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

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. (

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

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