In this episode I speak to Katie Finlay, who has been running the organic orchard Mount Alexander Fruit Garden for over 20 years with her partner Hugh, and Ant Wilson, who is set to start running the orchard as Katie and Hue retire.
The conversation ranges over topics from the hidden benefits of organic farming to the exciting new ways young farmers like Ant and the Gung Hoe Growers are starting to organise.
Allie Hanly: You are listening to An Environment for Change, an eight-part series looking at some of the many people in the Mount Alexander Shire who are working to combat climate change and promote sustainable living. These are local people who are working towards changing our habits so we can all move forward into a vibrant, healthy, and sustainable future.
In this series, we’ll hear from local farmers, Boomerang Bags, Repair Cafe, local environment groups, activists and concerned citizens. You can hear it at 9:00 AM on Monday mornings on main FM 94.9. Or listen anytime by jumping online to the main FM SoundCloud page, this series was made possible by a community grant from the Mount Alexander Shire council.
Theme music for An Environment for Change plays.
Allie Hanly: In today’s episode of An Environment for Change I’m speaking with Katie Finlay of Mount Alexander Fruit Gardens, an organic orchard in Harcourt. She and her husband Hugh have run the orchard for 20 years. I travelled out to their place on a cold dark night and enjoyed a glass of wine by their fire, as we discussed what made them decide to convert their farm to a certified organic orchard many years ago, and what it is they’re up to now that they are ready to retire.
Ant Wilson also joined us. He is heir apparent to the fruity throne, ready to take over the management of the orchard, but he’s not alone. Katie and Hugh are thinking not only about organics as a sustainable practice for our planet, but also how to make local small-scale organic farming financially sustainable for the next generation of farm.
Katie Finlay Hi, I’m Katie Finlay. And with my husband, Hugh, we have been running Mount Alexander Fruit Gardens organic orchard here in Harcourt for nearly 20 years. We’ve got seven different types of fruit and we’re adding varieties all the time. At last count, we’ve got about 140 different varieties, so we grow cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples, and pears in the orchard. Plus, lots of other things in the garden, but there they’re the main crops. We’ve been certified with NASAA (NASAA Organic: The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia) since 2008.
Allie: It’s a lot of effort to be certified—you have to get audited every year. What made you commit to that?
Katie: It’s not as much effort as people think, I want to say. We got put off doing it for years because of our perception that it was going to be really hard to do. It’s actually not that difficult. It was a couple of things, I think. We found ourselves becoming increasingly uncomfortable using chemicals. So, we just learnt how to farm the chemical way; what’s called conventional. We don’t like to use that word because we think using chemicals to grow food should be really unconventional—such a stupid thing to do.
So, the more we found out about the actual chemicals that we were using, the more uncomfortable we felt using them. Because some of them, particularly back then, are really horrible chemicals for both human health and for the environment, so we started just not using some of them. And then we started noticing the impact of that in the orchard.
So, for example, we took out some of the worst insecticides that we had been using and we found that some of the pests that we had been treating with those insecticides just completely disappeared! What we now know—we didn’t understand this at the time, which sounds amazing that we didn’t know the harm that we were doing—but now we understand that we had been killing the predators that keep those pests under control all by themselves.
Nature. Nature is wonderful! So, Woolly Aphids was a really clear example for us. It’s a really common pest in apple orchards, everyone’s got it, everyone sprays for it every single year, and it just completely disappeared from our orchard as soon as we stopped spraying organophosphates. Yeah. Because it’s an aphid and aphids have heaps and heaps of predators, and so it just disappeared. And so, we kind of, you know, that really started turning on the light for us. We were like, “Ooh, what’s going on here?” Laughter.
So, there was that happening and at the same time, there were lots of different market pressures on small farms and small orchards in particular, which have continued to add pressure to the bottom line, so it’s increasingly difficult to make a living from a small farm. And so here in Harcourt, what we’ve seen—even when we came home, I think there were 30 orchards, maybe 28, 30 orchards—we’re down to about eight now. So that’s just been a consistent pattern that we’ve seen, is that the small orchards have been going out of business, or they, for a period there, they are being bought up by the larger orchard.
So, you had to either get big or get out or find a niche, find some way of value- adding to what you were doing to be able to make a living. And so, organics was a really good niche for us to occupy and actually has continued to be. Organic fruit is essentially still an under-supplied market. Yeah. So that’s worked really well for us.
Allie: So, you, as I understand it and correct me if I’m wrong, you’ve gotten to a point where you kind of want to wind down, think about retiring and a couple of different options came up for you. And you’ve settled on the idea of a community co-op. Can you tell us what that process is like?
Katie: Hugh turned 60 last year, so we started thinking, well, we’ve been thinking about succession for years, about how will, you know, how we exit the farm. And we had a few bad years in the drought, and then after the drought, we had floods and, you know, then fires and all sorts of things have happened along the way, and so, we had quite a few bad years in there. So, when Hugh turned 60 that was kind of the moment where we thought we really have to get serious about how we’re going to retire. And we did actually look at selling the farm for a while to the, to the point that we got a few real estate agents to come and you know, check it out and we just couldn’t do it!
