Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Eating your steak and caring about it too - the ecology of sustainable communities

Early on Monday morning we took off for Ellenborough, in the Kindee Valley, some 30-40 kms west of Wauchope. Our first destination was Ewetopia Farm, a 130 acre property located on the mid-north coast hinterland. Ewetopia is run by Jill and Ian McKittrick, who embarked on this significant tree change around ten years ago.

Wanting to escape the Sydney rat race, they decided that there was a niche market for gourmet sheep’s milk cheese, and took a punt on a small milking herd of sheep. They have now received Council approvals to build a specialised dairy & cheese making area. Having experimented with some success on family and friends, Ian and Jill hooped to have their ewe's milk cheese available from September 2013, initially at the local Wauchope markets. We are really looking forward to sampling the future products of the new dairy!

Jill and Ian are also working to regenerate their soils, and are participating in a soil carbon project with Hastings Landcare and the Northern Rivers Catchment Management. The highlight of the tour for the children was the milking of Butterscotch the house cow, who placidly stood as the fascinated youngsters watched her deliver over 2 litres of rich Jersey milk.

Ian and Jill also run a farmstay cottage, with a well-appointed cabin that can sleep six. If you and your family want to stay on a small working farm, you can contact them at http://www.ewetopiafarm.com.au/

After idling away an hour or so at Long Flat Cafe, it was time to head to Kindee Valley Farm. You can find them here http://www.kindeevalleyfarm.com.au/ This somewhat tested our poor little Honda hybrid, which is simply not built for driving on dirt roads, fording river crossings, climbing grassy knolls, or cross country motoring. We eventually arrived on the top of a hill with a spectacular view of the valley and nearby rain forested hills. Around 80-90 people arrived also, which did test the parking and the area thoroughly – and the kitchen skills of Kerry, who was busy making lots of delicious Kindee bacon BLTs for the hungry visitors.

The farm is around 622 acres, with a 100 of these under rainforest. It is in the midst of this picturesque scenery that our hosts, Brian and Kerry Wehlburg raise their cattle, pigs and chickens to produce fine ethically pastured food. Brian and Kerry Wehlburg are also committed to improving biodiversity and sequestering carbon in the soil. This is one reason why the Wehlburgs run Kindee Farm - to do something about climate change. Carbon sequestration is one way of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.

The Wehlburgs pride themselves on raising stock that never sees a feedlot, pigsty, or chicken cage. The animals are regularly moved onto fresh pasture to keep flock and pasture worm and disease free and healthy. Brian says that this is better for them, better for the environment and creates a more nutritious, flavoursome product.

And, as Brian said a number of times, their animals ran on solar, reproduced themselves, and when they died you could eat them. They were also handy tillers and fertilisers of the soil. What more could you ask?

Brian told me that his philosophy and methods are based on Holistic Management, a process developed by fellow Zimbabwean Allan Savory. Brian is himself an Holistic Management Educator and describes it as a way of making decisions that are socially, financially and environmentally sound. American Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms provides many of the "how to's" for practically managing the farm.

It is the word sustainable that is the key here. Though it is true that modern farming techniques have delivered profits to many – most notably the Colesworths of this world – it is equally true that such techniques have come at a high cost to our environment, the integrity of the food supply, and to small farmers. Australia, which has poor and ancient soils, has always battled with loss of topsoil and salination of its arable farmland, now also faces challenges to its food production areas from development, coal seam gas mining and contaminated groundwater. Overuse of pesticides, herbicides and artificial petrochemical fertilisers have compromised pasture and waterways and even put ocean reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef at risk from nutrient rich fertiliser run-off.

Many small holding family farmers feel forced to leave their land, due to increased costs, recent drought or flood conditions, and their inability to compete with larger, corporatised farms, or unable to make a living on the pittance that Colesworth is prepared to pay them for their produce.

Climate change is not going to make food production easier or more lucrative. With peak oil, peak soil, peak whatever, our food production is going to come under increasing pressure. Surely one answer staring us all in the face is to increase the number of sustainable farmers, and to promote greater amounts of local, safer, sustainably produced food. We need farmers who will maintain healthy soil and clean waterways, and who will produce fresh, healthy food for generations to come.

Lastly, we need communities who will support our farmers, and who are prepared to share equipment, facilities and work together. As Joel Salatin says, the ecology of community is as important as that of the land. Community ecology takes time, care and innovation, and anything less tends to create social and environmental upheavals. Factory food and huge chemically-dependent monocultures do not factor in the intrinsic and hidden costs of pollution and environmental degradation, or the increased CO2 in the atmosphere caused by overuse of fossil fuels and their derivatives.

