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.

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