We just couldn’t go down that road mainly because we, uh, we were getting consistent advice that the best market for a property like ours—’cause it’s pretty small. We’ve only got, I think, I know I can never remember how many hectares, that’s about 60 acres anyway, whatever that is in hectares—the best market for this sort of property is ‘life-stylers’, you know, ‘tree-changers’ who would love to come and buy it up and put a couple of horses or motorbikes with their kids or something like that.
And we’ve just spent the last, you know, 10 years working really hard on improving our soil since we certified organic so we just couldn’t bear going down that road; it just seemed like such a waste of good productive organic soil and an organic farm. And before we had got to that point, we were approached about three years ago now by Mel and Sas from the Gung Hoe Growers to ask if they could start a market garden on our farm.
We’d never thought about collaborating and in fact we would have said before that time, we would have said absolutely we are not the collaborative types. We are not the type of people that like to, you know, have ever dreamed of living in an eco-village. That is not us at all! But when they came and said could they start a market garden on the farm, it was actually really easy for us to say, yes. We already knew them, we knew they both had great experience, that they’d really thought hard about what they wanted to do, you know, that they had a good plan. They laugh when we say that, but they looked to us at that point like they had a pretty good business plan of what they wanted to do.
Yeah. And so, it was really easy for us to say yes. And so, that partnership has worked really well. You know, there’s always hiccups, we’ve all, we’ve learned a lot about partnership along the way, but essentially, it’s gone really well and we’ve watched their business grow and thrive. You know, they’ve doubled the size of their patch twice in those three years.
And so, as we were having, you know, these thoughts about how do we get out of it, we also had this concurrent experience that we were having with Mel and Sas of really successful collaboration. And so, we started thinking more about that; what would that look like, you know, if we actually collaborated more and invited more young emerging farmers onto the land. And, specifically if we looked to somebody to take on the orchard from us, it would mean that we could keep the orchard, keep it productive, but we wouldn’t have to be running it ourselves. So, that’s how we came up with the, what has become, or about to become our farming co-op. It’s currently called…The Harcourt…
Ant Wilson: Interjects slightly off microphone. …Organic Farming Co-op.
Katie: Laughter. The Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op. We need a better name!
Allie: The Harcourt Organic Farming Co-op. Hmmm… HOFC.
Katie: HOFC, I know it’s terrible. Laughter
Allie: It’s just not quite a thing is it?
Ant: It was the Harcourt Organic Farming Alliance. HOFA
Allie: HOFA, heffer!!
Katie: And sometimes, sometimes we call it MOFO and that…
Ant: That stands for Mumunya, Yeah, that’s a word that we’re thinking about using, but that’s kind of in process at the moment, Mumunya Organic Farming Organisation. Yeah, we kind of made it up, as a joke.
Allie: I quite like it!
Katie: It’s good isn’t it!
Allie: I’ll ask Ant now, hello Ant. What’s brought you here? How did you find out about this place and what made you think to commit to it?
Ant: Do you want the short answer or the slightly longer answer.
Allie: Give me the longer answer.
Ant: Okay. Well, the slightly longer answer is that over the last two years, I’ve been travelling around, mostly Victoria and working on different small-scale family-owned farms. And somehow, I heard about Hugh and Katie, the opportunity that they were providing, and I was working over at Jonai farms in Daylesford (Jonai Farms and Meatsmiths) which is a pig farm, and it seemed like a good opportunity. So, I looked at the webinar and got a bit more information and through all the farms I have been working on over the last two years, I haven’t done any orchard works—I’m completely green to this, which is a big challenge—but it just seemed like a really good chance where I would learn a lot and I felt ready to take what I learned and start applying it, sort of take this farming journey to the next level. So, I expressed my interest and then one thing led to another and Hugh and Katie eventually offered me the opportunity and here I am.
Allie: That’s exciting.
Katie: It’s very exciting.
Allie and Katie laugh
Allie: What made you choose Ant? Were there other contenders?
Katie: There were other contenders actually. It came down to two. And Hugh and I had … and they were both great though, both really, really good. And then Hugh said, one day, “you know what, if we don’t pick Ant, he’s going to go and do it somewhere else”, like he’ll find, he’ll make sure he finds an opportunity so that he can be a farmer because he’s committed to being a farmer. Whereas the other guy that we were thinking about at that time, he wasn’t going to be a farmer. And when we realised that that was the difference between them, we knew we had to pick Ant. So yeah, it was easy at that point to offer it to Ant and we think we made the right choice. Yeah.
Allie: That’s good. Laughter. So, are you committed to like, organics and what’s your vision of—I guess this is a question for both of you really—like, how do you see farming in Australia progressing through what potentially could be massive climate instability and, you know, climate change and all that sort of stuff. What do you see as your vision for the future? How do you see a positive outcome for investing in this?
Ant: Ahh, in terms of organics? Well, a lot of the farms that I’ve worked on over the last two years applied organic principles, but were not certified. And up until now my views have been different to Hugh and Katie in that I’ve been interested in the whole concept of beyond organics. But I’ve learned a lot about the value of certification and what that can provide for farming systems and food and the community.
