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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Why organic? Let us remind you…

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that eating organic food is more than just a nice idea, or an optional extra – if we want to get serious about our own health, the health of the planet and creating a sustainable food system that’s realistically going to feed our growing population, it’s absolutely essential.

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Organic seedlings are a great way to get started with growing your own food

Sound a bit strong? Two blogs we’ve read recently bring some some convincing evidence to the discussion. This week we’ll share the first one with you, from the US based The Detox Project, who have published the first results of their validated glyphosate testing trial (the details about the testing process are here, if you’re interested).  They’ve only published results from the first 131 people who were tested so far, but the results were pretty clear, with 93% of the adults testing positive for glyphosate. If you’re interested, read the results of the study here.

Glyphosate is mainly used to kill weeds, but in organic fruit growing weeds are valued for the many benefits they bring to the soil
Glyphosate is mainly used to kill weeds, but in organic fruit growing weeds are valued for the many benefits they bring to the soil

So what? Glyphosate is one of the most used herbicides on the planet, so surely it’s safe for humans, right? Well Monsanto (who makes Roundup, one of the most common brands) would like us to think so, but in March 2015 the World Health Organisation declared that “glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen”, based on the view of 17 top cancer experts from 11 countries, who met to assess the carcinogenity of 5 pesticides. When you delve a bit more into how safety limits are set, it raises all sorts of alarm bells! Read more about whether glyphosate is really safe here.

The 2nd part of the the research study by The Detox Project is asking people to put themselves on an organic diet for three weeks, and then retest themselves, to find out whether this can reduce the amount of glyphosate in your body. This experiment was done with a family in Sweden, with dramatic results – watch the video here.

Organic food has been shown to decrease the glyphosate levels in your body
Organic food has been shown to decrease the glyphosate levels in your body

One of the arguments against eating organic is that it’s too expensive, and it’s undeniable that it often (though by no means always) costs more than its counterpart that has been produced using chemicals. We reckon the real problem is that chemically produced food is too cheap (as we’re currently witnessing with the collapse of the dairy industry), and the real costs of production are not reflected in the retail price. Until we as consumers start paying the real costs of producing food, they are often borne silently either by farmers or the environment.

You know what we reckon is the best solution to this whole mess? Grow your own! This is why we’re so passionate about helping people learn how to grow their own organic fruit (and by extension, other organic produce in their gardens as well). Once you learn the basic skills it’s really not rocket science. If you really want to change the world, look to your own backyard!

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Hugh giving a workshop on how to easily make your own compost tea to introduce natural fertility to your soil

If you want to know more about how we help people relearn organic food-growing skills, check out the Grow Great Fruit program here.

 

Here’s a great story about a farmer…

RIRDC Victorian Rural Women’s Awards – Week 5

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Planting the apricot orchard, 2004

Here’s a story about a farmer…

A young woman came home to the family farm in her thirties, because her dad was about to sell the farm, and she suddenly realised she wanted to be a farmer. After serving an apprenticeship with her dad, she and her husband then decided to convert the farm to organic production, and spent the next 5 years studying, changing the way they farmed and making lots of mistakes. The drought hit, and along with it came bird plagues, hail storms, disease outbreaks…but they kept absorbing the shocks, learning and adapting. Then the drought broke, with record-breaking floods, and it almost…almost…did them in. In the 10 years of the drought the number of farmers in their district had halved, as one after another succumbed to the combined pressures of drought and debt, and left the farm (none, mercifully, by taking their own lives). And they came very close to making the same decision…

But they didn’t. Instead they got some great advice and decided to stay, rebuild and expand. Most importantly, they learned the value of diversification to protect them in the future against the risks inherent in farming. While they decided they would keep farming, they also decided they needed another income stream that wasn’t dependent on the weather, and so, Grow Great Fruit was born.

That’s my story of course, with a hundred other little stories hidden in there as well…why we went organic, how we started an online business, what it’s like to work with your husband AND your father (that’s a story!!). Of course we’re not unique, every farming family in Australia would have their own stories to tell, and I think their time has come!

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Dad and Hugh, planting the new peach block, 2010

As my Award project unfolds, I’ve been connecting with the two pilot markets for this project – Castlemaine Farmers Market, and Coburg Farmers Market. I’ve had a look at which stallholders already use social media and I’m shocked to say – not many! I already had a sense of that, but hadn’t done the figures until now.  Only 30% have a presence on social media, and only about 10% are actively using it.

I wonder why?

My theory (which I’ll shortly have evidence for – or against!) is that one of the main barriers to farmers market stallholders using social media to connect with their customers, is that they don’t think their story is worth telling. As we know, millions of people are using social media to tell their stories daily – why aren’t farmers?

Some are, of course, and are doing a fantastic job. I follow several of them, and always find their their farming stories and their trials, tribulations and successes fascinating. And we know from our own experience that it’s easy to engage people with our story – simply by telling it! Since we started using social media for our business a couple of years ago, we’ve built up the community around us to almost 4,000 ‘likers’ on Facebook, almost 2,000 people on our newsletter mailing list, and 200 followers on Twitter.

And (surprisingly, maybe) it actually feels like a community, despite existing in internet-world. Some of them we know, but many more have chosen to ‘like’ us because they like what they see when we post stories. As they comment, ‘like’ our posts, or share them with their own networks we gradually get to know some of them, and this often leads to real-world encounters at the farm for an open day, at the market to buy fruit, or at one of our workshops, or they go on to join our Grow Great Fruit membership program.

It’s not that long ago that most families would have had some connection with a farm – an uncle, or grandfather, or a family friend. But in the last 50 or so years a lot of those connections have been lost, and now the majority of people that live in cities and large towns don’t have a farm they can easily visit, which means they’ve lost that vital connection to where their food comes from. Food production is just so intrinsic to our human nature that I think people are longing to reconnect with the land, and social media provide us with the perfect medium to re-establish those connections.

Persuaded? Great, but that was probably easy, because if you’re reading my blog, you’re already a social media user. My real challenge is to connect with farmers and other stallholders at the farmers markets to (a) persuade them it’s a good idea, (b) help them understand the benefits for themselves and their markets, and (c) teach them how to do it.  I think it’s possibly going to be a big challenge, but I can’t wait!

Many thanks to RIRDC for supporting rural women through the Rural Women’s Award.

This week I’ve been:

* finalising the survey of stallholders which will survey their existing social media use, and (hopefully) recruit them for the project
* meeting with Coburg Primary School, the community partner organisation for Coburg Farmers Market, who have a very special role to play in the project* working on goal setting and timelines
* scheduling 6 winter workshops for our farm business
* having a brief and beautiful holiday with my gorgeous husband
* interviewed by Apple and Pear Australia for Australian Fruitgrower magazine
* training two new pruners for our pruning crew (hooray!)
* accepting an invitation to the Regional Leaders Forum in Bendigo
* working on my application to be a speaker at the Connecting Rural Business Women conference