No Harm done in Gary's switch to organic farming
GARY Harm doubts he would still be able to work his family farm, or even still be farming at all, if he hadn't turned to organic methods a quarter of a century ago.
His grandfather bought the Mt Whitestone property in 1930, originally for pig farming and dairying, and Mr Harm bought the farm from his own father in 1998 after they had transitioned to growing vegetables.
His father had started off growing potatoes and onions but overly salty groundwater proved an issue and the more salt tolerant brassicas were chosen as the way forward.
But the land became too hard to cultivate and it was all but impossible to grow anything of any quality, with the land turning to "cement” every time it would storm and the bank was soon on their back when money began to dry up.
Despite his father's protests, Mr Harm knew they had to go in another direction or they would go under and he started to reduce the amount of artificial fertiliser and chemicals used in favour of organic techniques.
It was far from an instant process and progress was slow, and at times, pretty frustrating over several years.
"I was running around trying to find a quick solution to everything and there was no quick solution, one bloke told me there were just a lot of little things you've got to get right to come together and that's about what it was,” Mr Harm said.
He recalls at one point, while still not fully organic, a cluster of diamondback moth grubs were causing a headache by eating the outer leaves of a crop of cauliflowers.
After a biological pesticide failed to do the trick, he sprayed conventional chemicals again only for the insects to retreat into the heart of the vegetable and continue feasting from the inside, doing even more damage.
"I think that was the last time I used chemicals,” he laughed.
"The soil, as it got better, I think the pests got less, we probably grew a healthier plant, a stronger plant that wasn't full of nitrogen and we still have a few problems but nothing that would ever make me go back to farming the other way.”
The farm became certified with the Biological Farmers Association (BFA) in the early 1990s and then twelve months later Mr Harm started to investigate how effective Demeter bio-dynamic farming methods would be work on his land under the guidance of Alex Podolinsky, who brought it to Australia.
He has never looked back.
After several years of spraying with 'preparation 500' twice a year as well as applying chemical-free rock dust and cow manure at Mr Podolinksy's suggestion, the soil became softer and easier to work as well as reducing salinity levels.
He now works alongside son James and his wife Ashleigh, growing cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, onion, butternut pump and rockmelon, and the healthier soil will mean less issues in the future for the next generation on the land.
"I doubt if I'd (still) be farming because I was so disillusioned with conventional farming,” he said.
"Your equity is not in the bank, it's in your soil.
"If your soil is not right and you can't grow a crop on there and if you've got to put all the chemicals and inputs into it to grow a crop, you're not getting much equity in that one crop for you.”
When he first started on the organic path, Rob Bauer and Troy Huggins were two others he could look to who were doing the same in the valley.
"There weren't too many of us doing it, I was the only one who went into bio-dynamics which is a little bit different,” Mr Harm said.
"Planning was the biggest thing when I went into bio-dymanics... you had to be planning 12 months ahead, your soil preparation and where you're going to put this crop and that crop.
"It was a bit daunting at the start to try and get 12 months ahead but I wouldn't change it for anything these days. I think James is happy with how it's going, I think he'll keep going until we retire or get tired of it.”
He believed the market for organic produce was not as rigorous or robust as it once was when he first got into it, but it was still strong.
"When we started off there was always someone chasing you about when you were going to start,” he said.
"Now lately there seems to be enough product on the market all the time, more people have gone into it, the BFA have pushed a lot to get more farmers in I think. Supermarkets have probably tried to get more farmers to become organic farmers to grow through their pack houses.
"The demand doesn't seem to be there as much, it is still there, but they're not waiting for your product to come on.
"More farmers are around, it just seems to be a little bit slower, it's still healthy and you still get that little bit extra then conventional.”