by hand and pay the award wage to our staff, we can’t compete with those companies. We can’t sell a lettuce for 50 cents, because it takes us and costs us much more to get that lettuce into and out of the ground. We need people to realise that if you buy a $2 bunch of carrots, you’re getting a $2 bunch of carrots, and you’re not putting something back into your community. So we sell ours for $5, and we need people to discover that’s $5 well spent because that money was used to provide employment and to buy the seeds and do all that work.
Another big issue is what’s happening in Sydney [with urban sprawl]. In 10 years our Catherine Fields farm will be a concrete paved paradise. Australians have some of the largest houses in the world, but don’t understand how as these houses move further out on farm land, where are the vegetables going to come from? How long are they going to have to travel to Sydney? Where’s the oil going to come from to be able to transport our vegetables? So in the future, with these issues, I don’t know where people are going to get their food from.”

Huon Choice Organic Blueberries, Tas

Kris Tyson, 31, partner Jilly Middleton, 26, and daughter Georgia, 9 weeks.
ORGANIC BLUEBERRIES.

Kris: “Huon Choice is my partner Jilly’s family farm; her father John’s property, and we’re just taking over as he retires; it’s been a slow process. This is the second year that Jilly and I have been running it; John has been showing us how everything works.
He bought this place roughly 20 years ago, and it’s been certified organic for around 17 years. The main commercial crop is organic blueberries. There’s also vineyards that are a bit rundown – John’s been running it on his own for 10 years or so. So we’re just in the process of trying to revamp things a little bit.
The blueberries are only about one acre, but the property is 112 acres, so there’s quite a bit of bush and pasture. We’re currently introducing meat goats and sheep, as the property has a huge gorse problem; a horrible invasive spiky weed, and they’re the only thing that will eat it, so we’re trying to turn the problem into an asset.
The bulk of our blueberries go to a Sydney wholesaler, Eco Farms, and of the remainder, a little bit goes to a few local shops. We also go to the Farm Gate Market in Hobart, which is really great. It’s nothing like the volume that we sell to Sydney but it’s still quite reasonable, a better direct return, and it’s really fun! It just feels a little more real, dealing with the customers directly – you feel like you know what you’re working for. Plus people love blueberries, so they’re really appreciative. When it all just gets put on a pallet and sent to Sydney, its not quite the same emotional return.
At this point we’re certainly going to remain certified until it looks like we can make enough profit through more diverse lines locally. We’re trying to scale down the blueberries and the interstate side of it. We’d like to try to rely on local sales. We’re about to put up a big hot-house, a big poly tunnel, and start doing herbs and vegies. We also hope to incorporate some kind of tourism angle down the track.
It is really hard to making a living out of farming. Particularly on a small scale, it’s very difficult to make enough income to make it your full-time job while you try to actually produce food. Particularly good organic food. The system in terms of buying in supermarkets is geared toward the cheapest stuff they can get and that makes it challenging.
We are younger than average for farmers, and do get a bit of comment. It’s partly surprise but generally a lot of encouragement and a ‘good on you’. It’s actually a bit of a surprise to us that we ended up here.
Jilly grew up here but was never particularly involved when she was a kid. She moved out of home, travelled around a lot, and was doing outdoor education and hospitality work. I’ve done various things as well; carpentry and work as a sound engineer. We still both work off the farm a little bit so we can pay the bills at this point.
The opportunity came up to do this. John decided he wanted to retire and offered it to us; to lease the property and the business. It’s an amazing place and is really beautiful down here. There’s great potential for an amazing lifestyle if we can get the workload under control after these early years of catching up with maintenance and everything else. We’ve also just had a baby so it kind of feels like we’re building a whole new life. It’s too good an opportunity to miss.”

Merri Bee Organic Farm, WA

Bee Winfield, 52, partner Stewart Seesink, 50, and son Lee, 12.
ORGANIC EGGS, FRUIT, VEGETABLES AND HERBS.