Food from sustainable farming is actually cheaper for the planet because it factors in all these costs. Using manure instead of artificial fertiliser, moving stock frequently instead of needing to worm, using chickens and pigs as pest destroyers and cultivators in working with, not against nature, encouraging microbial activity and building soil are all sustainable practices that do not spoil or pollute. And it results in animals that are less stressed, and free to express their natural instincts. It also means that they eat what they were meant to, not industrialised fish waste or the like.

We should all be reacquainting ourselves with real food. We should all be cutting food miles and finding our food closer to where we live. The UK has a 100 mile food movement; maybe we should develop such things as well here in Australia. It means that we should eat food in season, and cook the produce of our regions in our home kitchens.

As a wise farmer once said, if you eat food, you should care about how it’s grown. Our farmers are rightly proud of their produce, and we feel so blessed to live in the Hastings Valley with all this wonderful food from sustainable farms, readily available at our local Farmers’ Markets. And by eating local we are saving on food miles, and we are supporting our local and regional economy. So support your local markets, eat fresh, choose organic and sustainable options and everyone and thing, including the planet, is a winner.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

What’s the dirt on dirt – day two of the Hastings Valley farm gate tours.

Day two of our Farm Gate tours began at 9.30 am at Redbank Organic Farm. Redbank is run by the Eggert family, and has been owned by them for 5 generations. They are a certified organic farm of approximately 500 acres, located across the Hastings river not far from us in Wauchope. Redbank produces Oxhill Organic Eggs, and they also have organic dairy cows producing organic milk that is commercially produced under the Norco label.

Our tour was conducted by Chris and Ann Eggert with help from their three sons. We started by inspecting the dairy herd of approximately 180 head, with Friesians, and Jersey/Guernsey cross-bred cows roaming around river flat grassy paddocks. As well as being organic cows, they were also curious and friendly, and it was a chance for anyone unfamiliar with them to get up close and personal.

We then moved on to the chicken sheds and hen paddocks, which are regularly moved every three days by the Eggerts behind the cows, and which breakdown the bovine manure and any attendant nasties before the cattle are moved onto the pasture again. The pasture also gets a good dose of chicken manure. The hen houses (‘chicken caravans’) are an astonishing blend of practicality and ingenuity. They are completely movable with a tractor, and have a self-organised watering system for the birds, and nesting boxes gently sloped that connect with a hand cranked conveyer belt that can be used to move the eggs to the end of the shed for collection. The chickens were clearly at home in them and happy to lay many eggs in the comfortable boxes.

The flocks are guarded from foxes by alpacas, whose smell is repugnant to foxes, and who apparently have an innate dislike of this predatory and cunning canine. They will spit on them, and kick them when they spot one. Certainly both hen and alpaca seemed comfortable in each others company. The Eggerts create paddocks by the use of movable electric fences, which means pasture is properly rested before reuse by cattle and chooks. Paddocks are fertilised by their own farm-made organic compost with the hay and sawdust which is used in the dairy yards, and then composted for 6-8 weeks. The compost is then spread over the paddocks.

The Eggerts went organic in 2000, and it is an impressive and symbiotic system that they have in place between pasture, cow, hen and alpacas, and the dairy. Chris was very clear about the benefits they had gained from going organic, and by rotating their hens and herd regularly. He found conventional farming using urea was very expensive, as his animals were often sick and needed regular drenching for worms. After massive health problems, the farm went organic, which meant rotating stock, making their own fertiliser, and cultivating the creatures of the soil such as microbes and dung beetles. He no longer ploughs the fields, but plants directly, as this is much better for the soil. He uses more deep rooted grasses and pasture plants, and by moving stock it prevents the build up of the micro and other organisms that cause disease. He has not vaccinated the cattle in all this time and has had no problems. Chris believes that good management prevents disease, builds soil fertility and health and means chemical-free produce.

I asked Chris why he went organic and why it was important. Initially, he said, it was about money – saving money from the cost of artificial fertilisers and from treating disease, and gaining better returns from a more saleable product. But he said he was now passionate about organic farming systems, as he could see how much better they worked. His cows did not need vaccinating or worming, his fields did not need urea or other artificial applications, his stock rarely gets sick, and his soil and pasture are much healthier and lusher – though this took longer than using conventional farming methods.

