Under the magnolias we chomped charred broccolini & delved into conversation with Serendip Organics owner Christine Rijks, Young Farmers Connect Director Joel Orchard and Environmental Activist Kate Nelson aka Plastic Free Mermaid.
This is a free flowing conversation recorded and transcribed from the macadamia grove
Harry from Mindful Foods: When did you make the switch to organic farming?
Christine from Serendip Organics: We’ve been farming with organics from the 80s. This was a biodynamic farm already. We’ve never had a non organic farm. It’s our personal choice that we didn’t want to work with pesticides, we didn’t want to live with pesticides and we didn’t want to expose our staff to pesticides
Nick from Mindful Foods: Were you ahead of the curve?
Christine: Yes we were viewed as quite strange when we started farming.
Kate Nelson: What challenges did you face?
Christine: Loss of crop, that’s the biggest challenge. Insect pressures reduce our crop. We lose 50% of our crop every year and some years more, because of insects. One year we were nearly wiped out.
Kate: What kind of insects?
Christine: That year we were nearly wiped out was lace bug. But we didn’t realise that we had a big problem. We were working with DPI for 5 years trying to work out why our production wasn’t increasing, it was getting lower and then finally it was very obvious. But it took us to reach crisis point.
Nick: Can you get government grants to research that sort of stuff?
Christine: No because we belong to Australia Macadamia Society and part of our money goes to the industry and they do a lot of research.
Joel Orchard from Young Farmers Connect: Typically they won’t be doing research for organics is that right?
Christine: That’s been a bit of an argument of ours for a long while because we pay the levy alongside everybody else.
Joel: The organics sector is not big enough that you’ve got an independent peak body for your levy.
Christine: No it’s not but its a lot more accepted now than it was when we first started. When we first started growing macadamias organically there wasn’t any market. Most growers, 98% of growers, grow their crop and then they sell the nut in shell to a processor and that’s the end of it. Whereas we’re vertically integrated were having to contract process and take it right through to the customer with the end product and when we first started we just wanted to sell our nut in shell but there wasn’t a market for it.
Kate: For organic nuts?
Christine: Yes. There is now. There are processors who will buy organic and they’ll p[ay extra for it but at the time we started there wasn’t.
Nick: Because they wanted to mix it all in with everything they’re getting and not bother keeping organic separate?
Christine: They had no market for it.
Kate: Do you find that your organic certification now balances out the loss of crop?
Christine: No, not at all.
Kate: So the market is there but it’s not big enough?
Christine: There is a big enough market in organics it’s just that we don’t get the yield. This farm should produce 250 tonne a year. We’re thinking we’re pretty special if we get 100 tonne. If we’re doping 95 tonne we’re doing great. You saw all the silos down there, we’ve got seven silos, a conventional farm would fill those up.
Georgie, Mindful Foods Founder: You use the word should but conventional is so much of what is accepted.
Christine: It’s more guarantee of a crop. You’re going to put pesticides and sprays out you’re not going to lose to the insect damage. It’s not like saying it’s an apple, it’s not perfect, the macadamia doesn’t develop to that stage. Because the insects are attacking it from the time it’s a flower, through to when you’ve got the tiny green nutlets.
Harry: Are there any natural remedies being innovated?
Christine: Not yet. We’ve got some pretty major pests and we’re still waiting for, it’s like is there a remedy for corona virus?
Joel: have you benchmarked the commodity, the indexing off the conventional industries but none of the externalised costs are being met by the consumer or the market whereas within the organic system the externalities are that you’re paying to not kill the biology and to not poison the soil. And you have to pay a fee for the privilege of doing good for the earth.
Christine: That’s right and there were conventional macadamia farms somewhere in Queensland where they were near a river or a creek and there were two headed fish and all sorts of odd things. This was just a few years ago.
Joel: How did you find evolving in the industry with processes because none of the processes were originally set up to maintain organic standards. Were you always able to process locally?
Christine: Originally we were processing in Queensland and then when we formed this society of organic growers we got one of the local processors in the northern rivers certified so then we had options that people could use.
Joel: Does a lot of nut go to china for processing?
Christine: We don’t send anything to china. Everything we do stays within this community here. We’re doing everything locally but then most of my sales are overseas.
Joel: Have you seen the UHT macadamia milk on the shelves now? Local Australian nuts processed in china shipped to the USA turned into milk and ends up back here on the shelf and it’s called Australian macadamia milk.
Nick: The same happened with our textiles. We grow the ship here and send the wool away.
Christine: We had tariff protection in the early 70s. When the tariff protection was taken away we lost most of our textile industry. It’s the same as gas. We produce a lot of the gas, we sell it cheap then we pay higher prices for it at home.
Kate: Free market woo.
Joel: In your analysis with brain health dependent on gut health. When you look at it from a farm ecology perspective because that is the gut for the farm. The organic system, it’s the soil, it’s improved and developed and maintained. Where in a conventional system it’s like eating just sugar and chips all your life. You’ve got soil that’s only fed three nutrients NPK and expect the plant to produce phytonutrients.
Christine: Conventional farmer just puts on a chemical fertiliser
Joel: and it’s the spectrum of fertilisers. The phytonutrients is a really interesting one because the plant can’t produce phytonutrients if it’s only fed three minerals. You need all 80 micronutrients which your farm would be getting through your composting, that’s missed out in a conventional system.
Kate: Isn’t upsetting how uneducated we are with what we eat. Even having a bowl of fresh amazing vegetables but if they’re grown in this monoculture farm they’re not giving us the nutrients we think they are. They might be huge and shiny and covered in wax.
Joel: That’s why I’m a huge advocate for local food systems because people’s exposure to the production system is a really important way for us to understand how and why it’s produced the way it is.
A little about our guests
Macadamia trees at the Serendip plantation grow in their original, native environment as nature intended. Christine, and her husband Colin, have committed themselves to the health of the planet for decades and are part of the monumental community shift towards organics and conscious consumption. Serendip Organics are our local supplier for organic macadamias. We proudly support their commitment to sustainable farming practices. http://www.serendiporganics.com.au/
Young Farmers Connect is a national not for profit organisation committed to cultivating networks, resources and community for young farmers state and nation wide. As the Director and Principal Coordinator Joel helps with the provision of educational platforms that encourage Australia’s young agrarians to farm for the future. Regenerative, holistic & sustainable agricultural practices create a bright and prosperous future for our next generation farmers. http://www.youngfarmersconnect.com/
Magical mermaid yogi goddesses don’t come around regularly enough so when they do you’ve got to ask all the questions you can. Kate quit disposable plastic from her life ten years ago. Through her advocacy she has guided tens of thousands of people towards conscious consumption, a more sustainable way of living. With the release of her book ‘I Quit Plastics.’ Kate is going to be leading many more down the healthy people, healthy planet path. It’s a must read! http://iquitplastics.com/book