What do you get when you mix two determined farmer girls with an acre of good land? Rad Growers, that’s what.
Erin O’Callaghan + Belinda Joy Sheekey are two fine people that we first met as students during two of our Permaculture Design Certificate courses.
Since then, they’ve teamed up to farm seasonal vegetables on an acre of land at Bungowannah, 20km from Albury.
The land belongs to Erin’s family, they’ve been growing since Winter 2015 (so this whole situation is brand new) and currently the Rad Growers enterprise format is selling vege boxes to the local Aulbury area. But bigger plans and dreams await.
It’s been amazing to watch their separate journeys and various farm internships converge into this enterprise, so we thought we’d better get the lowdown on what’s happening on their acre, and in their hearts also.
What’s the backstory for each of you that led you to this point?
E: I grew up spending a lot of time on my grandparents farm, so a love of the land became ingrained. After high school, I moved to the city and studied physio.
I returned to Albury a couple of years ago when my Grandmother fell ill. During this time, I spent a lot of time on my Uncle’s cropping and sheep farm, and found such fulfillment from getting my hands back in the soil.
From that point I looked into my options, and took the internship path at both the Old Mill Road and Buena Vista Farm. This gave me the confidence to feel that I could have a real go at making a viable business from small scale regenerative farming.
B: I met Erin really briefly just over a year ago when she came to visit us at Transition Farm (where I had interned, and then worked for the past year and a half).
This past winter, Tahlia (another Transition Farm intern) and I visited Erin and she described to us what her plans for the land were and she joked that we should both move to her place and we could stay in tents and all farm together – which is the dream right, to farm with good mates!
I called her a couple of weeks later and said, ‘so, about that idea to farm together.. how serious were you?’ We talked it through, and decided that I would come and help her for her first year of growing and we worked out a profit share arrangement.
We have both have really similar values and visions, so working together has flowed really naturally.
What’s the dream for RAD Growers? How do you see this enterprise unfolding?
E: We have oh so many dreams! Sometimes we get carried away thinking about all the things we want to create, but for now we’re focusing our energies on establishing an awesome weekly veggie box program that we hope to translate to a CSA scheme.
I really believe a CSA can provide an opportunity for local peeps to connect with their food and the growers who grow it. We would love to give our eaters the chance to experience and get involved in seasonal activities, such as garlic planting and pumpkin harvesting.
Through this connection we hope to instill an appreciation for the seasonality of produce that we feel has been lost due to the cheap, unrealistic hyperavailability of out of season fruit and veg that exists in our mainstream food system.
What’s in the ground this season? Is the plan to stay diverse or to specialize once you establish your market?
E: The aim is to produce a box of diverse vegetables which families can easily cook and enjoy. We grow what’s in season, and what our climate and land can support.
We want to ensure that the box is diverse for several reasons – to keep the veg exciting and delicious for our eaters, and also to maintain a balanced eco-system on our farm.
B: I think the diversity of the farm is incredibly important. We had a bit of a set back a couple of weeks ago – on our first official harvest day, we woke to a frost – a frost on the 27th of November.
It knocked out all of our beautiful eggplants, capsicums, chillies, pumpkins, cucumbers and also our most recent tomato planting. But because we’re diverse, we still had lots of things to harvest, and we’re hoping our summer autumn stays warm enough to harvest from our replacement seedlings!
For us, this is a great example of why it’s important to grow a diverse range of produce – we’re able to build a resilient eco-system which doesn’t rely on the success of a single cash-crop.
What do you see as the differences in growing in the edge of a regional town, as opposed to near a city?
B: I think the city vs regional town difference is similar to weighing up the benefits between sandy soils and clay soils! There are pros and cons to both situations, and both require a lot of work – of communicating the message of the farm, of engaging people who are wanting to connect with their food on different levels, of describing the benefits of eating locally and seasonally etc.
We’ve had a lot of support from the local community which has been really encouraging, but we’re also realising that like most new start-ups, our business will take time to establish and that we need to put a bit more time into education and communicating the importance of local and seasonal eating than we anticipated.
Where do animals fit into the RAD Growers enterprise?
E: We have 80 laying birds due to start laying any day. The plan is to use mobile units through the market garden after crops have been harvested, to feast on insects and weeds and to fertilize the beds.
Our market garden is bordered by a red gum forest, which is proving to be a haven for foxes. Bel spotted two fox cubs wrestling in our onion bed the other day, so we’re in the process of consolidating a fox protection plan.
In the mean time, the chooks are living in a converted RTA smoko van, seeking shelter from this early heat we’ve had through spring and now summer.
The rest of my parents land is agisted to our neighbour, who grazes cattle, but in time I would like to crop that area for chicken feed, cut mulch for the market garden, and follow this crop with chickens to graze and fertilise this area.
