Joel Orchard: Small scale farmer and big future thinker

What started out as an aspiration to be self sufficient, has evolved into a vision to grow and support young farmers into a profession that has enormous reward, alongside huge risk, immense challenges and a great deal of fulfillment. What’s more Joel can see the future in small-scale farming and has a vision for how we can shift to sustainable farming practices and develop local food systems, challenging the predominant industrialised model of agriculture.

With a name like Orchard perhaps he was destined to be connected deeply to the earth because his roots run deep. Joel grew up in a farming community in southern Victoria and worked on dairy farms in his youth. Despite these early connections to farming, he first started growing his own food while studying in Melbourne. His desire to grow enough food for himself and generate his own nourishment, led him on a journey up the east coast in search of enough land to make a livelihood out of it.

There were few opportunities for a young farmer wanting to start from scratch. He encountered numerous barriers including the significant capital to buy land and equipment, along with limited entry points for someone with no farming background and limited experience.

Now Joel rents one and a half acres at Mullumbimby Community Gardens, where he has a small scale diversified farm, harvesting a range of crops with up to 12-15 vegetable lines growing at a particular time. He does this alongside managing a beehive, making liquid fertilisers from the worm farms; minimising waste by using food scraps from a nearby organic retailer and is currently putting together a solar powered aquaponic system to sustain his off-grid farm. He had a flourishing Community Supported Agriculture scheme established with regular subscribers, gratified with the fruits of his labour. Sadly, after the torrential downpour the region experienced in April, his entire farm was completely submerged by water, which meant starting over, just when things were going well.

Truly a farmer’s worst nightmare, yet sadly a harsh reality that our famers face. Our weather is unpredictable and it’s been documented that Australia is set to experience even more extreme weather events as we face the uncertainties that climate change brings. This is even more reason for encouraging and supporting sustainable agriculture, also known as agroecology.

Running a small scale farm is nonetheless, just one hat that Joel wears at present. Recognising that the average age of farmers in Australia exceeds 56, the need to support new young farmers into farming is essential.

Joel highlights:

“Nothing is being done to stimulate or support young people to get into food production to support a rapidly growing population. I really want to be setting a framework in that they will operate in. Dynamic and diverse agricultural enterprises can respond to deal with climate change, another huge thing for young farmers.”

This is why Joel has established Future Feeders which provides young people wanting to get into farming with opportunities to learn. Partnering with a local training institute, alongside providing the land, equipment and established crops, Joel is giving interns an opportunity for collective skill development, minus the enormous barriers he faced when entering small scale farming.

This has also led to the formation of the Northern Rivers Young Farmers Alliance to facilitate peer support for young farmers in the area. This is a network of farmers under 40 who share the same values in ecological agriculture and sustainable land management. Joel praises the alliance, acknowledging there are “enormous benefits for a support network, however one challenge is that when farmers are already stretched to thin, it’s hard to find time to be involved in a food movement.” Despite these challenges, the group meets monthly and provides fantastic opportunities for support, collaboration and networking.

When asked about his five-year vision Joel would love to see small-scale farms in his local area form a collaborative farming network. Reflecting on the economic inefficiencies of small-scale farms Joel aspires to see “a range of emerging farmers form as a cooperative. Efficiencies go up because they become part of a bigger farm on the books, but they still benefit from being able to explore farming at their own autonomy.” It’s clear he’s given this a lot of thought because Joel states “through making the farm look bigger under a collective identify, it provides enormous benefits such as increased buying power for various inputs, as well as increasing efficiencies for distribution through accessing bigger markets. A network has a lot of advantages instead of doing all of that at the same time.”

When asked what consumers can do if they want to support a fairer food system, Joel imparted three wise words “know your farmer.” He emphasised how this makes it more real for the farmer and more authentic for the consumer. You can do this through farmers markets or by checking out local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) models in your area. Joel praises the CSA model because it shares the risk between both the farmer and consumer.

He states:

“Another reality for farmers is that they get left holding all the risk – whether the crops succeed or fail, or whether the market changes. In a CSA model, customers become shareholders; stakeholders in the farm itself and the risk is distributed. Everyone benefits when the system is working really well. Everyone shares the load when things don’t go well such as natural disasters or pests.”

