CLEAN AND GREEN: Alstonville organic farmer Dave Roby sells his produce at the Lismore organic farmers’ market every Tuesday morning.
CLEAN AND GREEN: Alstonville organic farmer Dave Roby sells his produce at the Lismore organic farmers’ market every Tuesday morning. Jamie Brown

Alstonville farmer has sustainable focus

DAVE Roby's organic farm, clinging to the edge of the Alstonville Plateau near Uralba, is a study of the underlying philosophy of the sustainable farming movement.

Here, on red soil nourished with compost created from sawdust and chicken manure, organisms in nature work in harmony to create abundance - and not all of it for mankind.

Out of this rich tapestry, spread across 20ha, Dave cultivates enough beetroot, rhubarb and avocado fruit to make a simple living, selling direct to keen customers at the Lismore organic farmers' market Tuesday mornings.

Dave is only the caretaker, working hard to simplify and minimise his involvement.

"I am more interested in the systems than in the end product," admits the former chemical farmer, who moved to organics when the hole in ozone layer made him realise that everything we did was inter-connected.

Before that watershed moment, in the late 1980s, Dave was working hard to make a living off the land by following best practice - and that meant calendar spraying his stone fruit, custard apples and avocados for pests and weeds using powerful chemicals to create bright and blemish-free fruit.

Back then his mentor was a South African importer named Cookie Leon, who pioneered avocado growing on the Alstonville Plateau.

Of course, the approach was strictly commercial, with organic farming being the furthest thing from this man's mind. In fact, Cookie called it "muck and mysticism".

In some ways he wasn't far from the mark, with Dave recalling the early days of the Aquarius Festival, when sustainable agriculture was way more mystical than scientific.

"I was involved in the Aquarius Festival but the fact that there was no science behind the approach never attracted me to organics," he said.

But after taking part in one of Dave Forrest's organic farming courses at the local TAFE college, the new student realised that the key to sustainability involved using nature's order rather than opening a jug of pesticide.

Back in those days a conversion to sustainability was mostly done off one's own back.

"We pretty much worked it out ourselves," Dave recalled.

For instance, when he stopped spraying avocados with copper oxychloride to prevent anthracnose he found the problem didn't get worse.

"When you create a sterile environment it will be quickly repopulated by pests - often faster than by the beneficials," Dave explains. "It's like when rabbits breed faster than foxes."

He also found that the odd plague of monolepta beetle would scar the skin of an avocado but the flesh would remain unharmed.

Dave found that the beetle was attracted to new red leaves which tended to flush after an application of urea.

By using slow-release fertiliser, in the form of compost and rock phosphate, the growth of new leaves was more subdued and the monolepta beetle tended to target other trees in other orchards grown conventionally.

"Everything with organic farming is about biology," Dave said. "But with conventional farming everything is about chemistry."

As another example of soil biology at work, Dave points to the role "exudates" play in an orchard.

Tree roots exude a goo from their roots comprising protein, sugar and carbohydrates, which feed a range of micro-organisms in the soil. Some of these bugs eat other bugs and, when they die, their combined nutrients are released.

By spreading copper and even urea, that balance is disrupted and the only recourse is to spread more of the same.

"I had a woman visit my farm who also had an avocado orchard and she asked why there were no large piles of leaves under my trees," Dave said.

"It turned out that on her farm copper oxychloride on her leaves had affected worm population in the soil so there was no leaf digestion."

Selling the fruit

Of course, it is one thing to grow sustainable food and quite another to sell it.

Even in the organic farmers' markets, customers rummage through crates of fruit and vegetables looking for "best" quality.

"When people ask me for the 'best' fruit available, I ask them, 'are you the best'?" says Dave, with a wry grin.

"Personally, I demand that everything I eat is 'adequate'."

And, of course, that philosophy is an essential adjunct to a sustainable food future: We need to eat more of what we grow locally, and to choose local foods that are grown in-season. And shiny and firm are not the best attributes when it comes to eating quality.

When customers complain about Dave's organic produce, he offers to replace the bad for good. And always gives customers a baker's dozen, rather than the exact amount.

But all the kind marketing still hasn't swayed the consumer educated by the marketing campaigns of supermarket giants and reality cooking shows.

"If I was a dictator, I would take away people's food choices," Dave states.

"Here on the North Coast we should all be eating chokos, Jap pumpkins and taro root because they grow well with no inputs like fertiliser."

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