Organic farmers get thrown out of organic cafe!

Australian Network of Organic Orchardists ANOO conference
Rowdy organic orchardists tearing it up at this year’s ANOO conference

Yes, it’s true, this year’s Australian Network of Organic Orchardists (ANOO) conference (yep, all of us) was asked to leave the cafe where we were holding our meetings (you can see from the photo what a rowdy bunch we are) after the management decided we were taking up too much room!  It was much funnier and less dramatic than it sounds, and actually one of the least interesting thing that happened over the 2-day gathering.

This was the third conference, and was held this year in the Adelaide Hills, where there are quite a few organic orchardists, mainly growing apples and cherries. The field trips are always a highlight of the conference – we always learn a lot through seeing other people’s orchards, asking questions and comparing notes. One of the biggest differences (in our eyes) is that they have vertical orchards (man, those hills are steep), but they’re completely used to it and don’t even seem to rate it as a challenge!

Kalangadoo Organics farm door stall
Chris and Michelle from Kalangadoo Organics showing us the simple stall they use for farm door sales

On the way over we stopped to visit Chris and Michelle at Kalangadoo Organics (you might have seen them last year on Gardening Australia), and had a fantastic tour of their property. They showed us how they’ve set up fencing to keep chickens in the orchards with their guard Maremmas, the clever farm-door sales stall they’ve built, and their fabulous arboretum, where they’ve been testing about 90 different apple varieties for black spot resistance for a number of years (we also brought home some wood from the most resistant varieties!). They’ve also leased some of their land to a young couple to start a market garden, so there’s a lot of similarities in our future plans as well; we had lots to talk about and they were very generous with their time.

ANOO has purposely been set up very informally with a completely flat structure, the organisation of each year’s conference shifting to a new area and person each year. Any certified orchardist is welcome, as long as they’re willing to share and participate. Most are apple growers, but quite a few also have stone fruit. Part of the conference is a round-table discussion about everyone’s season, their successes and failures, trials that have been implemented, new business ideas, and pest and disease management challenges. It’s probably the most valuable part of the event.

There was lots of interest in our organic farming alliance idea, with several other farms currently looking at or interested in similar ideas. It was surprising for example how many are either already using animals in their orchards or looking at doing it, like Matt and Coreen from Our Mates Farm who are experimenting with pigs, sheep and chickens in the orchard at their place in Geeveston (Tas.). The benefits for both health and fertility in the orchard, as well as providing extra income streams, seems to be clear, and it’s one of the things we’d love to see come out of our Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance. It was great that there was enough experience within the group to be able to discuss the relative merits of Shropshire sheep vs Wiltshire Horns, for example!

Dried organic fruit from O'Reilly's Orchard
Dried organic fruit from O’Reilly’s Orchard

Value-adding was another hot topic of discussion, and again most orchards are already value-adding or planning to do so. David O’Reilly from O’Reilly’s Orchards brought some of his dried fruit medley and dried tomotoes along for people to try, and they were delicious! He struggles to keep up with demand, which highlighted another theme—that demand for organic produce keeps outstripping supply.

Other people are making everything from juice of various descriptions (both pasteurised and non-pasteurised) to cider, apple pies, pastries and frozen fruit. There was lots of discussion about equipment, techniques, markets, packaging and prices – an absolute goldmine of ideas!

As well as sharing the considerable wisdom and experience within the group, we also heard from a few speakers, including the guys from NASAA who tried to clarify the very confusing picture of organic standards in Australia for us! One of the chemical companies who service the organic industry came along to tell us about some new certified organic products, which led to some really interesting discussions among the group about “input” organics vs “true” organics, for want of a better way of describing it. Most ANOO members are small to medium-sized growers who share a deep understanding and appreciation of active soil biology as the basis for their healthy orchards;  we value our weeds and think of them as an integral part of our ecosystem, so it was kind of weird to hear about a new organic herbicide – we were all left wondering who it was aimed at…

Tour of the Neutrog certified organic fertiliser factory
Tour of the Neutrog certified organic fertiliser factory

More in line with our philosophical approach to farming was the tour of the Neutrog factory, where they make a range of certified organic fertilisers from chicken waste. We were all impressed with the talk from their soil biologist which went beyond the basics of soil biology (which everyone was familiar with) deep into things like the regionality of different soil organisms. Even though certified organic fertilisers like this support biological farming, it still raised some interesting questions about the ethics of using waste products from factory-farmed chickens – so few decisions in farming are simple!