And now I love it. I think it’s great. I think there is a spot for other systems as well, but I’m definitely passionate about organics. And I mean, I think it’s kind of obvious there—as I was packing apples today, this corny song from the late nineties, early 2000s, was going around in my head… “farmer, farmer put away your DDT. You know what, leave me the birds and the bees please”, or something like that—and it’s just that, it’s, like you know there’s so many things that are large-scale, ‘conventional’ agriculture ways that are damaging the world, that it seems obvious to me that we should turn it around.
Katie: Organic farming is actually one of the most practical and meaningful ways that we can reverse climate change. And I think a lot of people don’t understand how significant the soil is in acting as a sink for carbon. So, one of the best technologies that we can possibly use to get carbon dioxide out of the air—we’ve got too much carbon dioxide in the air—and get it back where it belongs in the soil is through organic farming practices. So, it doesn’t, that’s not about whether you’re doing it in a certified organic way, it’s about the practices that you’re using. And there’s a whole bunch of practices that broadly you could think of as regenerative farming practices. For me, the key about them, about whether a farming practice is good or not, is whether the net result is that you end up with more carbon in the soil.
And it’s, you know, it’s just well and truly proven, the science is there that it’s one of the most, that farming in that way, is one of the fastest and most effective ways of getting the carbon out of the air and into the soil. So, there’s all these, you know, clean coal and carbon capture and all this money and energy going into technological solutions, and really what we need to do is just get more farmland back to the state where it’s storing carbon. It’s as simple as that.
So even though we’re doing that on a tiny scale here on our tiny little farm in Harcourt, we’re part of a big movement. And the model that we’re setting up here with our co-op, one of our aims is to create a replicable model because we know there’s loads and loads of farmers in our situation that are aging, you know, specifically in organic farming; there’s a lot of aging farmers who have got the same problem that we had if they don’t have a succession plan. So, if we can create a model here that could be used by organic farms, but by any farms really to keep farmland in production, this model does lend itself to regenerative practices.
Allie: So, I do know that a lot of modern farming or these—like, you get these good news stories about farms that are all in a big shed and they don’t even use soil at all. And it’s the most efficient way to farm and all this sort of stuff. What do you think of that?
Katie: I think it’s really easy for us as regenerative farmers that have been in this space, working in this way for quite a while; I think it’s easy for us to forget that a lot of people don’t get the really basic links between good soil, so, if you’ve got healthy soil that means you’ve got lots of microbes in your soil, and that then means that the plants that are growing in that soil get the nutrients that they need when they need it. As opposed to the artificial fertilizing system that most chemical farming systems use, where you apply the fertilizer that you think the plants need. So, in the natural fertility system that organic and regenerative farming relies on, the plants take up exactly the nutrients that they need when they need it.
What that means is that you get whole proteins in the plants. So, you get complete, you get more complete nutrition, I guess, and more nutrient as well. So that’s called nutrient density. And there’s ways that you can actually measure this, it’s not just some feel good idea, it is measurable science. So, you get food, both plants and then if you’re farming animals that eat that grass or the food that you’re producing, you get healthier food. And then the humans that eat that food, they’re healthier too. And so, it’s this whole system that results in healthier plants, animals and people, and a healthier ecosystem, but it’s all about the soil. It all comes back to having healthy soil.
And, I can remember when we were on our learning journey when we were converting into organic production, you know, we had all those other reasons for converting to organics that I was talking about before, it took us years for the light to really switch on for us to actually understand that process. So, I completely get that a lot of people out there in the world don’t know that yet, but it’s kind of simple.
I think part of our job as regenerative farmers and in this co-op is to keep telling that story in simple ways, but just to keep telling it and keep telling it; that it’s not just about that people need to buy organic, so, they’re not getting chemicals in their food, it’s deeper than that. They need to be buying organic or food that comes from regenerative farming systems, because in those systems, the soil is healthy. That means all those other parts of the ecosystem are healthy. And at the same time, we’re fixing climate change. It’s just win, win, win, win, win. Laughter
Ant: Just in terms of, you alluded to large systems in sheds and that kind of thing, you know, a lot of those centralised systems are more efficient, especially in terms of saving money and that kind of thing. But the food and agriculture organisation of the UN has said many times and released reports that clearly show that small-scale farming can feed the world. So, in terms of creating enough food, we already have enough food to feed the world. It’s just politics that mean that some people go hungry, but yeah, in terms of feeding the world, small-scale farming that we’re doing here, you know as Katie said, this is just a small piece of a larger puzzle, but we can use that movement to not only feed the world but heal it too.
Background piano theme music with Allie speaking over the top. You’re listening to An Environment for Change on MainFm 94.9. And this morning I’m chatting to Katie Finlay from the Mount Alexander Fruit Garden and Ant Wilson, who is soon to take over the running of the orchard in Harcourt and we’re talking about the future of sustainable farming in Australia and the unexpected ways that organics is important to our planet.
And now I want to find out from Katie and Ant exactly what it would take in the future for our farmers to have organic small-scale local, but financially sustainable businesses.
Allie: Katie, you mentioned before that there were mechanisms at play that meant that a lot of orchards were either being absorbed by bigger ones or closing down altogether. What are those mechanisms? Why is that created if small farms are actually able to feed the world, as Ant just said and completely manageable and sufficient for local communities especially, what are the forces at play that make the larger farms succeed in that way?