The Eggerts also trade under a label called F.U.N. Organics. Their website states that:

The family decided that it would be a good idea to have a marketable brand name to take the farm forward. The name F.U.N. Organics came from a core belief that a lot of the joy of producing food has been taken away today with the onslaught of mass produced, industrial agriculture. We believe that farming should be fun, that farmers should be proud of what they do and what they produce, and that farms should be a safe and happy place to bring visitors and raise children. Farming with nature, not against it, is a central basis to the way we farm and is especially important when farming organically. So our farming business is now F.U.N. Organics – Farming Under Nature! You can find some videos on the farm, and more information at

In the afternoon we went off to Foodprints. Foodprints is a 40 acre farm run by Jeremy Bradley and Kathy Eggert (yes, she is related to the Eggerts above and spent a lot of time at Redbank when she was growing up). Foodprints is about good soil health and sustainable food production. Find them at www.foodprints.com.au

We started with a sausage sizzle lunch under two magnificent magnolia trees (made from the free range beef raised on their farm) and this was followed by a talk on the importance of microbes: bacteria, algae, fungi and other tiny creatures such as protozoa to soil health. Symbiotic relationships between plant and air, water, sun and microbes eventually produces humus, the stable medium which is the key to healthy soil and sustainable farming and nutritious food.

Part of the talk which was new to me is that we are using soil faster than we are making it. This concept of making soil had never occurred to me. I thought, along with many others, that soil was just, well, there. Apparently this is not true. Artificial fertilisers such as urea do not build up soil, and have a huge carbon footprint due to their being made of natural gas that has been shipped to China, converted to fertiliser, and shipped back to Australia. Better to grow one’s own nitrogen via healthy soil and microbes. It seems the right regime of natural soil enhancement grows new soil at rapid rates, replacing what is used and what is lost.

Interestingly, a by product seems to be reduced weeds. At the border of FoodPrints pasture, fireweed is seen obviously growing on the neighbour’s side. It is missing on Jeremy’s side. Jeremy and Kathy put this down to their rotation of the cattle and subsequent mulching of the paddock, which as Kathy says, disadvantages everything equally, including the weeds. Their neighbour keeps asking how they do it. He apparently keeps failing to get it.

The FoodPrints website stresses that:
We are not a global company, in fact we are the antithesis of a global corporation, because we have a global ethic. With every farming decision we make we consider the planetary consequences. We believe in growing and consuming low input local produce and continuously improving our management practices. Our farming methods are traditionally organic and we do not do anything unnatural to our soil, our plants or our animals.

The name ‘foodprint’ comes from the idea of food miles and food production miles. Jeremy and Kathy encourage us all to think of our ‘foodprint’, and to support local famers, eat food that is grown in season and reduce our "foodprints". FoodPrints fresh vegetables include garlic, pumpkins, shallots, potatoes, carrot, silverbeet, rainbow chard, eggplants, corn, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, beetroot, rosellas and a variety of herbs. They prefer to grow traditional open pollinated varieties and save the seeds.

John and I regularly buy the famous Jack’s pumpkins from Jeremy and Kathy. I have to say it is the only pumpkin we have successfully grown in our own backyard. (And it is quite delicious, John adds!)

Kathy’s special passion is conservation of local vegetation and the fauna that inhabits it. Their farm is managed to enhance existing native forest and wildlife habitat, and they have signed a conservation agreement to ensure this habitat is preserved into the future on their property.

The thing that has struck me mightily about both these farms is their reduced costs in regard to fertiliser, reduced illness and reliance on chemicals, and how much they have enhanced their soils, pasture coverage and their increased output.

We keep being told by big companies like Monsanto that organics will not feed the world, and GM RoundUp Ready GM food is the way forward in a world populated by increasing numbers.

I find this extremely difficult to accept based on the evidence of the farms here. It is clear that soil is crucial; I can’t see how using fossil fuel derived fertilisers can build it up, replace it or make it more efficient. A crop is only as good as what you grow it in – how then, even if GM seeds are the most efficient crops in the world, can they thrive in inferior, nutrient deprived soil?

Secondly, it seems to me from my reading that monocultural crops are much more prone to disease. Biodiversity encourages predators and soil improvers and crops and livestock to work together in symbiotic relationships that keep disease and pests to a minimum. It is much cheaper than paying for drenches, vaccinations and pesticides and herbicides. The subsequent enrichment of the soil gives better crop yields. So can’t see the superiority of GM crops here. And there is the small matter of pollution of soil and waterways. Clean water is essential to life. Run off from herbicides and pesticides is not helping. And good soil can sequester carbon, which helps the issue of CO2 emissions.

