Are we eating real food?

Hi there – hope this finds you well and enjoying somewhere cool as this hot weather takes us on again. Looking forward to the slight reprieve on Sunday and Monday!
All goes well here in Gung Hoe land at the moment – it feels good to be picking, packing, and getting the goods out there!
Last week saw us selling veg in a few new places, which was rather exciting! Katie has been taking some produce with her to our local Saturday market at Wesley Hill, and we’ve also got a new display fridge which means you can see and then take home beautiful greens and cool cucumbers, whatever takes your fancy really, at the farm shop that is also stocked with lots of fruit.  The farm shop is open Wednesday to Saturday 10am-4pm, at 69 Danns Rd, Harcourt.
It was also our first official box pick up, quite a landmark for us.  Even though we’ve been doing casual boxes for 2 years, this was our first sign-up for a month box season.  We are getting better (we hope!) at planting in successions and variety so boxes can last longer and have a good range of seasonal goodies.  Last Tuesday saw us waddling on down to the Theatre Royal courtyard in Castlemaine laden with produce in boxes and a few other things on the side, like our watermelons!!! woah!!! And some preserves that our friend Tess and Sas made last year with excess produce towards the end of the season.  It felt a bit strange to us to sit down for a few hours and chat with people as they came to get their box.  Tell you what though, Mondays and Tuesdays are proving to be very long, big days this season so surely sitting in the shade with a ginger beer spider and a cold beer is permissable!  Thanks to everyone who has signed up and for those who are interested, we will open some more spots for March season soon. Yay!
It’s an interesting thing selling veg. A  lot of care and attention and sorting goes into getting produce from the ground to either a shelf or a box.  Something we have been talking heaps about between ourselves over the last few weeks is the cosmetic quality of food and our stance on it all.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, take a quick peek at these links, I tried to find the full episode of ABC’s War on Waste Episode 1, but could only find a snippet – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gjl6js1_hkQ
This is from a similar program by BBC about carrots…
 

So Sas and I have been talking a lot about the need for food education.  For example, we have grown a lot of green capsicums this year. If left on the bush they will turn sweeter and become red! However, we need to pick some green so the plant can put energy into producing red ones and if there’s too many on one plant it might break the whole thing! It’s like thinning a fruit tree. The thing is, as you know, it’s been a hot summer, some of the fruit has been burnt, which is a natural repercussion of growing produce outside, in the elements. The other thing is, we probably wouldn’t be able to sell them to anyone because of the look of it, even though it is a perfectly good capsicum, if just a little burnt. Perhaps I don’t give “the people” enough credit and am worried that when they see it, they’ll assume it’s “bad” and then won’t want to eat our food anymore. See, we’re all responsible, I too am bowing down to what we’ve been told is the “proper” way something should bloody look. I’m excited about actively stepping out of that.

 

I’m not sure if it’s a chicken or egg situation, or just the way everyone complies with a system that doesn’t support real food. The supermarkets say they can only sell straight carrots and cucumbers, and slightly arched bananas, for example, because customers will only buy the food that looks beautiful and perfect. Is this true? Or will they only buy it because they potentially have no other option or no idea that just because a vegetable is ‘wonky’ it still tastes as good? I think it’s about education. In no way am I suggesting below-standard food is what should be on offer; what I’m suggesting is that our concept of what the standard of food cosmetics is needs to be challenged. By everybody. It isn’t just the growers who should be doing this education, it’s the retailers and the customers too.

It actually gets me a bit excited and, for want of sounding naff, it adds to the whole story of real food. Education is not justifying something; it’s explaining it. It must give you a better appreciation of the entire production line that it takes (even from small-scale like Gung Hoe) for a vegetable fully grown and eatable to end up in your hands. It’s had a life that’s taken it from surviving as a seed, to a seedling, to a flower that got fertilised, to a developing vegetable to finally a full-grown piece of food on your plate. That my friends is a big journey, with lots of episodes along the way. For every single thing we eat!

We are endeavouring to step it up in this education process and challenge the mainstream “perfectness” that in reality isn’t real. I love pictures, pretty ones especially, don’t get me wrong! But the way we are stimulated these days with all these pictures of things looking perfect and easy gives you the false idea that that’s all there is in the picture. If there’s a perfect pumpkin, there’s bound to be a half-dead straggling vine around somewhere too. They go together.

We are grateful that in our local community we have retailers that are happy to take the first flush of baby eggplants and Roma tomatoes that are uneven sizes – mostly small – but still tasty as. However, as a mob of people that make up our community – growers, retailers, customers – bloody we’re just people at the end of the day, if we’re talking about local food and food systems and ‘real food’ we need to be talking about this stuff too, in a way that creates change. Education creates understanding of the reality of food and where it comes from.