Katie: Because bigger farms can do it cheaper. So, as you upscale and go into mechanised systems and standardised systems there’s so many ways that they can save money in production, you know. In apple orchards at the moment, they’re looking at robotic pickers, so, they’re getting people out of, you know, taking people out of the system altogether. And every time there’s one of those technological advances, the food that they produce gets cheaper for consumers, and as we know for a lot of consumers that’s very important, you know, getting good value out of their food dollar is really important. And all of those hidden costs just are not factored in really. Yeah. And then the really significant cost that we’re not factoring in as a society is the cost to our soil.
So, I get, you know, like we’re not… we don’t live in the, totally in the past at all, we definitely adopt, you know, time-saving technologies and we’ve got a very fancy, very efficient coolroom on the farm that adds to our business in all sorts of ways. And we use technology where it’s appropriate, but not at the cost of our soil. And I think that’s one of the, um, there’s no value put on that in conventional systems. It’s really challenging that thing about, you know, having to compete with really cheap food.
Ant: Can I add to that as well? I think that because as a society generally speaking, we’ve lost our connection with where our food comes from, and that, you know, through economies of scale and centralisation we’ve made food so cheap that that’s what people expect now. We don’t understand the true cost of food, what it actually takes to grow nutritious food in a way that’s sustainable and ethical.
So, it makes it difficult for people, for farmers like us to do what we do because we have to charge more because that’s what it actually costs. If we were going to do things cheaply and provide a crap product then it would be the same price as, you know, a supermarket or a large-scale grower. But we don’t want to do that, we want to fix the soil like Katie said, so I think that’s part of the problem too.
So, I think education plays a huge part and you know, the movement around food is certainly growing as people learn more about what’s in their food and what, how it’s been adulterated. You know, as people understand that and understand the processes behind the food that they eat, they’re prepared to pay more for a high-quality nutritious product.
Allie: Hmm. You also see on shows like War against Waste (War on Waste, ABC Television series) how much food gets thrown out because it’s not quite perfect. And I feel like the larger farms that can produce so much can actually afford to get rid of some because they creating it at such low cost. So really it looks like that just re-education of the public is a major.
Katie: Yeah. And actually, I think a lot of those larger farms are forced into a situation because they’re so big they’re reliant on small markets, not small, on narrow markets. They lose their market power because they’re reliant on big contracts with, you know, some of the major players in the food space, very often supermarkets or if they’re exporting it, maybe players in the export market. And so, if something changes in that space, they have changes imposed on them. You know, it happened recently in the citrus industry where—I can’t remember what the change was that was imposed on them—but just hundreds of tons of citrus were thrown out because the market was pulled out from under their feet. You know, that’s one of the costs of being big.
So, on our scale, even though we’re tiny, we’re really flexible. One of the things that really excites Hugh and I about having the co-op of young growers here is the way that they are intending to market. So, we’ve always had a policy of diversity in our marketing…
Allie: So, what does that mean?
Katie: Ah, so we market across some range of different markets: so, we send fruit to the wholesale market; we do a lot of fruit at, we sell a lot of fruit at farmer’s markets. We’re really passionate about farmer’s markets because it is one of the most effective ways that we can re-establish those direct links between the farmer and the consumer and all that stuff that Ant was talking about, helping people to actually understand where their food comes from. Farmer’s markets are really instrumental in that. We do online orders as well and we sell through the farm shop and we do pick your own. So, we’ve got a whole range of different ways that we sell.
But these guys that are coming on board as the co-op have already come up with some really exciting new ideas for marketing as well that Hugh and I wouldn’t have thought about, particularly with the CSA box idea that they’re thinking about, but Ant probably best to talk about that ‘cause we don’t know anything about it, we’re just sitting back watching with great joy as they develop a whole new market.
Ant: So, CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. It originates in Japan but it was sort of made popular in the USA and now it’s growing in Australia. There are very few farmers doing it in Australia, but it’s gaining momentum. So, it’s a new model of farming and food distribution you could say. And it is sort of a risk-sharing model, where it relies on a direct relationship between consumer and farmer.
So, the consumer will subscribe, if you will, to the farm or buy a share in the farm and then as part of that they receive X amount of produce at X interval for a whole season. So, it’s mutually beneficial because the receiver, or the consumer sorry, receives high-quality food at a regular interval; it’s varied; they have a direct relationship, and they know exactly what goes into their food. And the farmer has reduced admin; has a reliable market and also has a large input of money at the start of the season, because the idea is that you subscribed for the whole season at the beginning. So, when you need to buy tools and seeds and things like that at the start, then yeah, you’ve got it.