Bee: “I’m a city girl having grown up in Melbourne, but I didn’t feel very happy there amongst all the brick and tile. I always wanted to be a farmer from age 12, and for some reason, always an organic farmer. I’ve had the organic farm here in Nannup, WA for 26 years.
I’ve been into permaculture since I got here. I was 25 then and was really keen to put into practice all the Bill Mollison ideas which are more relevant and important today than they were 30 years ago, when
I first heard about it.
We put in a lot of oak trees and I’m really glad that we did; they are really big now, along with stone pines, kurrajongs, olives, carobs and figs. And this is what we mostly rely on now is those tree crops because it’s getting harder to grow vegetables – we don’t have enough water anymore; we used to have a lot more rain. We’re about an hour from the coast, but have recently purchased a block near the coast just to have that safety net in case the climate really starts to dry out. We bought one of the wettest blocks we could find, and we’ve checked it’s a good height above sea level too! So hopefully we can keep going for a while.
We’re a fairly mixed farm. Eggs are one of our mainstays because we’re still allowed to do them. Berries are big for us too, along with persimmons and figs. With the new food act it’s really hard to sell meat now – we used to – but we are allowed to continue to sell eggs, fresh fruit, and vegetables. Just no processed things without registering as a food producer and put myself under monitoring and surveillance and be open to very big fees.
We’re certified organic and have moved into selling certified organic seeds, which we think is important because Monsanto has bought out most seed companies in the last six years, including Yates, so we want to be able to provide people with local organic seeds that are bred for our conditions. We just have to really hope that no one grows a GM crop in Nannup because they will put that all at risk.
It’s just Stewart and myself that work on the farm, and Lee is becoming very helpful now that he’s 12. We do have visitors who want to come and see how to grow things, and they volunteer.
To be honest Stewart does most of the farm work now and I do marketing and research. I also unfortunately spend a lot of time on the computer campaigning against all kinds of environmental issues like GM food, mining taking over all the good farm land and using up all the good water and toxifying what they leave, as well as people not relying on water tanks.
I just love improving soil and seeing abundance and being able to be involved with nature’s recycling of nutrients. And creating food that’s nutrient dense, and being able to provide health to people from that. I mean there couldn’t be a more satisfying thing to do.
The mainstream is just going in a very lineal one-way street with nutrients in, and waste products out to the ocean – there is no nutrient recycling going on. So we’ve got to get people buying organic more and we’ve got to get farmers growing organic more. Because it’s currently only around one per cent of farmers that are organic.
If people say they can’t afford organics, I say ‘you cant afford to be healthy?’ You either spend your money at the doctors or on paying maybe a third more for your food. I reckon there’s no excuses either, if you can’t afford it you can easily get outside and grow it yourself.”

Spencer Gulf King Prawn Fishery, SA

Greg Palmer, 53.
MSC-CERTIFIED SUSTAINABLE KING PRAWNS.

Greg: “The Spencer Gulf King Prawn fishery started in 1967, and I’ve been with them for 29 years. My family has a big history of fishing and Dad was one of the pioneers of the prawn industry when it first got going. I always though I’d end up fishing, but when I left school to start, I got too seasick.
So I went and did my plumbing apprenticeship for a while, wondering whether I could get over seasickness. I tried everything, from paper bag on the stomach, music in your ears, those bands for your wrist, patches behind the ear, hypnotherapy, injections, everything. I started working for some skippers on our family boat, and when my Dad came out on the boat to teach me I went from the deck up to the wheel – that’s when I really got rid of the seasickness, because my mindset changed. I’m now coordinator at sea and manage the 39 vessels in the fleet.
We fish for only 50 nights a year. We used to fish 280–300 nights a year in the 70s, but it wasn’t too long before we realised the fishery needed management.
There were people that actually put in and asked for closures, and asked for the government to help us do that, so we could stop people going out all the time. It was finally a gentleman’s agreement that was put in place by the fishermen themselves to put those closures in place. We went from strength to strength from that point on, where sustainability is our main aim, to protect the stock and our envied lifestyle for generations to come.
My role is extended beyond the sea. I do a lot of work promoting the fishery, talking to government, doing things like getting sustainable accreditation or certification.
I do a lot trying to market our prawns and that we are the only certified prawn fishery in Australia that has sustainable prawns, and I do a lot of maintenance on the boat myself. As soon as my crew and I are finished fishing, we clean the boat up, do a little bit of maintenance and then I let them go and do their second jobs.
Our season runs from November to June and we always fish with the darkest phase of the moon for 10-12 days each time. That’s the time when the catchability of the prawns is the highest as they’ll be up and running around in the dark feeding.
We’ve got a highly efficient way of catching the prawns and snap freezing them on board very quickly. So they’re caught and frozen within half hour of capture, to seal in freshness straight away.
We do surveys first to ascertain what the stock is, if it actually meets the criteria of our strict management plan, so that we can make sure that we only target and take the prawns that are the right size and that there’s plenty more to spawn and recover from one season to the next. Over the years, we’ve also identified all the areas in the Gulf that are delicate areas with aggregations of juvenile fish like whiting and snapper and and where there’s things like seahorses. We’ve blocked those areas off for the last 20 years and we don’t touch them. We also have changed and modified our gear; we skim the bottom rather than dig the bottom so hard, and therefore we only catch the prawns basically. All the boats have also installed hoppers on board, which is a basin filled with seawater and when the prawns and any bycatch drop in there, the survivability is increased and then they go very quickly back over the side.”

