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.

 

Why certified organic? Becoming an organic farmer, part 2

Making compost - a great input in a certified organic system
Making our own compost is time consuming (but great exercise!).

In the first post in this series  “How to become an organic farmer, part one…” we told you about the beginnings of our journey from being chemical farmers right through to becoming certified organic. Having just had our annual audit, we thought it was timely to fill in the backstory about why we think organic certification is the way to go.

Anzacs at market

If you’ve ever been audited for anything, you’ll know it’s not always an easy process (read about it in this post “From the archives – our annual organic audit” ). We have to comply with all the relevant bits of the Australian Organic Standards, which for us is mostly about what inputs we’re allowed (and not allowed) to use. There’s a long list of prohibited inputs  – all the nasties we would never dream of using! Slightly more complicated is the fact that anything we do use must be on the approved list. We also have to submit an updated Organic Management Plan and farm map each year.

It sounds complex and stringent, doesn’t it? However, there’s really good reasons for all of it. Organic growing is based on building natural soil fertility, so we’re not allowed to use anything that might in any way destroy or interfere with the soil microbes that a natural system relies on. Chemicals and artificial fertilisers are the obvious culprits, but it goes right down to the detail of not using seaweed extract that is too high in nitrogen, for example, because it will mess with the natural balance of microbes.

Always check for certified organic label on fruit at markets
Our produce is always labelled with our NASAA logo and certification number (whether we’re selling it at an accredited Farmers Market or at the wholesale market), as well as the name of each variety.

On top of that, we’re obviously not allowed to use anything that will harm human health, or harm the environment. But what a lot of people don’t realise is that the certified Organic Standards also dictate the ethics of every aspect of organic farming practices, which not only covers the obvious animal welfare considerations, but also things like where the liquid fish we use is from (it must be from a sustainable source).

And then there’s the paperwork. All our produce needs to be traceable from the consumer, back through the retailer, the wholesaler, our packing shed and right back to the orchard. So our auditor needs to see our harvest records, our sales records and our invoices. As part of the process they choose one of our products at random, and ask to see both harvest and complete sales records for that product. They’re making sure they match, because if we’re selling more than we’re growing, there’s a problem!

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Putting double-sided sticky yellow tape around the base of each tree is time consuming, but a great way of preventing some pests (like earwigs) from damaging the fruit, without needing to use any insecticides.

Certified organic food is much more time consuming and expensive to produce, and customers are willing to pay that higher price for the guarantee that their food is safe, free of chemicals, and rich in nutrients.

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We put compost around each tree when we plant them, and then top it up again each year.

What a terrible breach of trust to be selling food containing pesticides, fungicides and other chemicals to unsuspecting customers – especially if they’re on an organic diet because they’re sick, immuno-compromised or have decided to feed their kids an organic diet. It’s hard enough to avoid chemical contamination of our bodies from environmental contamination without tricking people into eating the very chemicals they’re paying to avoid.

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Chickens can be great warriors against pests in an orchard!

Certification is invasive and time-consuming, but this is how NASAA guards against unscrupulous operators buying chemically produced food, and reselling it (at a much higher premium) as organic. Does it happen? Well occasionally, yes! In 2007 there was a well-publicised case of an egg producer who was discovered (through the auditing process) to be buying cage eggs and reselling them as organic. They lost their organic certification and got a hefty fine!

More worrying is the side-of-the-road and market vendors selling produce that’s labelled ‘organic’, with no certification to back up their claim. They may be organic (or at least spray-free) but, as a consumer, you have absolutely no way of knowing, and they are probably not certified organic (or they would say so). (On a side note – this is one of the reasons we only go to VFMA-accredited farmers markets, because they don’t allow producers to claim organic status unless it is certified organic.)

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Certification is not a perfect system, and has its critics, which has even led to an emerging brigade of self-styled  “beyond-organic” farmers (we’re not sure what the implication is there, but it seems to be that they simultaneously reject certified organic and claim their farming system is better). Again, they may well be following at least the minimum organic standards, but you just have to take their word for it.

One of the major criticisms of the certified organic process is that it’s possible to rort the system, and of course it is if you try hard enough (though, as we saw with the egg producer, it doesn’t always work and there are big penalties if you get caught). Critics also imply that a lot of organic producers practice “shallow organics”, where they do the absolute minimum to get certified organic status, without really developing the healthy soil culture that organic production relies on.

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Organic growing is all about building healthy soil. Healthy trees growing in biologically active soil are much less likely to attract pests, so finding harlequin bugs on our plums is a trigger to pay more attention to improving our soil, rather than a trigger to use an insecticide!

These criticisms are no doubt valid to some extent, and we absolutely agree that the organic industry (and all the farmers within it) should always be striving to improve their practices and improve the certification system. But it’s also important to find the right balance between bureaucracy and letting people get on with things!

Tightening the system even further would put an ever bigger burden on organic producers, whilst farmers using chemicals are under no obligation to tell you which chemicals or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are on or in their food as long as they are within the law regarding chemical use, residue limits, and withholding periods, and they also have to have a chemical users certificate, but who’s checking? We reckon it should be the other way around! Farmers who use chemicals should have to carry the burden of certification, and of telling the public exactly what they’re eating by labelling their product with every chemical they use.

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It’s not likely though is it, when such a system would rely on honesty and trust. No, the system we currently have is the most reliable way you currently have, as a consumer, to control the amount of chemicals that go into your body. And even though it can be pedantic, time-consuming and invasive…in fact, it’s really not a big deal for us any more. We know we’re doing the right thing, so as long as our paperwork is up to date (which sometimes happens the night before the audit…), there’s nothing to worry about and the whole certified organic process is not only simple, but quite affirming as well.

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One of our wwoofers, Kan, putting mulch around young cherry trees. Chemical orchards kill the weeds around their trees with herbicide, which upsets the natural soil fertility. We use a variety of more time-consuming methods – like mulching and mowing – to control weeds.

So that’s why we stand firmly by the certified organic system, and proudly display our NASAA logo, because we reckon it’s the best security we can offer you! Next time you’re shopping and see a sign saying ‘organic’, ask the seller who they’re certified with!

certifiied organic NASAA logo
Our certification number: 3683