In time I can see potential to introduce more animals into our system, but there is much to get a handle on before we can venture there.
Tell us about the water situation there…
E: Our water is from a bore, which runs on solar power. We mulch our beds thickly, and except for our directly seeded beds – which are watered by sprayers – the rest of the market garden is irrigated by drip tape.
How are you managing nutrient cycling?
E: We aim to keep our inputs as local as possible, and use as many on-farm resources as we can. We are using crop rotations and cover crops to create a balanced and diverse ecosystem above and below the soil.
We make compost using local café and supermarket waste, manure from a local beef farm and race track, and have grand plans of upscaling. We’ve recently had a tip off for a potentially large volume of murray river carp that our local council are planning on burying. We’ve lined up some spent straw from a local farmer who was planning on burning them.
Bel recently did a soil fermentation workshop with Agari, and we’re interested in experimenting with weed teas, worm leachate and fermented compost applications.
We’ve just built a little compost loo as well – which we’re pretty proud of! Once this breaks down, it will be a great nutrient-rich addition to our re-vegetation plans for windbreaks and perennial plantings.
How are your plans to offer a CSA going?
B: At the moment we’re offering our boxes for purchase on a flexible week-to-week basis, which gives people the opportunity to try it out to see if it works for them before they commit to a full season of vegetables.
Our customers can purchase just one or two weeks, or they can order a box for every week of our growing season. We’ll keep selling this way as we establish ourselves in our first year of growing, and it gives us the opportunity to introduce the CSA concept to eaters that understand and appreciate nutrient dense, seasonal, and fresh food.
It may take a little more time then we initially anticipated.
Give us your top five tools in this first year of growing…
E: Oscillating stirrup hoe – It wasn’t a tool high on my list when first planning the market garden, but with our heavy clay soil we’re finding it’s the first tool pulled from the shed when weeding is on the cards.
E: Opinel pocket knife – when I have it, I use it all the time, when I don’t have it I’m looking for where I last had it, because I need it all the time
E: Tractor – with a background specializing in ergonomics, a tractor was high on my list before starting market gardening. At the moment we use it for moving the chicken caravan, bed shaping, and flail mowing, but I hope to be able to tinker with some other attachments to improve many efficiencies in the market garden. I hope to farm for many years to come, and thus far this piece of machinery has pulled us out of more then one sticky situation.
B: Mobile phone – We have crop profiles saved to google docs so we can look them up at any time. We use the camera to take photos of bugs. We use notes to take records or planting, and make daily lists. We use the timer to remind us to turn off irrigation and reminders of when to follow direct sown crops with flame weeding. Erin also has a direct line to 1800 Oldmill Road, while I frequently shoot off a text to 555-Transition farm.
B: Books – Over the years there have been books that have inspired, and books that have educated. Vandana Shiva, Wendell Berry, Eliot Coleman, Jean-Martin Fortier, and Bruce Pacoe’s books have been dog-eared and underlined, and frayed around the edges from constant use.
But lately, Erin and I can’t seem to get enough of Pam Dowling’s book Sustainable Market Gardening. It is so clear, so logical and scientific, and it helps that she is farming in a similar climate to us.
We refer to her as our friend Pam, the invisible advice-giver on our farm (shout-out to Esther from Pickle Creek Farm for the recommendation).
How did your Permaculture Design Certificates help out?
B: I’m so grateful for doing my Permaculture Design Certificate when I did. I completed Milkwood’s Part Time Urban PDC in Sydney during my last semester of Development Studies at UNSW and it helped me to realize how much I love working outdoors with my hands in the soil. Interning at Milkwood Farm in Mudgee inspired me to see the possibilities for a life outside the city and gave me the practical skills that my university degree lacked.
E: For me, I went into my Milkwood PDC with a pretty clear idea that small scale regenerative farming was the direction I was headed in. My PDC gave me the beginning of the foundations of knowledge I would need to build on to start this quest. During this course I met some great people, and it was their encouragement that gave me the confidence to start forging my own path.
What would you say to a keen bean who wants to start a similar enterprise to RAD growers, but doesn’t have any direct growing experience yet?
B: Start somewhere. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a teeny tiny apartment in the city, or a suburban block, or if you have an acre or a 100 acres to play with. Get some microgreens or herbs growing on your kitchen bench, plant some tomatoes in the backyard, or plant a few fruit trees – observe your space, accept feedback, accept a bit of failure – it’s all just an opportunity to learn.
Or, if you’re really itching to get into the swing of growing – approach a grower you admire, ask if you can volunteer or intern, and soak it all up. Don’t postpone happiness.
E: What Bel said + if growing is you passion, but land access is a barrier, there are so many doors still unopened in our current local food system. You just have to have a crack, so get out and start knocking!
More farmers like this, please.