There are multiple different layers that you can sort of add onto that, you can—there’s people are doing amazing things with CSA, it’s very, very cool—one of the key concepts is, you know, apart from risk-sharing, is community, and so there’s different ways that people are doing that. They’re providing food for people of different socioeconomic statuses, you know, by sharing the cost or providing boxes at different costs, you know higher cost of boxes, food boxes to subsidize locals’ food boxes, and hosting days, where everybody comes to the farm and it’s like a working bee to sort of educate and generate community spirit and that kind of thing, it’s great. I’m really excited to be part of that, and Gung Hoe Growers are already sort of doing that and I’m excited to start next season. Laughter
Allie: So, Gung Hoe have been selling a month’s worth of food boxes. So, people pay up front at the start of the month for a month’s worth of boxes, so it’s a month-by-month roll on. And that also, I guess, gives them the flexibility, like recently they said, “Okay, we’ve, there’s no more.” Laugher.
So, is that what you would do, you would jump on? Would it be a whole, like, you buy three months’ worth or would it be a month-by-month thing? And would all of you in the co-op contribute a little bit to the.
Ant: Ah, for me for just the fruit, I’m setting up a whole season thing. When you sign up at the start of the season, and you can sign up for a weekly or fortnightly or monthly box and then it’s either three or five or 10 kilos, and I’m kind of working on all that. Yeah. So, for the whole season, and the co-op is also trying to work out the logistics of a combined box where you get fruit, vegetables and dairy, so that’s something that’s coming up, but it’s very complex and we’re all just starting up, so we’re trying to keep it as simple as we can. So, we’re all going to do our own individual boxes for the first while, and then try to create a joint one.
Allie: And how much are you guys really entwined in terms of your businesses and your farming, or are you kind of sharing space and sharing ideas. What’s the level of commitment to each other?
Ant: Well, that’s kind of just starting to grow now because we’re all, well, Gung Hoe have been here for a couple of years, but I’m new and Tess is new to the land. So, we’re all just in conversation at the moment, kind of coming up with ideas of how we can work together and then fleshing out those ideas to see if they’re sort of viable.
And we’re already talking about how we can actually integrate farming systems. For example, if I was to get some poultry or if another farmer was to come along and farm poultry, I could run that, run those poultry through the veggie gardens. Tess has approached me about growing lucerne hay in between the trees, so it’s not only sort of cost-saving and marketing, but it’s also actual farming systems, you know, the ways that we can work together are varied.
Katie: We’ve been lucky enough to get some funding through the federal government Farming Together funding stream. Which is a great funding stream specifically to help farmer groups work together.
As a result of that process, we’ve decided that we’re going to set up a new legal entity which is going to be a co-op of the farmers. And the purpose of that is to formalise all that stuff that Ant’s talking about—so there’ll be lots of organic conversations and partnerships and collaborations that happen. Within the actual co-op structure, the goal is to save money for each individual business wherever possible. So, for example, we’ve just been able to negotiate with NASAA, our organic certifier; they’ve agreed to give us a group certification, so that’s a new model for them. They’ve been fantastic to work with, they were really open to the idea of our suggestion of certifying all the separate businesses under our existing certification number. And so that means that the co-op will pay one lot of certification, which is, you know, around a thousand dollars per business, rather than each of the individual enterprises having to pay that for themselves.
So that’s a huge cost saving just with that one where we’ll hopefully be able to do the same thing with our farmer’s market accreditation and insurance and, you know, we kind of feel like that’s just the beginning. So, we’ll be looking for as many opportunities as possible for each of the individual businesses to shift their costs into the co-op and for the co-op to be able to get cost savings for them.
So that’s kind of the formal structure that we’re setting up. We haven’t actually set that up yet and that’s one of the sort of, key parts of the model that comes into the ‘replicable-ness’ of what we’re doing here. Laughter. We’ve had so many meetings about how do we formalise, you know, the informal nature of what we’re doing.
And so, I think we’ve put so many hours into exploring the different options and working through them and then making those decisions. I think that’s what’s going to really be of value that we’ll be able to offer to other farms. Hopefully! If it works!! We’ve got to see if it works first! Laughter.
Allie: Well, I think that’s the key, isn’t it? Go back a hundred years and across the globe there were more farms, more land on the planet was dedicated to farming and it was smaller farms and lots of people invested in tiny pockets instead of big farms that have these ‘gynormous’ monocultures…
Katie: At its peak, Harcourt had 180, or something, orchards, yeah, a ridiculously huge number of orchards, and all those families were making a living. They might’ve only had an acre or two acres or five acres of apple trees and they could all make a living back then.
Allie: It is amazing how quickly that changed and how it’s changing back, to a degree.
Background piano theme music with Allie speaking over the top. You’re listening to MainFM 94.9. And this is An Environment for Change. Today I’m speaking with some organic orchardists: Katie Finlay has been running the Mount Alexander Fruit Garden for the last 20 years in Harcourt, and Ant Wilson is about to take over. So, we’re chatting about organics, fruit trees, small-scale farming, farmers markets, and coming up I want to ask them about their influences. What’s brought them here and where they see the world going.
Allie: What have you seen in your various farming adventures on the road to coming here Ant? Before, you mentioned “beyond organics” and it sounds like you are connected to what people are doing in Japan or other places around the world, you’re connected to a global kind of movement around these ideas. Can you expand a little bit about what you see happening?
Ant: Yeah, so I started this journey as a consumer, as a vegan consumer, actually…and…
Katie: We’ve cured him! No, he was already cured before he got here! Laughter
Ant: Yeah, it was the first farm and they’ll never let me forget it either. It was a permaculture farm up near Canberra, actually, called Caroola. Uh, what was I going to say?