And if companies like Monsanto persist in merging small farms into big farms, or seeling their seed particularly to poor indigenous farmers who can’t afford to buy seed and herbicide etc each year, then we are not feeding the hungry world but indeed depriving it, in the name of Western greed, of its dominant means of feeding its subsistence farmers. Indian cotton farmers used to save seed, replant and have enough to feed their families. Monsanto’s cotton seed has greater need for water, less yields and requires more chemicals. The result has been the regular suicide of Indian cotton farmers caught in a cycle of debt and Monsanto’s indifference.

In the USA, big food companies are becoming bigger. They appear to have unprecedented power over the market, and for years now have been putting small farmers out of business in favour of factory farms and the cultivation of GM crops, especially GM corn and soy, which just happen to be the essential ingredients in most of the Western world’s junk foods.

Lastly, the carbon footprint of huge agribusinesses like Monsanto is immense, and reliant on fossil fuels. I see no chance of this changing in the near future, not while there is a dollar to be made.

Food production needs to be unhooked from fossil fuels and monocultures and the direct and indirect pollution these things cause. In their article in “The Conversation” Can we resolve the ‘peak everything’ problem? Alexandra and Campbell state that:

because biodiversity conservation, water and land use, energy production, carbon intensity, disaster management and global food supplies are all intimately linked, the 21st century challenges need to be conceived as converging, not as isolated single issues. (http://theconversation.com/can-we-resolve-the-peak-everything-problem-13070)

For example, this means a much more integrated approach to land use planning, involving all tiers of government working together, with industry and the community. It may sound tedious and expensive, but the alternatives — staying in our silos, then wringing our hands after big shocks — are much worse.

In other words, our organic farms, in all their biodiversity and their consideration of the smallest microorganism to the immensity of the planet, are showing us the way forward.

Redbank Dairy

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Gateway to real food and real solutions for the future

In the Hastings Valley, the 2013 Farm Gate Tours are underway this long weekend. It is an event designed to support local farmers,especially those into biodiversity, organic methods and boutique type produce.

John and I are regular customers of the Wauchope Farmers’ Markets. There are a number of stalls we always patronise, and we look forward to the diverse range of fresh produce from macadamias through to herbs to pasture-fed meat. The 2013 Farm Gate Tour appeared invented just for us, as it provided a not-to-miss opportunity to not only meet the farmers, but access their farms as well.

Hastings Landcare Inc had recruited 11 farms covering poultry breeding, dairy, garlic and essential oils, beef, pork, eggs, native bush-foods, sheep cheese, alpacas, and macadamias. Conservation issues such as biodiversity were highlighted as a feature on the tour.

Today (Saturday) we visited Lorne Macademia farm and Justeph Alpacas.

Justeph Alpacas is a working alpaca and beef cattle farm run by Justyn and Stephanie Phillips. Justyn took the tour of the place, and is obviously proud of the farm and the work he has put into it. Healthy cows and new calves, and lots of woolly alpacas are testament to his hard work. He explained how he had set up paddocks and lanes, and the importance of having permanent water, good rainfall and good soil. It was clear that Justyn managed his soil and the manure from the alpacas very well. It was also clear that alpacas do not like cameras, and find ingenious ways to avoid a lens. But for us, our main interest was “the huge netted garden producing a big variety of foods” as per the Farm Gate Tour book.

As avid backyard fruit and veggie gardeners, we were keenly interested. Berries, herbs, espaliered fruit trees and edible greenery were growing in the netted garden. Guinea fowl had routinely patrolled the area, removing pests but not plants. I was impressed. Our chooks would have demolished the lot. Everything looked healthy, and many things were still producing fruit, including a few feisty kiwi vines, and a raft of citrus trees.

Later at the macadamia farm, our first task was to have lunch. There is an excellent cafĂ© with a delicious range of homemade goodies made by Joanne Scott. After lunch we were entertained and educated by Ray Scott who runs the farm (we buy from Ray at the local farmers’ markets). It was great to see the whole story behind the produce we buy: wonderfully tasty macadamias, delicious macadamia butter, and macadamia-infused coffee-to-die-for!!