Another great joy was to spend time with Victoria, our intern from a couple of years ago, who lives in Adelaide. You may remember that since she was with us Victoria was diagnosed with and has been battling Lyme disease, and has had a pretty rough trot. She’s recently got onto a new treatment that seems to be making a real difference to her, so she was able to join us for a few sessions, where she immediately fitted right in, clearly demonstrating that she has the soul of a farmer!

Sitting in class learning about soil biology at this year's ANOO conference
Sitting in class learning about soil biology at this year’s ANOO conference

On the way home we were talking about the highlights and what we’d learned and it’s clear to us that the very best thing to come out of these gatherings is the gathering! Being part of a group, making new friends (especially friends who are as nerdy about fruit growing as us), and feeling like we’re not alone in this farming caper is absolute gold!

Three reasons to get your farm certified organic (and four reasons not to)

Organic certification audit taking place
Hugh showing the NASAA inspector around the farm during our certified organic audit

We’ve just had our annual organic certification visit from NASAA, our certifying body. We’ve written before about the process of being audited here, and our journey to organic certification here, here and here.

Is it worth being certified? It’s a relatively big cost for a small business (it cost us $950 this year, plus a levy on our produce over $40,000), but the actual amount you pay depends on the certifier you choose, and the type of certification program you enrol for – there are some designed for very small producers, or for exporters, for example.

Funding announcement for Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance business plan - thanks RDV and Maree Edwards
Funding announcement for Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance business plan – thanks RDV and Maree Edwards!

It’s a hot topic for us at the moment as we start the business planning process for the new Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance we’re setting up on the farm. Organic is in the name, but all the enterprises on the farm will be running their own business, so it will be their own decision to make. Plus, each business is so different that they have different considerations in their own “pros and cons” list, but here’s the ones on our mind as we start to figure out how to handle this issue:

 PROS

  1. It gives our consumers confidence that everything produced on the farm is grown according to Australian Organic Standards. Some people argue that because the organic certification system is flawed, it’s not worth bothering with, and that it’s enough just for producers to say they’re following the standards. We disagree! Certification may not be perfect, but it’s the best system we’ve got at the moment. We’re mates with lots of other small farmers who have chosen not to get certified for a whole range of reasons that suit their business, and we respect their decisions. But we’ve also stood next to other growers at farmers markets who claim they’re ‘organic’ just because they’re not using insecticides, for example, but they’re still merrily using Roundup to kill their weeds, because if the chemical’s not getting on the fruit it doesn’t count, right? WRONG!
  2. It gives us access to markets that demand certification for organic produce, like the wholesale market in Melbourne. For micro-businesses that can sell practically all their produce to people they know, this isn’t an issue, but if you’re producing enough that you need to sell into markets that can handle larger quantities (and realistically, most farms have to be this big to make a decent living), then organic certification is a definite advantage.
  3. Alliance members on the farm will be able to collaborate freely. If not all the enterprises in our alliance are certified, we’ll have to be very fussy about keeping our businesses separate, to make sure we’re meeting the Organic Standards. For example because the orchard is certified organic, we can’t put non-certified animals in the orchard without following a documented quarantine procedure first, even if the animals have been managed organically on the same farm. This might seem like bureaucratic craziness, but the point of the Organic Standards is to protect the integrity of the organic system, so there’s really strict rules about bringing non-organic elements into it, which we totally support. We can’t expect an organic auditor to take our word for it that other alliance members are ridgy-didge.

CONS

  1. It’s more expensive. Yep, it is, but one of the reasons we’re setting up the alliance is to look at ways for reducing costs, sharing resources and keeping overheads as low as possible for small farming businesses, so we’ll be looking at ways of sharing the costs of certification as well.
  2. It’s bureaucratic. Yep, it is, because that’s what you have to do to demonstrate that you understand and are complying with EVERY part of the Organic Standards.
  3. It takes more time. Yep, it does, but only to get your documentation systems set up to allow for easy reporting and traceability (which is good business practice anyway), and 1/2 a day each year for the audit, which is a great opportunity to spend time with someone who’s experienced at looking at lots of different organic farms. It’s definitely not part of an auditor’s role to give farming advice, but they’ll often make useful suggestions for solving farming problems.
  4. It can make the end product more expensive. Yes, it can. If there’s an insufficient supply of organic feed for animals, for example, it’s going to cost more than the conventional equivalent. This is one of the ‘hidden costs’ that can make organics more expensive in general, and highlights the fact that we don’t have enough organic producers at every level of farming!