Ant: So, I think that my reasons for being vegan and wanting to farm and all that were based in ignorance really, as a consumer who had no idea how to farm or what farming was like or where my food came from, I didn’t understand the food system.
Allie: So, can you expand on that? Like, what did you believe to be the case. And what have you learned since?
Ant: Well, I guess I believed that to eat meat was unsustainable for the world for the amount of energy that it took to grow meat or to grow animals for meat was just too much, and that it was polluting the world and that kind of thing. Basically, all the things you see in a documentary like Cowspiracy (Cowspiracy: the sustainability secret, 2014), and I still believe those are certainly applicable to centralised large-scale industrial agriculture. That’s a hundred percent true, you know, a lot of the things that come across in those kinds of documentaries.
Allie: So, your main reason for being vegan at that point was environmental, it wasn’t ethical in terms of animal cruelty?
Ant: Well, both because in terms of raising animals, the ethics in those systems are disgusting; it’s sickening, it’s just really horrible what the animals go through and how they are killed. However, my opinion is that you can kill an animal ethically and now I understand that you can farm an animal ethically and you can farm it in a way that is healing to the soil and to the world.
So that’s what I’ve seen in the last two years and I’ve really grown to understand the food system and how all these different things come into play and how centralised, industrialised agriculture has slowly come about and grown through market power and sort of ‘smoke and mirrors’, and people are losing touch with that. And so I see this growing movement of people that feel, I don’t know, maybe disenfranchised or just disconnected and maybe don’t want to be a farmer but they just want to know where their food comes from.
And they hear all these awful things about how food is adulterated in its production and turned into kind of the shadow of what food could be, and they want to reconnect with quality nutritious food. And the way that they can do that is by reconnecting with farmers through farmer’s markets or CSAs and that kind of thing. And those are the kinds of people that are voting with their dollar, basically other people that are supporting the movement of us farmers—the one that I’ve been involved so heavily with the last two years, with the people that are actually farming the soil—so if people want to support that movement and that global change. I can’t remember who it was that said that “eating’s a political act”. It might’ve been Michael Pollan, Yeah.
Katie: Michael Pollan, yeah.
Ant: Eating’s a political act and it absolutely is, you know, every dollar is a vote on how animals are treated and how the earth is treated and how our water is treated and how you treat your own body as well.
Katie: Do you want to mention AFSA as well in the political arm of this, because AFSA has sort of connect to, or is—I don’t know if it has global connections, but it’s definitely very aware of what’s happening in this space globally.
Ant: Yeah. It certainly does have global connections AFSA. So, AFSA is the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance. It’s a democratic organisation, it’s made up of volunteers and all the members and it fights for people’s right to, let’s see if I can get this right: fights for people’s right to culturally appropriate and ethically grown food in ecologically sound ways, something like that. I’m paraphrasing, but there is an actual sort of…
Allie: Yep, manifesto.
Ant: …Yeah manifesto, that I don’t know of by heart.
Katie: You should, you’re on the committee!
Allie: Are you on the committee?
Ant: …Which I should know, I should!! …I am on the committee yeah, only just. I just joined a few months ago, about six months ago, yeah. Absolutely doing a lot of work, there’s a heavy farmer membership which means there’s a lot of farm influence into the kind of work that we do, but we domestically and globally are fighting for basically what we do here on this farm; for ethical, sustainable agriculture and the right for choice and for food sovereignty. It bothers me that I can’t choose to drink raw milk, or buy raw milk I should say. And why if I want to make that choice and why not? Why should the government tell me.
Katie: I’m just really pleased that there’s a whole new younger generation coming through that are actually prepared to get on the committees.
Allie: So, what do you see as the future of Australian farming and food production? What are the fights that are going to have to happen? What are the biggest challenges?
Katie: Well, I think one of the biggest challenges that’s facing farming in Australia is the aging population of farmers and I don’t think there is an easy solution to that. There’s a bit of a resurgence in young farmer education. Again, some of the farming courses—there’s hardly any farming courses, and there’s almost no organic farming courses, which is a huge pity because I think soil, healthy soil is big gap in the education side of things—but there is a bit of a resurgence in interest in those courses which is great, but overall, still the trend is that farmers are aging and so many of them face this succession problem that we’ve had.
So, you know, we’d love to think that what we’re doing here will become a useful model to help save productive farmland in Australia, but we’re very conscious that we’re so tiny, you know, but at the same time, there’s a lot of value in a model. And there’s a lot of value in talking about it, we really appreciate the opportunity to do this Allie. That you know, to have people come and actually ask us these questions and have the chance to get out there and talk about what we are doing.
But the proof is in the pudding. It’s great to have good ideas, but we’re very much about you’ve got to do it; you’ve got to get out there, get your hands dirty; put the model in place, try it for you know, years to iron out the problems and then we hope we’ll really have something of value that we can roll out.
Allie: Do you think, as a society we’ve stopped valuing farming, we’ve stopped investing in farmer education, we’ve stopped investing in land and soil and systems that support farmers. Do you feel like that’s what’s happening?