I’ll sign off now, have a great weekend and we’ll see your faces soon enjoying veg whether it be straight or bendy 🙂

Cheers, Mel (and Saasa)

Conferences and Field Trips!

Hugh and Katie at the NASAA conference
A full house at this year’s NASAA Conference

One of the challenges for farmers is to find the time and resources for professional development. For most of us, there’s no defined career development pathway, so it’s something we have to figure out for ourselves.

First, find the conference, workshop or course that will give you quality information you need to help you grow and learn in the appropriate areas to match the direction you’re trying to grow your business.

Next, juggle your farm obligations to free up enough time both for travelling and attending the conference itself. This might involve finding (and paying) someone to do your work, working longer hours before and/or after the trip to make sure everything gets done, or resigning yourself to the fact that some jobs might not get done, or not at the right time.

Finally, check the budget to figure out how you can pay for the travel, accommodation and food, as well as the expense of the conference or workshop itself. Not many farmers have a budget allocation for professional development!

But over the years we’ve decided it’s really important to prioritise ongoing learning – in fact it’s something we made a commitment to many years ago, when we first did our Sustainability Plan.

Which is why we’ve left the farm today to come to the NASAA (National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia – our organic certifier) conference, even though it’s spring, we totally don’t have time, and it means we’re leaving our thinners to do the work without us! As part of the conference we also hosted a field trip of NASAA delegates to our farm yesterday, which was another half-day of work we didn’t get done!

Dr Bruno Giboudeau presenting his fascinating Obsalim system for monitoring herd health
Dr Bruno Giboudeau presenting his fascinating Obsalim system for monitoring herd health at the NASAA Conference

But it’s so worth it! In our experience, whenever we make the effort to get off the farm, or to host a field trip for that matter, we always learn something, and many times we’ve come away from conferences or field trips with a piece of new information that has fundamentally changed the way we farm and do business. One of the speakers we’re really excited about at today’s conference is Dr Christine Jones, a soil ecologist and carbon hero of ours whose work we’ve been following for years.

But quite aside from new stuff we might learn, the best part – always – is the people we meet, the connections we make, and feeling like we’re part of a bigger community with common goals. Farming can be a solitary career, and getting together with our “tribe” – in this case other organic farmers – is refreshing, renewing, inspiring and totally worth the extra effort involved to get here!

Hindsight is a wonderful thing…

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Well, maybe not in the moment when you look back and realise that if you had done things a little differently, or with a little more forethought, you might have saved yourself a whole lotta work. But there’s always next time, right?

We’re sure there was a really good reason we got Dave with his tractor to form up the long beds in our new patch in winter. We just can’t really remember what the reasons were. Maybe we had more ambitious ideas about actually planting into them in winter, or sowing a green manure crop that we’d dig in in late winter to feed the soil ready for spring and summer crops. All good ideas in theory, but actually what has happened is that all those beautiful long clean rows, carefully prepared in June, have grown a bumper crop of beautiful weeds and now in preparation for our spring plantings we have to deal with them! In hindsight, now would be the perfect time to have our once-off visit from Dave with his machine to form up the new beds, turning the beautiful lush winter weeds into the soil, green manure style at the same time… ready for mulching and planting out in a few weeks for summer.

With our glass-half-full brains on, the weeds that have grown in the new beds are a perfect, diverse green manure crop, just waiting to feed our soil. But 630 square metres of land is a lot to dig by hand! Our new patch is also critically low in nitrogen (amongst other nutrients) and so the last two weeks has seen us shift 10 cubic meters of organic cow poo by wheelbarrow onto the new beds and spend 10 hours straight on a rotary hoe and 10 hours straight on a whipper-snipper to slash, turn, and tuck all those weeds and cow poo back into the soil. This time without the big tractor!

Using a rotary hoe is not our preferred method, as over time and with overuse it can create a compaction layer in the soil. But coupled with our deep broadforking every time we plant a new crop and encouragement of life in the soil, we figure we can get away with it, just this once!

Mel and I are fairly well spent after the last few weeks, but all the babies in the hot-house are coming along nicely and will need planting out soon. So, clearing out the last of our spring crops, feeding and mulching the beds ready to receive them is the focus of the next few weeks. The patch is gorgeous at the moment, flowers everywhere…even some very early sunflowers that sowed themselves in the paths at the end of last summer and survived the entire winter. Ripe tomatoes can’t be too far off…Love it.