Farmers in Australia have traditionally been pretty cagey about what information they share with other farmers. Perhaps they’re worried about competition, or perhaps they lack confidence in what they’re doing.
Either way, when they don’t share they miss the chance to solve problems and, ultimately, improve their farm businesses. And the chance to inspire and energise each other is also lost.
I’ve never been one for group work – Guy will back this up – but I love it when we meet farmers who are generous and free with their knowledge and experiences. (Guy loves group work so much he used to work as a facilitator getting farmers together to share their skills.)
John and Sandra are from Swallow Valley Farm in California. I suspect part of the reason we hit it off was because of the geographical distance between us. It’s a bit like the way you can have a deep and meaningful with a stranger on a plane.
John and Sandra were doing a talk to the ag researchers at the uni, and by chance I was introduced to them as they were walking into the lecture theatre.
John’s the farm manager and Sandy works off-farm for blocks of time as a presentation graphics designer. When she’s not tied up with that, she’s working on the farm or at the markets (they do five markets a week).
Swallow Farm’s main business is a sheep milk cheesery – they milk East Friesians. But on the 130 acres they also produce rare breed lamb (Katahdin, a shedding breed), pork, poultry, soft fruits and vegetables… and there could be more that they didn’t mention.
We were really excited to find out they’d had a Mangalitza pig – the primitive-looking, curly-haired breed that you’d definitely not want to meet on your way to lock up the chooks at night. (I say had – the Manga’s now in the freezer, but it didn’t produce much meat).
They also had a Traditional Dairy Shorthorn, the rare breed of cattle we’ve just started processing and selling at the markets. It was good to hear that their ‘Bella’ – also in the freezer – was the best beef they’d ever eaten.
Guy now wants a chook tractor. Not the rabbit hutch-sized ones you see in gardening magazines, but the ones that house 80 birds (Guy just informed me he doesn’t want one, he wants many). John and Sandy have 400 hens and each night they put themselves to bed, with a solar-powered door automatically closing behind them at dusk. If the girls feel like staying out late they’re unlikely to see the morning thanks to the local coyote population.
Interestingly, at Swallow Farm they can process up to 10,000 head of poultry each year without having to deal with painful red tape. So they kill turkeys, chickens, ducks and geese and sell them at the farmers’ markets. The exemption from the rules comes about because of the value placed on the cultural practice of killing turkeys for Thanksgiving. Perhaps we could compare it with mutton bird harvesting?
We also heard little bits about their animal welfare and bee friendly accreditation, their plans to produce biochar from their eucalypt (!) plantation, and their involvement in a new CSA – a community supported agriculture enterprise where the public subscribes to a regular delivery of produce.
They face the same challenges as we do: reliance on outside meat processing, free range labelling inconsistencies, and trying to re-educate consumers who see the price, but not the value.
After listening to John and Sandra’s presentation I asked them to park their camper in our yard and have dinner with us. They stayed two nights, we shared our home-grown meat and vegetables, and we said goodbye feeling so fortunate to have spent some time together.
There is so much we can learn from elsewhere in the world – why do we think we have to battle through without asking advice, or having a look at how someone else does things?
Last week I was selected for a Churchill Fellowship to spend six weeks overseas looking at farm tourism, value-adding (such as charcuterie), and how food-producing regions put themselves on the discerning tourist’s map.
I’m planning to spend time in France, Italy, Spain, and the UK – it’ll be my first time out of Australia, so I’m a little nervous, but very excited.
We think Tasmania, and the north-west especially, has amazing potential to provide visitors with genuine, earthy, and top-class experiences that combine real food with really stunning scenery.
So let’s do it!