Katie: Yeah, I do. I think the disconnect has happened mainly at a consumer level because of the ease of buying super cheap pre-prepared food. So, I think that a huge majority of the population is in the habit now of buying their food that way, you know pre-packaged, pre-prepared. Even in Australia, I think it’s probably not the norm for a family to sit down at a meal that they’ve cooked from ingredients. And I think that’s just a huge tragedy on so many levels you know, it’s like I was talking about before with the soil, like it’s simple things but just hope they have such wide-reaching impact, you know, the more times you cook a meal from scratch and then sit down and eat it with your family, that has just such huge benefits at every level.
But I think that’s where the disconnect has kind of started, you know. There was—I read a statistic not long ago, about in the sixties or seventies, there was a large percentage of the population that had a direct connection to somebody on a farm, so, they either had a family member or they knew somebody that farmed. And I think we’re down to, I don’t know, 15% or 17% or something of the population that have got that direct connection, maybe even smaller than that. Yeah, I think there’s a massive, massive disconnect.
At the same time, the regenerative farming movement, the farmer’s market movement and this growing cohort of enthusiastic young emerging farmers that are appearing, it’s just so, so exciting. It’s fantastic. There’s lots of energy in this sector now, so we need to not be dispirited by the fact that there’s still only 1% of food shopping in Melbourne is happening at farmer’s markets. Laughter…and focus instead on the fact that the farmer’s market sector is growing really rapidly. It just comes back to really, really simple messages—shop at a farmer’s market.
You know, if there’s one thing if people want to know what they can do to really make an impact for themselves on all of these issues that we’ve been covering in this wide-ranging talk, that’s the simplest thing that you can do is find a way to connect with the farmer, find a way of buying your food from a farmer. Farmer’s markets are just the simple way of doing that, but CSAs are a great model as well. Search out a CSA, find one, find farmers in your area, ask them how you can buy food straight from them!
Ant: I think there’s a lack of the right kind of education. So, when I was deciding how I wanted to go about learning to farm, I looked at studying farming and you can study organic farming, but some of the TAFE courses I was looking at, like horticulture and stuff like that: teaching you how to use Roundup is just part of the syllabus, which is, you know, it’s outrageous. It’s like Monsanto wrote the syllabus, it’s crazy!
And one of the family farms I worked on in the past, they had a vet student come, a veterinary student I should say, come to the farm to do a bit of work. And they came in like a full-on ‘mop’ suit, you know, like this Hazmat suit or whatever you call it. We were just like “you don’t need that here—pigs have immune systems”! yeah.
The education system seems to be tiered towards industrial agriculture. And to answer your question before, in terms of barriers to this kind of thing, I think that industrial agriculture and GM (genetic modification) technology companies like Monsanto that want to take over the world or Tyson, which is the world’s leading poultry producer, they’re the big barriers. Every time you buy one of their products, you’re supporting them over us small-scale growers and they just want to feed the world too, that’s their mission, that’s what they want to do, but they want to do that in a way that instead of feeding the soil, that feeds their shareholders. They want to use GM technologies and biotech and all of this stuff, which we’re seeing now, you know, this whole green revolution thinking is just damaging to ecosystems. And while it might feed a lot of people, it has a lot of downsides too. Those companies and systems are a big barrier, big obstacle for us.
Katie: Do you want to just expand on green revolution because for somebody that doesn’t know what that means, it sounds like a good thing. Laughter
Ant: Yeah. Right yeah. And I thought the green revolution was a good thing too, when I first started to read about it, yeah. So, the green revolution is kind of the, the epoch you might say, of chemical farming basically, where we discovered that nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus are the key, the main nutrients of plants. And we figured out we could synthesise them and put them into the soil to grow food. But now, or even before that, I guess we knew that there’s a huge array of micronutrients that a plant needs and lots and lots of other systems in place, and, you know, soil microbes and fungi and things in the soil that is an entire network that feed the plant. And a lot of it, we don’t know, but …
Allie: it’s not as simple as three chemical or mineral.
Ant: It’s just reductive thinking really.
Katie: And unfortunately, one of the unintended side effects or consequences of shifting to the artificial fertiliser, the NPK type system, is that we destroyed the soil, the natural soil. We destroyed all of the whole complex natural fertility system that has evolved for millions of years before we came along, literally millions of years you know, plants had totally got it right before we turned up and we wrecked it all in a generation. Laughter.
Allie: Yeah, I know. Laughter
Ant: … Or we dried it out and it washed away. So sad to see.
Katie: Yeah, it blew away. Yep.
Allie: It just seems like humans are like, “we’re not, we’re not going to survive!”, so then they do something that makes it even harder to survive as a solution. It’s kind of really weird.
Katie: Yeah, well I think there’s a whole lot of myths behind that, you know, that there’s this whole myth behind GM technology that we can’t, you know, we’ve got this massively increasing population and there’s no way we’re going to be able to feed everyone. And as Ant said, we already grow enough food, you know, the problems are politics and waste. It’s not that we’re not growing enough food already. So, there’s loads of other solutions to making sure that the entire planet could be fed with a healthy, nutritious diet without needing GM technology.
