“Our aim is to feed the soil” said Michael Hulse as we looked over his beautiful farm on a bend of the Deua river. Doing this without the use of petroleum based fertilisers and superphosphate has been a “holy grail” for Michael most of his life. Michael has an all round perspective on the local produce scene in Eurobodalla, as he has been a fruit and vegetable retailer as well as a farmer. His views on the morals and business practices of the big supermarkets are not fit for publication.
Coming from a farming background he is well versed in “conventional” farming, and understands the challenge of sustainable farming on his scale (around 20 hectares of the farm actively farmed for vegetable production). The farm is one big experiment in tractor based food production helped by continual advice from farming texts, soil scientists and biologists.
The mainstay of the farm is potatoes. “Unfortunately you have to plough the soil for spuds, so each plot is rested for the next three years and is rotated using green manure and gentler crops like pumpkins.”
Walking around the farm sheds, there appears to be a collection of antique farm machinery on display along with several home made contraptions. It turns out that most of the “antiques” date from the 1950’s and are still very much in use. They were built to last in those days, and are also able to be repaired.
We inspected last year’s potato paddock which was waist high with oats and vetch. Michael pointed to a home-made concrete roller with steel blades protruding from the cylinder. This is used to flatten the oats and vetch before the oat seeds mature and the steel blades make the flattened crop into a “corduroy” texture which kills the plants. The next step is to plant pumpkins through the mulch to shade out any weeds and the pumpkins mature on top of the mulch layer keeping the pumpkins clean and with strong skins for storage.
The soil biology thrives beneath this blanket of mulch and the canopy of leaves, aided by the addition of seaweed solutions, rock dust and trace elements. This is about as far from “conventional” as tractor based farming can get. The tractor and large pumps (of course) run on biodiesel made from used vegetable oil from a local restaurant that buys produce from the farm. It is a lovely picture, imagining the vegetable oil used to cook the potatoes being used to power the implements to grow the next crop. The roof of one shed is covered with photovoltaic panels to handle the power tools and cool room electrical loads.
Deau Farm Produce also grows garlic, kale and broccoli which all fit neatly into the rotation system. Walking down to the broccoli rows, we can see that dozens of plants have been almost totally stripped. “Bower birds,” said Michael grimly. When you are growing food surrounded by pristine forests you have to expect some freeloaders. Next year, chilli sprays will be tried to see if that puts the birds off.
Passionfruit are proving to be a very tricky crop. However, Michael hopes he will get it right in 5 or 6 years. In the final shed Michael shows us his seed potatoes for the next season. There are 4 varieties, including the distinctive “Winlok” and they are all certified organic, even though he has not got the time to do the paperwork for the property to be organically certified. “I just want to get the best seed potatoes.”
He visits farmers markets wherever he travels and also sells weekly at the Capital Region Farmers Market in the ACT. In his words, the SAGE Farmers Market is “about as good as it gets”. When we talk about the role of farmers markets generally, he brings his deep knowledge of the local food system to bear. “This year, the supermarkets paid 13 cents per kilo for potatoes. It costs around 30c even using chemicals to produce, so you can see where that game is going. Without farmers markets, and the ability for growers to sell direct to the customer, we lose so much knowledge about how to grow our food sustainably.”