For love, not money

Frank SmithCountryman

The lack of rain last summer was enough to convince Balingup grower Tom Benson to take this winter off.

Tom runs a 16-hectare organic farm and in a normal year he has up to 5ha in horticultural crops.

But 2010’s long dry summer changed his plans this year. “I couldn’t grow crops this winter, ” he said. “Last year we had only 330mm of rain, while in a normal year we should get 900mm.

“The dam was empty, so I got other work done around the place and did some contract fencing.”

Tom’s mother, Roz, one of the original alternative lifestylers, bought the property in 1982.

Tom took over management of Bossy Boots organic farm in 1994 and has run it in partnership with his mother and his partner.

Bossy Boots is Roz’s nick-name, as all who know her can attest.

“The farm was first settled in the early 1900s but over time it was neglected, ” Tom said.

“There were severe soil degradation issues from over grazing and major problems with weeds such as doublegee and variegated thistle.”

Tom still has problems with blackberries and is using goats to control them.

“I destocked the farm for four years and spent the first seven years deep ripping, cleaning up and fencing, ” he said.

“The soil is deep loam over clay but erosion can be an issue due to the slopes, so all production is done on contour.

“There are some plant nutrients problems still with calcium and phosphorus being bound up by laterites.

“Lime is a major input. I put 1.5 tonnes per hectare annually on the vegies and the same amount every other year on the rest of the farm.

“Now the soil is 7–9 per cent organic matter with a 6.4pH but there are still production problems caused by drainage, compaction and salinity.”

Tom began growing organic vegies on and area about the size of a ¼-acre block and quickly expanded plantings.

“Our main output is organic vegies, ” he said. “It used to be fruit but returns for organic fruit have diminished and we had major issues with brown rot.

“We had 1800 trees but kangaroos, silvereyes, parrots and emus got to harvest the fruit before we did.

“We still have a few fruit trees but only for own consumption.”

There are also 100 20-year-old chestnut trees but the fruit is not worth picking since the price collapsed.

In summer Tom mainly grows tomatoes, button squash, cucumber, zucchini, corn, pumpkin and eggplant, okra — a glutinous seed pod used in Indian and Cajun cookery — and several different herbs.

“Okra is easy to grow, ” Tom said. “My 1800 plants get up to 2m high. The main problem is the cost of picking — you need to do it daily and pick only 8kg on average per day.”

An organic lettuce mix is also planted but according to Tom it’s a high risk crop. And then there’s broccoli.

“I used to plant up to 60,000 broccoli plants a year — I’m now down to 6000, ” he said. “Last year I fed them to the cattle because broccoli was imported from the eastern states at $24 a box.”

One current success is garlic which sells for $28/kg wholesale.

The garlic is grown from cloves and after starting with just 502sqm, Tom is in the process of expanding to 1ha.

Tom said the main difficulty with organic vegetables was the comparatively small size or production and the distance to market.

A round trip to Perth totals about 500km, which makes it impractical to sell direct, so Tom sells through wholesalers. “If we were 50km from Perth it would be heaven, ” he said.

Another issue was the small demand for organic food in WA. “With 3–4ha of organic vegies, I have at times flooded my own market, ” Tom said.

With this in mind Tom set up a certified organic commercial kitchen behind the homestead to reduce their dependence on the fresh market.

Here he adds value to much of the produce by making jams, relishes and pickles.

“We sell out every year at the Balingup Small Farm Field Day, ” he said.

Getting the farm work done has changed — Tom used to employ up to five workers, some being horticultural trainees. “But I found I was working for them not myself, ” he said.

Now he depends on volunteer ‘woofers’ (willing workers on organic farms).

“It is a great organisation, ” Tom said. “I was one of the first woofer hosts in Balingup.”

For six years Tom also worked as an organic auditor, ensuring that growers adhered to standards set by Australian Certified Organic (ACO). He was also the WA representative for Biological Farmers of Australia (BFA) but he has become disillusioned.

“The organic industry kowtows to big business, ” he said. “I made recommendations that a particular producer be de-certified when I was an auditor only to find them re-certified by another organic organisation. One major component with organics is about managing risks. You need to love documentation. Traceability plays an important role in Certified Organic production.”

Tom also runs 12 head of Black Angus cows which he markets through the Organic Meat Cooperative, making $5–6/kg dress weight.

Tom studied horticulture at Curtin University where he realised he did not want to be a conventional farmer. “I worked in the Wheatbelt in the 1980s and I had to spray insecticide on open silos without protective clothing, ” he said.

This made him sensitive to insecticides and was one of the driving forces behind him becoming an organic farmer.

“We need to educate the consumer on the importance of organic locally-produced food, ” Tom said.

“Australian agriculture and the Federal and State governments push our clean green image, so why bother to push organics?”

Tom is concerned about the future of farming and its viability in Australia. “Farmers are getting older and many are leaving farming, ” he said.

“I don’t know many farmers younger than I am — and I’m 44. Who will farm in 20 years time?

“Farmers are more appreciated in Europe where people have been through food shortages.

“I farm for my family, the ethics of organic production and for the land.

“I love being a farmer. My partner puts up with us not being affluent — farmland should be farmed not used for lifestyle.”

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