Adam Jones, above, on his small horticulture farm at Theebine, north of Gympie, South East Queensland.
BY Tim Marshall
A SIGNIFICANT reversal is occurring in the Australian countryside. For many years the number of productive farms was reducing. Land units were either amalgamated into larger entities or converted to ‘rural living’ or ‘lifestyle’ properties.
For 40 years there was little encouragement from government for small farmers and the fact sheet and free advice operations of State Departments of Agriculture dropped away. The collection systems to take produce from small farms to capital city markets withered in favour of certified-supermarket supply chains.
The role of, and opportunity for, productive small farms is now restored in many districts and horticulture and small-scale livestock enterprises are booming across the country.
This change is fueled by increased environmental and health knowledge and awareness on the part of consumers and is facilitated by farmers’ markets and direct-box delivery schemes. It is supported by scores of TV chefs and media personalities.
Consumers are flocking to farmers’ markets and many are looking for organic food, and organic or not, they want it to be sustainable, humane and local.
Many of these consumers want to talk to their supplier. They want reassurance that they are getting the health and environmental benefits that they are seeking. If they find the fresh, safe, nutritious produce they are looking for, farmers’ market shoppers often tell the farmer how much it is appreciated.
The better farmers’ markets create much more than a marketplace, they create community. If the farmers are willing to engage, farmers’ market stalls become a hive of conversation, exchange of recipes and human interaction. The once unglamorous appeal of the muddy knees of farming life is now exchanging for respect.
Everybody benefits from a sense of belonging to a place. If you are what you eat, then eating local must make you local.
By selling direct growers are now less isolated and schemes like WWOOF (Willing workers on organic farms) extend community onto the farm. Farmers may be tied to a place, but they don’t have to be insular if that place is part of a community.
Demand for organic or unsprayed produce, low food miles, and low environmental-impact food is returning small farms to economic units. One committed individual, with help from family, WWOOFers and occasional employed labour can produce enough on a single acre or two of arable land to support a family.
Farmers’ market growers are more likely to be organic or trying to be as organic as possible and by adopting organic and low impact agriculture they are changing rural landscapes. Bushland and waterways will benefit from fewer pesticides and less cultivation.
Perhaps we finally know that some of the big problems of our society, including climate change, unemployment, social dislocation and depression will not be solved without small, local solutions.
A great writer, Wendell Berry, told us so decades ago in a wonderful essay called ‘Eating is an agricultural act’. He said, “we can fight with nature – but it should be a lover’s quarrel”.
Starting out and learning to produce on a small scale
A few of the new small-farmers were lucky to have been brought up on a farm. Most are completely new to commercial growing but may have been growing gardens and feeding their own family. They may even have been passionate gardeners.
Anyone not born to farming is likely to have done a lot of reading, especially drawing upon the long American history of homesteading and writers like John Jeavons and Eliot Coleman. Inevitably there will be a long period of trial and error while book-learning is localised and experience reveals which varieties, planting times and cultural practices are effective in their soil, climate and aspect.
For small organic farmers knowledge replaces fossil fuel inputs. Instead of fuel, pesticides and herbicides, organic growers substitute compost, cover crops, rotation, seed saving, clever timing and spacing, insect-proof fabric crop covers and many other techniques that utilize an ecological understanding of their production problems.
Successful small farming also requires thrift, self-reliance and hard labour, and it delivers a low-debt or debt-free independence.
I spoke to some recent startup farmers’ market suppliers in South East Queensland, north of Gympie in the Sunshine Coast hinterland – Adam Jones from Theebine and Courtney Lawler from Amamoor to find our more.
Adam Jones, always a passionate gardener, has been slowly developing his small horticulture farm at Theebine, north of Gympie in SE Qld, over the past five years and believes that seasonal growing is important.
His major crops in summer are sweet potato and eggplant with Asian greens in autumn.
A much wider range of vegetables are planted in Autumn for the winter growing season and include cucumber, black and curly kale, silver beet and cherry tomatoes, three varieties of lettuce and broccolini. Spring onions are grown all year around.
Theebine experiences only a few frosts per year, around mid-August, so Adam must avoid sensitive crops at that time, however he did not suffer any frost last year and he wonders if climate change will make this permanent.
Adam says that the end of the extended travel visa benefit for WWOOFers was a significant blow. (WWOOF is an exchange system where farmers get labour in return for food and accommodation). He will extend some small perennial plantings of passionfruit, mango and dragon fruit because they involve less heavy labour than the annual crops.
Adam says he finds it better to bunch up the smaller broccolini heads for market than to grow a large broccoli head. Heliothis and cabbage moth caterpillars are a major pest for brassicas such as broccoli. Adam previously sprayed regularly with an organically-permitted biological insecticide called Dipel.
Recently he has had improved results using less Dipel by covering the growing plants with frost cloth and using a light trap called a Vortex, which attracts the flying moths at night.
Diatomaceous earth (an abrasive mineral) is mixed with the Dipel to control small caterpillar and soft-bodied pests. Eco Oil is rarely used, to control squash or pumpkin beetles, that also love eggplant and capsicum. Adam also encourages lady birds.
What is the Vortex?
- In Asia, to protect crops from night-flying insects, farmers may light small fires around the field.
- Moths and beetles in particular are attracted to the flames where they are singed and die.
- Unattended nighttime fires are clearly unacceptable in the Australian landscape, but The Vortex is a sophisticated, safe and efficient version of the same principle.
- The Vortex can be powered by a small solar panel.
- A light is located over a tub of water that is agitated to create a vortex.
- The vortex ensures that insects falling from the light into the water cannot escape by climbing out.
Because it is a little indiscriminate, The Vortex is best not located next to native bushland.
- In a rural landscape located adjacent or within the crop, it can remove enough flying insects to disrupt the local population and significantly reduce pesticide use.
