Enjoy good food – it is the best medicine

Hugh, Phoebe, Alice, Michelle and Chris McColl

 

Summary of your family and farming enterprise

We are organic apple growers at Kalangadoo in the Limestone Coast of South Australia. We own a very small orchard of about 12 acres and share farm another small orchard which has managed to support us and our four kids over the past 10 years.

We met in Alice Springs working for Dept of Primary Production, and spent 20 years employed in horticulture from table grapes and dates in Central Australia, a palace garden in the Middle East, chestnuts in north east Victoria and apples at Kalangadoo.

Ten years ago, with four children, a small orchard, a big mortgage and no other source of income, we decided it was time to become self employed.

Our aim was (and still is) to grow  the tastiest, most nutritious fruit and fruit products for the local community, and to do so in a sustainable way. This is quite at odds with most fruit growers whose aim is to make the most money by growing the maximum tonnage of visually perfect fruit .

There is tremendous satisfaction in propagating a tree, planting it out,  training it and watching it come into bearing. You nurture the fruit through the growing season  – then for just a week or so it is right for picking. And if they are tasting wonderful, you pick it, wash it and brush it. And if it looks close to perfect you put it in its little box. Off you go to the Farmers’ Market and hand it to the very person who will probably eat it. And with any luck next week they are back sharing their stories of eating or cooking those apples and keen to sample the new varieties that have become ripe since last week.

Michelle and Chris with last apples of the season

We have selected 30 varieties out of the 100 varieties in our arboretum, based entirely on taste and disease resistance, with absolutely no regard for appearance.  We sell straight from the tree without cold storage, and guarantee all fruit is sold to the consumer within four days of picking. We process “out of date” fruit into juice or dried apple.

Our desire to sell our very best produce as close to home as possible was no doubt influenced by our time in the Middle East. Some of the best dates in the world are grown around the Arabian Gulf. But if you want to sample them, odds are you will need to travel to the Arabian Gulf. Because the attitude there is you save the very best quality for your family and friends. The next best quality you sell in the local market. And the rest is what you export. The antithesis of what most Australian producers think.

To achieve “economies of scale” and to be “viable”,  modern horticulture in Australia relies on ever expanding areas of single crops (monoculture). This goes hand in hand with chemical fertilizers, pesticides, mechanization, and reliance on a contract with a major supermarket chain or export. But there are down sides – declining levels of nutrients in the food supply, chemical residues, high reliance on diminishing fossil fuel reserves, foreign ownership of land and water resources and depopulation of rural areas.

In contrast a more holistic approach has diversity at every level. From microbiological diversity in the soil and on the leaves, to diversity of the plants and the animals. We started with five varieties of apples – we now have commercial numbers of over 30 varieties, plus stone fruit, olives, chooks, geese and pigs, as well as organic vegetables grown by another family on our land.

We believe the way of the future is small mixed farms supplying seasonal organic produce to local markets -just as happened in the past.

Our four kids are now in Adelaide, delivering apple juice to shops and attending Farmers’ Markets, whilst studying at University and pursuing their own dreams.

 

For you, what is the best life style factor that you enjoy as a farmer?

Working in the natural environment is pure joy. Even more so when you farm organically, and work with biology rather than against it, when using pesticides and artificial fertilizers. Tree frogs, spiders, wasps and chooks helping to control insects. Beneficial micro-organisms helping to control pathogenic micro-organisms. Goshawks and falcons chasing away fruit eating lorikeets.

There is a lot to be said for no traffic jams, clean air to breathe and nutrient-dense tasty food to eat.

Even if our kids never return to live in the country, all four of them value the experience growing up in the natural world. We also enjoy being self-employed, and working and living together every day.

A natural lifestyle

What do you foresee as your biggest short and long term challenges in farming?

Growing fruit in a holistic way is such a different proposition from conventional orcharding. Our main challenge is to gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of the orchard ecosystem, so we can help it to become more resilient to environmental threats.

Happily natural!

In the longer term, we see the challenge is to develop a model which shows a small mixed farm can be sustainable in the modern world.

A further challenge is educating the consumer to appreciate the true value of food, and to be prepared to pay for it, and to develop a system where farmers are rewarded for nutrient density/flavour rather than for visual appearance.

What do you wish non-farmers/city people and the Australian Government understood about farming? What message would you like to put on a billboard in Collins Street?

Of all the links in the food supply chain, it is farmers who face most of the risk, yet receive the smallest percentage of the retail price. So if small family farms are to continue to exist, and if consumers believe farmers are entitled to a reasonable income, people need to pay a reasonable price for high quality food.

Currently, the premium achieved for organic produce is not sufficient to offset the increased labour costs involved in growing apples organically. There is no real financial incentive to grow apples organically.

Healthy soil leads to healthy plants, which results in more nutritious food and therefore healthier people. (And that is why we farm organically).

When supermarkets boast that they are driving the price of milk, fruit or vegetables down, it is at the expense of a farmer’s livelihood. And ultimately, unreasonably low food prices are not good for the consumer, because food quality will continue to deteriorate, health problems will continue to escalate and food security will become a major concern.

Our billboard message would read: “enjoy good food – it is the best medicine  – and be happy to pay for it “

Comments 0

  1. The McColls are an incredible example of getting it all together so we can enjoy superlative fruit.
    We still see produce declared to be “export quality”, presumably far too good to waste on us. But the McColls are absolutely focused on delivering the best to us here.
    They know their stuff scientifically as well as horticulturally – and there always seems to be a new enthusiasm to extend it all further. They are the best of Slow Food personified.
    Great pin-ups for the Year of the Farmer.

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