Every year like clockwork Paul Haar calls to announce that his feijoas have finished. Pretty much the next day Ian Cuming (that’s him above) will be on the phone to talk about dropping off the first of his biodynamic kiwis Not this year though, with the endless summer everything is out of whack – feijoas ended weeks ago but Ian’s first kiwis are just arriving now. Weird weather aside, our conversation is much the same – “How’s his family, this year’s harvest, is he going to stick around for another year?” But this year as we talk it strikes me that what’s happening at Ian’s Beenak Farm is like one of those Federal bellwether electorates where in this one place, at this one time, all the issues seem to be bubbling up to the surface:
Farm labour: Ian usually hosts WWOOFers (willing workers on organic farms) who swap half a day’s work for room and board and a real farm experience as they backpack around Australia. They help with all the jobs around a farm but are especially needed at harvest – when you’ve got 15 tonnes of kiwi to pick in a short amount of time you need all the hands you can get. Last year however the Federal Government changed the working holiday visa rules for backpackers ruling out WWOOFing as a legitimate way of completing the 3 months farm work needed to qualify for a 2nd year working holiday visa. The change has turned backpackers away from WWOOFING and affected Beenak and hundreds of other small organic farms who rely on WWOOFERs.
Aging farmers: Like so many Australian farmers Ian is in his 60’s with no obvious successor to take over Beenak. It’s a major issue facing agriculture in Australia and around the world. We are coming to a point in this country where we’ll be looking about the local farmer’s market wondering why it’s half empty of food and farmers and all of a sudden realising that the remaining growers are getting about on walking frames and mobility buggies.
Farm viability: One of the reasons we have all these farmers like Ian wondering what to do with their farms on retirement is that it’s really hard to make a living on a small piece of land – or any piece of land for that matter. Because when the only thing our two largest supermarkets can come up with to market food to us is – “Down down, prices are down” it really means “Down, down, incomes are down” for the farmers growing that food. Which isn’t the most attractive prospect for farmers’ progeny who can make a far more comfortable living in a trade or a profession or as a farmer-model starring in one of those lush supermarket ads about local farmers.
Lack of organic growers: More and more people want to eat organic; the thing is we don’t have the organic farmers growing the food. As with kiwis there are often only a couple of organic growers supplying particular lines of produce for the whole of Australia. So when we lose a Beenak Farm it can really affect supply, pushing up prices making organics available to fewer instead of more and more. And as a heartbreaking aside; when Ian recently talked about retirement with a local real estate agent, he was advised to rip out his kiwi vines to get a better price from potential lifestyle block buyers!