Part of forming an alliance here on the farm is that issues like this will have to be discussed, thrashed out within the group and decided on collectively – which should be fun, actually. Part of the brave new farming world we’re trying to create is a model for how small enterprises can share land and resources together and work side-by-side to make all our businesses more successful, and working out issues like this together is going to be part of the journey.

What Do You Call a Gathering of Organic Orchardists?

A couple of weeks ago we got to do something we hardly ever do – hang out with a bunch of other organic apple growers.

ANOO Chris Ellery presentation-480x359
Chris Ellery from the Soil Foodweb Institute giving a presentation about soil biology

It may seem strange that this is a rare and unusual event, but it’s the result of a couple of slightly unfortunate circumstances. The first is that even though there are at least 40 of us Australia-wide (no-one knows what the actual number is), we’re scattered all around the country and few of us are lucky enough to live within coo-ee of each other.

The second reason is because of the generally unconnected nature of the organics industry. With more than 6 different certifying organisations, there’s no central register of who’s certified and who’s not. Each certifying body regulates the whole gamut of organic farmers and processors, from apple growers through to beef producers and organic skin care manufacturers, so they don’t function as a connector for producers within industries.

National organic mark
The new organic seal

And then there’s the Organic Federation of Australia (OFA) which is the umbrella organisation for the whole industry and plays a great advocacy role for the industry, for example finally achieving a national mark or logo (that’s it on the left) which can be used by any certified producer regardless of who they’re certified with. Overseas experience has shown that introducing this type of unifying symbol should go a long way to achieving better consumer awareness for organics across the entire sector, so start watching out for it on your organic produce!

But membership of the OFA is voluntary, and so this organisation doesn’t function to connect producers within specific industries.

ANOO orchard walk-480x359
Field trip to our place

Hugh and I have long bemoaned our lack of a peer group, which might seem strange when we live and grow fruit in Harcourt, the “apple centre of Victoria”. We’ve long been members of the Harcourt and District Fruit Growers’ Association, and in fact I was secretary for more than a decade. While obviously we have much in common with conventional growers, we also have many differences. The very basis of our growing systems – the soil – is handled quite differently between the two systems, as are pest and disease control, weed control, and even irrigation. The two paradigms can be so different that we sometimes feel we speak a different language.

So it was really a treat to find ourselves finally in a room with 10 other organic growers, who all essentially have the same issues, challenges, problems and understandings as us.

It’s long been on my “to do” list to try to organise this type of event; I even got as far as starting to compile a list of other organic fruit growers a few years ago, but that’s as far as it went.

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Michelle McColl, Tim Neilson and Hugh on a field trip to our farm

Luckily the very dynamic Michelle McColl from Kalangadoo Organics (she and husband Chris were recently featured with their organic orchard on ‘Gardening Australia’) beat me to it last year. She took the initiative of finding and contacting as many organic apple growers as she could find and organising a get together in the Huon Valley in Tasmania. Luckily, we were on the list and were invited to the event.

It was fantastic! Michelle had the foresight to organise a facilitator for the growers’ round-table discussions, and to put a few topics on the table to get the ball rolling, which meant that discussion was lively, frank and very useful as growers shared their problems, solutions, tips and resources.

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Compost tea demonstration in a very cold barn!

Field trips to 3 organic orchards were also illuminating – there’s nothing quite as interesting as actually seeing and experiencing what other people are doing. Another highlight was the conference dinner at a restaurant in Salamanca Place in Hobart. All in all Hugh and I enjoyed ourselves so much that we offered to host this year’s conference in Harcourt.

Following a similar format worked well, the only addition being two really interesting and relevant speakers who gave presentations on soil biology and insect and bird interactions in organic orchards.

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Mount Alexander Shire Council Deputy Mayor Sharon Telford giving the conference welcome

We were really pleased that our local Mount Alexander Shire is taking an active interest in the potential for growth of the local organics industry, and Deputy Mayor Sharon Telford gave a great welcome and opening address for the conference. It was also fantastic that a few local orchardists accepted the offer to attend the session on soil biology, a topic with relevance to anyone growing anything!

ANOO Wild apple dried apple-360x480
Some of the fantastic value-added product that growers brought to share

Two jam-packed days of talking, sharing ideas and experience, eating, field trips, cider tasting, getting to know each other – and lots more talking – left us feeling refreshed, revitalised and very grateful to be part of a new group of people who are not only professional colleagues, but also rapidly becoming friends.