Ant: And a lot of those biotech answers are just these, sort of, technocratic solutions, they’re like a band-aid solution and it happens time and time again. You put a band-aid on the problem and it fixes it for a while until you get a new problem, and then you come up with a new technocratic problem. It’s like ‘shmeat’, which is the….
Katie: What’s ‘shmeat’?
Ant: Oh, it’s I think, maybe Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Tyson, potentially? not sure if that’s true, but those three have come together to work on ‘shmeat’, which is Lab-grown meat as the answer to well, world hunger, but also sort of damaging ecosystems through animal farming and that kind of thing, and it’s not the answer. It’s just going to create a plethora of new problems that we haven’t foreseen yet.
It’s the same with a lot of the GM technologies and the new things like CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and that, sorry, I keep saying all these things well, I’m not sure if I’m the right person to talk about CRISPR, but it’s a new way of gene editing. You can sort of edit animals or plants, so you can edit a cow to take the horns out, or you can edit a cricket so it can’t fly up to the corn to eat the corn or something like that. These are being hailed as amazing new technologies to save industrial agriculture. But what are the problems that are going to come with that?
Allie: And do we want to save industrial agriculture?
General laughter and comments
Ant: Yeah, well, exactly. If they do it like us we wouldn’t have those problems.
Katie: And so, what a lot of people don’t understand about GM technology and things like gene editing is it’s quite different to the traditional way of breeding. So, you can breed horns out of a cow and if you do it that way, which is the natural way of doing it, then nature takes care of making sure that the whole system still works. Whereas if we go in and just use our technology to bypass all the rest of the system, there’s so much of nature’s ecosystems that we don’t understand that it’s very easy for us to create unintended consequences. And we do it all the time, we do it all the time, but a lot of the research that shows, you know, some of those damaging unintended consequences never sees the light of day, which sounds a bit ‘conspiracy theorist’, but there’s some, great groups like MADGE, a really wonderful group stands for Mothers…
Ant: Mothers Are Demystifying Genetic Engineering. And one of the main people, maybe the main person in MADGE, Fran, is also an AFSA committee, so we’re working together.
Katie: Fantastic. So that website, the magic website is a really good repository of all the science about genetic engineering. It can be hard to get that balanced information.
Allie: You guys are great.
Ant: It bothers me that that kind of thinking like, you know, our cows are hurting each other because, yeah, they’ve got horns and we need to milk them. Maybe your cows are too close together, or you’ve got too many cows in one place, that’s the way to think about it. Not, “oh wait, maybe we need to take the horns off”.
Allie: You’ve already given some beautiful things for people to look into, like MADGE and, um…
Katie: Farmer’s markets.
Allie: Yeah. Farmer’s markets. But do you have any books that you would recommend people read or movies to watch or anything like that?
Ant: I’ve got a list of books that I haven’t read yet?
Allie: Piled up next to your bedside?
Ant: Yeah, yeah.
There’s a book called Drawdown (Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to roll back global warming, Paul Hawken, 2017) and he talks about the 40 things that can reduce carbon in the atmosphere. I think maybe five amongst the top, or four or five amongst the top 10 are agriculture- related. So, if you put them all in the basket of agriculture, it’d be number one.
Charles Massy’s book, Call of the Reed Warbler (Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture—A New Earth, 2017),
Bruce Pascoe’s Dark EMU (Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture, 2018)
And there’s one called Collapse: How societies choose to survive or fail (Jared Diamond, 2005) Yeah, that’s the only one on that list that I have actually read, but they all seem like very interesting kind of agriculture-related systems books.
Katie: My main carbon hero is an Australian scientist called Christine Jones, she’s got a website called Amazing Carbon. So, I would definitely recommend looking up that website, she’s great.
Elaine Ingham and her soil food web work is also interesting. So, this is more technical and ‘farmy’ stuff, if anybody’s really interested in getting more into the science of carbon.
And there’s a guy called Dr. Arden Anderson, who’s done lots of work and has got some really accessible books about the links between soil health, human health and farming. Yeah, he’s a medical doctor and a soil scientist. He sort of covers all the bases.
Ant: There’s two food sovereignty books as well that I also haven’t read, but on my list…
Ant: …one of them is by (M.) Jahi Chappell and it’s called Beginning to End Hunger, (Beginning to End Hunger: Food and the environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil and beyond, 2018) which is about feeding the world.
And the other one, the name escapes me right now, but it’s by Eric… the new book by Eric Holtz…
Katie: Ant referred before to the fact that small farms can feed the world. There is actually a UN report that people can download; a really extensive report that has all the evidence showing how small farms can actually feed the world. Well worth at least a read of the executive summary, it’s a long report.
Allie: Probably quite dry.
Right. Well, thanks guys. I really appreciate your time.
Katie: Thanks Allie.
Ant: Cheers, thanks for talking to us.
Theme music for An Environment for Change plays.
Allie: You’ve been listening to An Environment for Change, and in this episode, I was speaking to Katie Finlay from the Mount Alexander Fruit Gardens in Harcourt and Ant Wilson, who is soon to start taking over the running of that orchard.
My name is Alison Hanly. Thanks for listening. Talk to you soon.
Transcription by Robyn Walton
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