Taranaki Farm, VIC

Ben Falloon, 35, wife Nina Grundner, 28, father Stan Falloon, 57, and daughters Maya, 4, Magdalene,
3 months.

‘BEYOND ORGANIC’ BEEF, PORK, CHICKEN, EGGS.

Ben: “I’m fourth generation on this farm, it was my great grandfather’s. I’ve been managing the place for about six years now. I used to be in IT and marketing, and came up here on an R&R escape – the farm was unoccupied at the time – and it didn’t take long before I looked out the window a little bit and thought ‘this place needs a bit of work’. It grew on me and before I knew it, had claimed me. It wasn’t my choice I don’t think!
I’m looking to resurrect and correct some of the – what I perceive to be – unfair arrangements that farmers have been subjected to and also provide the community with some food they can trust. So that’s where we’re going.
At the moment we’re emphasising mixed farming enterprise because we believe that for land to be in balance it has to have a variety of different species growing and being produced on it so that they complement one another in what Joel Salatin [from Polyface Farm in the U.S.] calls the symphony of the pasture. So we’re producing beef, chicken, eggs, and pork. We orchestrate the movement of those animals around our systems usually with daily moves in a lot of cases to keep them mimicking the way that these animals might function in a natural eco system. So the farm itself is very carefully managed to produce fertility.
We’re opting not to go down the organic certification path, we describe what we are as being ‘beyond organic’. Mainly because I perceive organic certification to be somewhat elite and a minimum standard. We’re choosing not to be certified so that we can market our produce as being whats ‘beyond organic’, the best practices of how you could farm.
We draw inspiration from the phrase ‘don’t expect what you don’t inspect’. Our feeling is that for people to be truly confident and have trust in the food that they eat they should also be able to access the farm that it’s produced on. We encourage people to actually come and have a look around so that they know what they’ve seen is what they get.
The cows are moved every day to fresh new pasture, the free range laying hens every 3–4 days, and the pigs help to turn compost and are moved frequently as well. They’re the happiest animals you’ll meet. To draw a quote from Michael Pollan’s Omnivore Dilemma; ‘The animals on Polyface, (and in our case Taranaki) have a wonderful life and just one bad day.’ We love our animals, we emphasise the quality of their life, making sure they always have fresh forest and that they’re cared for – that’s a top priority.
Theres no question in our view that the chemical farming paradigm is on a fast track to annihilation. People talk about sustainable farming, but the truth is, the majority of farms in this country are completely land destructive instead of constructive. Land is an ecosystem itself, and what happens on that land to produce the food that’s eaten by the customer is very important. So when a person consumes food, every bite that they take is either improving the land or damaging the land. And so the great opportunity in that is to look for food from farmers who are doing things that are good for the land.Chances are it’ll be good for them too.”