Adam makes his own compost, mainly from crop wastes and cardboard boxes he uses for harvest and transport to market. He harvests weeds and volunteer plants from the uncultivated areas of the property with a neat hand-pushed collection truck, like a miniature fodder harvester.
He says these non-farmed areas are a standing fertility reserve for the rest of the property. He also uses some certified organic inputs, including his own mineral fertiliser blend consisting of a bag of rock dust, a bag of lime (calcium) and a bag of certified chicken pellets. Adam says that when combined with the cost of seed trays he aims to keeps expenses for establishing a 50 metre row under $40.
Foliar fertiliser, which he says he must use at moderate temperatures when plant stomata are open – ideally around 21 degrees, is applied about 3-4 times over the life of the plant from seedling stage to the start of flowering.
Adam sows cover crops of dun pea in winter and lab lab in summer. He says he must chop up the root system of the lab lab to stop it coming back, but if he used clover (which does not need to be tilled in) he would have to irrigate. The lab lab grows on natural rainfall.
The cover crops are inoculated to ensure that they produce growth and nitrogen to benefit the soil. A small amount of a permitted organic herbicide (made from plant essential oils) is applied around his header pipes to keep the irrigation accessible.
Adam sells through the Kawana and Noosa farmers’ markets. He was involved with a local chemical-free group but has since decided that organic certification is a better goal.
He says the farmers’ market is important for his viability, that his customers want organic, and that he believes an authentic certification according to a reputable standard is important. Adam identified the AS6000, as the most reliable because it is produced by a reputable organisation (Standards Australia) and has legal standing.
Courtney Lawler has been producing vegetables for three years, on a flat one-acre site on a 10-acre block at Amamoor, SE Queensland. Her husband Keiran is still working as a builder, with the intention to join Courtney on the property when their set-up costs have been met.
Courtney attends farmers’ markets at Gympie and Peregian and sells to two buyer groups suppling local families.
Courtney and Keiran had been eating organic for ten years whilst living in Gladstone where there is very little farming. When they moved to the Gympie region, the intention was to grow vegetables for themselves and run a Joel Salatin inspired livestock business, but lack of capital required purchase of a smaller parcel of land than they wanted, and vegetable production has gradually increased instead.
Courtney uses Candy Soil compost from Toowoomba and no-dig garden beds to produce a wide range of vegetables. She says a broad, seasonally-changing range of vegetables is best for market growing, because customers can spend more with her if she offers a choice.
In early March I saw corn, sunflower, spinach, sweet potato, zucchini, carrot, kale, capsicum, spring onions, tomatoes, okra, snake bean, a wide range of salad crops including lettuce, rocket, English spinach and mizuna, and turmeric, but there were probably other crops too. Courtney said that salad greens tend to dominate during the cooler months and fruit crops in the summer.
Longer lived crops such as rosella, pawpaw, mango, kiwi fruit and blueberries are also grown.
Courtney relied heavily upon books for her initial learning, especially The Lean Farm by Ben Hartmann. Trial and error has helped her to discover the best varieties and their preferred planting times.
She says her main problems are fungus and chewing insects in the hot season, and the time required to produce her own seedlings, because there is no organic supplier within reach. Some crops were covered with growing cloth for protection from grasshopper attack.
Courtney says, “My experience proves that anyone can do it, because we are not experts”, but the apparent production from a small area indicates she does know how to work hard, and she has acquired significant growing skills.
Labour requirements have been significantly reduced by investing in weed mat, which lines the rows, and mulching with sawdust on the paths. Care is required to protect the edges of the weed mat so that it does not rip and will last for many seasons. Weed mat is a woven product, so water and air can move into the soil, but the weave is too small for weeds to grow through.
The weed mat and sawdust mulch make for a neat and productive looking property and reduce the time needed to control weeds. Any that do grow in the sawdust are easily pulled.
Pest pressure in the subtropics
Pest pressure can be significant in the subtropics. Both growers rely on permitted sprays but prefer to use low-impact techniques such as ‘total exclusion’ of pests.
This can be achieved by pulling frost-cloth over the vegetables, although lighter weight woven ‘floating row covers’ can be purchased that do not inhibit the plant as much. They even reduce the extremes of day and night temperatures and importantly they prevent insects from laying eggs.
The loose weave cloth may look like insects could lay eggs through them, but they are more effective than they may appear at first sight. The adult insect does not eat the plant. It lays eggs that hatch into a caterpillar or grub that eats the plant. Because the adult does not ‘taste’ the plant, it has sensors in its feet that help it to identify when it has landed on a target plant. The row covers get in the way of the ‘taste buds’ on their feet and discourage egg laying.
Both Adam and Courtney have contemplated stopping production over the summer months to reduce the workload of pest control and cut back on crop losses. Adam recently took an overseas trip during summer, leaving the hardier sweet potatoes and eggplant to grow, but reducing his time and labour commitment. With experience both growers should gain more confidence and slowly add to their suite of pest control strategies.
Despite the crises of confidence around summer pest pressure, both growers are clearly well on the way to a sustainable, profitable small farm, the result of a lot of hard work, research, observation and hands-on learning.
Each property looks quite different, indicating that there is no ‘single way’ of achieving success with small-scale production. Rather it is a case of working with one’s own capacity for hard work, capital expenditure and knowledge acquisition, and with the physical resources that the farm, soil and local climate offers.
- In 1993, before there were many farmers’ markets in Australia, Tim spent five weeks in the USA studying farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture, returning to Australia to write a series of articles on his research for Acres Australia.
- In multiple roles as an organic inspector, writer, trainer, consultant and keen field day attendee, Tim has probably visited more certified organic operations than anyone else, more than 4,500 properties in over 30 countries.