Ray talked to visitors about the number of trees (1400), and how they needed to be cared for. Ray admitted he was a refugee from Sydney, and had been in quest of seaside tree change. He decided eventually to settle for the trees rather than the seas. New to macadamia farming, Ray set out to educate himself about their care and their harvesting.

Ray has embraced a pesticide and petrochemical fertiliser free regime on his farm, because he feels that the cost, both to his bank balance and to the environment is too high to do otherwise. “I got a quicker response to artificial fertilisers initially,” he said. “But long term the harvest was far higher using macadamia waste product mixed with the waste from our chooks on the trees.”

Ray also has a policy or reuse, recycle, repair and reinvent. All of his sorting equipment was repaired, built or modified by him and his father, with even an old supermarket checkout conveyor belt being adapted to make a macadamia sorting table. “We are not into wasting things around here,” said Ray. “And we share the costs of processing with a macadamia co-op made up of small growers like myself.”

It is heartening in a throw away, consumer-driven world, to meet someone like Ray. I love his sturdy independence and creative engineering. He saves money, saves landfill, and thereby saves the planet. And his macadamias are well worth it – they are delicious.

In his talk, Ray pointed out that already, at the start of winter, 40% of his trees were flowering, and that this was completely unseasonable. He didn’t know what it meant for the tree and its next fruiting. He was waiting to see what happened, especially since the honey bee hives in the area had mysteriously died, and his orchard was silent where it had once hummed with avian life. He thought the cause may have been a beetle. I thought maybe colony hive collapse was catching up with the mid north coast area.
I asked him about the change in flowering later, as a number of farmers in the area have told me that they too, had noticed things out of whack in their farms. One lady’s fig trees had flowered too early, before the wasp that pollinated them was around and they had therefore set no fruit. Others have told me that flowers were appearing on fruit trees now, instead of spring, and fruit was setting for the second time on their trees.

The changes taking place to the trees’ cycle seemed to be due to variations in the unseasonable weather, and incongruously nuts were ripening on the trees in preparation for falling and harvesting at the same time new flowers were blooming. We had an interesting discussion with Ray about the changes in weather and might relate to climate change. He told us his father had been keeping records for 16 years, and that initially a rain pattern could be discerned of wetter summer-spring and drier winters. This has apparently disappeared in the last two or so years, with no discernible seasonable rain patterns and with temperatures higher than normal, one result being cessation of frosts. Ray wasn’t sure exactly what had caused the change, but he knew change was happening.

The disappearance of the bees bothers me more than the unseasonable flowering and simultaneous fruiting, though that bothers me too, as the two are in fact linked. I was reminded of Rachel Carson’s book ‘Silent Spring’, when Ray talked of the silence on his orchards. Changing climate and seasons may not be the greatest threat to food production, in the future it may actually be lack of pollination that brings on a food crisis.

Apparently pollination is needed for around 75% of global food crops. New research has shown the huge contribution of wild insects and honeybees to pollinating food, and indicates that the habitat of wild insects is being destroyed by monoculture crops and bees are under threat from climate stress, diseases and pesticides.
This puts crop and farm biodiversity squarely back on the agenda as one of the best preventatives to protect food production and its pollinators.

The other part to this is that climate change seems to be contributing to a mismatch between pollinators and plants. I mentioned the farmer who noticed the wasp was too late to pollinate the figs. European data shows there have been seasonal shifts in the distribution of pollinators, especially bees. And the food plants that depend on these pollinators are also undergoing seasonal shifts. If pollinators and plants cease to match up, food production is in real trouble.

The last part of this complex puzzle is the chemical companies that pedal pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilisers to farmers. They encourage monoculture food crops and genetically alter the DNA makeup of plants, then patent the seed. Pesticides do not help pollinators. Lack of biodiversity does not help pollinators. Even Roundup, touted by Monsanto as harmless as a herbicide gets, is developing super weeds. Ray tells me that his weeds are no longer responsive to low dose glyphosate, but each year need a bigger dose. Strangely, Monsanto is bringing out stronger concentrations of RoundUp each year. Coincidence? Probably not. Peter Newman, from the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative says an increasing number of weeds are no longer being killed by the herbicide glyphosate, and currently there are more than 360 known cases of glyphosate resistance in Australia. That number is expected to rise significantly by the end of the year.

Perhaps we should be thanking God for our small farmers, with their multi-faceted farms and their diversity of enterprise and best-practice land management initiatives. For their resourcefulness and resilience may well lead the way into an uncertain future.