As our conversation nears a close, I am left feeling hugely inspired by Joel’s big future thinking. A farmer, activist and connector, Joel is harvesting the seeds for change, cultivating the youth of today to enter the most important job ever required.   A profession that cares and nurtures the land, alongside the greatest responsibility of all, feeding us.

Photo credit: Jo Immig

Deep Winter 2017: Sowing the seeds for our farming future

The air was cool and crisp, as I set out for Deep Winter just after sunrise, eager to meet some farmers and foster a connection with those responsible for one of the most important duties on this planet, feeding people. As I drove south to Bangalow, the winter sun warmed the car and my soul, ready for a day of learning, sharing and connecting with small-plot farmers.

The meeting was held on the North Coast, New South Wales, and was the third annual Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering, running over two and half days. I arrived on the second day to meet the eclectic group of attendees who had all enjoyed the fabulous first day of local area farm tours including The Farm Byron Bay, Boon Luck Farm (Tyagarah), Mullumbimby Community Gardens, Future Feeders and Life Force Organics (Mullumbimby).

The tremendous A and I Hall in Bangalow was the setting for a day and a half of sharing stories, learning’s and wisdom amongst farmers, gardeners, educators, eaters and advocates.

Jambe, who represented the Arakwal people of the region, kicked off the proceedings with a Welcome to Country. Graciously leading us through a Connection to Country, Jambe also invited us to connect deeply to the earth and country beneath us, just like the plants and vegetables that grow to nourish and sustain us.

The speed dating introductions followed, allowing us the opportunity to connect to others present at the gathering. It was energetic and intense, and in a short space of time, I met an abundance of small-scale regenerative farmers from across Australia. Owning or leasing land of various sizes, these market gardeners and farmers were here for knowledge, inspiration and camaraderie, rebutting against the long held view in agriculture of ‘get big or get out.’

The sessions addressed a range of topics including land access and ownership, organic certification and peer guaranteed systems, food distribution models, building consumer and chef relationships, and learning’s from young farmers.

Attending the session on land access, ownership and share agreements, I heard about the challenges and barriers people face face wanting to become farmers or lease land for farming. These included the significant cost of land in or near urban areas; the different loan agreements for agricultural land compared with your standard home loan; and the complexities of leasing land off land owners. Given that land ownership was often a significant entry point barrier, many pursued leasing land. Despite the challenges this also presented, one audience member emphasised, “we’re striving for a model of co-operative farming that works with the land, the farmer, and the community”, highlighting some of the many benefits of this model.

If the youth are the hope of our future then young farmers are the hope of our farms! In a profession where the majority of farmers in Australia are reaching retirement age, young farmers are the life-blood of the land. Each of the four farmers on the panel in the afternoon session had a different story to share, but the key theme that emerged was the sheer drive and determination of all who sat before me. Like any young person starting out in a new profession, time is taken to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills in order to make it work. This requires substantial commitment, and is often supplemented by juggling paid work alongside establishing a farm. There is also significant capital outlay required to start farming and many accessed grants and/ or crowd funding platforms for essential items, often just beyond their reach. All were quite open about the turmoil that comes from enduring financial struggle, either in the beginning, or after losing crops through various weather events. Yet the love of the land, the food and the people is what lights the fire in their belly, keeps their hands dirty and their hearts full.

On my drive home with the sun setting to the west, a glorious red splashed across the sky leaving its mark on the day, and I reflected how Deep Winter left its mark on me. I felt privileged to meet so many inspiring farmers growing fresh, healthy food sustainably. Small-scale diversified farming provides so many benefits to the individual, community, soil, land, environment and plants and animals, that transitioning back to this way of sustainable farming is essential for the long term health of people and the planet.

We, as consumers have the power to change things for the better in our food system. Buy local. Support small farmers where you can. Check out your farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes. Thank your farmer for growing your food.  If you can’t do it in person, can you connect electronically?   Many farmers are on social media and value the genuine connection they have with with consumers. Farming is truly a labour of love and for that we must be eternally grateful.

Note: Deep Winter wrapped up on Sunday after yoga, a session on marketing for farmers and a recap which I was unable to attend due to family commitments.

Photo credit: Joel Orchard (Future Feeders)