Organic market gardening – live from Sydney
It was tough but in essence I had to choose between Permaculture Teacher Training (which in the long run is something I really would like to do) and Organic Market Gardening (which in the medium term will become one of our income streams). With the direction we’re taking into more sustainable living, the reality is, you simply can’t do every course you want to or even need to. Some stuff will have to come through self-study, reading, trial and error, ride on past experience, etc… So by applying some holistic decision-making, it worked out that I should do the Introduction to Organic Market Gardening course. Not that I’m disappointed – in fact, it was a massive eye-opener and a great learning experience.
I had some reservations when I saw the venue was in the centre of Sydney. Sure it’s about small scale farming, but in the middle of a city? However, from the moment I walked into Pocket City Farms, I was so happy I’ve experienced the place. It is such a great example of a multi-use community space – with the market garden, café, Acre (a farm-to-table restaurant which serves up some really quality food), educational spaces, kids’ play areas and more. In fact, I got some really good ideas to mix in with what we envision Dreamland to become one day.
Multi-use spaces at Pocket City Farm
Our course instructor was Olivier Sofo, who farms in the southern highlands of NSW with his partner Falani at Living Earth Farm. I’m not repeating his whole CV here, but he has a viticulture and chef’s background – so he understands the requirement for good quality healthy food. He has managed and farmed small to mid-size farms, and is very knowledgeable about a large variety of climates, soils and vegetables. In fact he’s like a walking encyclopaedia, and he doesn’t mind sharing his rich knowledge and experience. What was so useful to me was that he could answer any question or discuss any topic from a backyard domestic veggie patch right through to a large commercial scale farm. That was so very useful, especially as we dabble with those questions whether to stay urban or whether to go mid-size farming.
I really like his focus on organic farming and that they also combine it with Biodynamics, as we also do. It’s interesting to hear how Biodynamics are working well for them, and how it is applied on a larger scale.
Then there’s our course coordinator, Adam, who represented Milkwood and made sure everything ran like clockwork – which it did. Man, he is just as knowledgeable on so many areas – for one, he’s a very inspirational walking manual on natural beekeeping.
I’m obviously not going to repeat the whole course here, but I’d like to highlight some areas we’ve covered.
We were thrown slam-bang into the deep-end with the business plan for a market garden. Thank goodness this is an introduction course, as it gets very complex and very detailed – like so many beetroots per square meter per bed x 8 weeks to mature (with different lengths of times in spring, summer and autumn), which then translates into so many thousands of beetroots divided by the number of beets per bunch times the dollar rates per bunch. And so many meters of irrigation pipe at y dollars per meter, and so on.
That is exactly the type of kick under the backside we needed. If we want to make urban farming part of our income streams, we really have to approach it much more business-like. I mean, you can blunder ahead and put a few hundred zucchinis in the ground, but if you don’t do your homework, you may end up mulching ¾ of them into the compost pile.
One of the key takeaways I leant from this session is that we would have to use our space a lot more efficiently – at Homeland and at Dreamland. We’re not going to be able to have a healthy mix of members as clients if more than half of our properties are under invading kikuyu grass or nitrogen-gobbling (but water-saving) mulch. Not to mention our neighbours’ Eucalyptus trees that are slurping up all our precious water…
We did a few practical lessons too, testing some of the equipment and putting some of the theory into practice.
Here we covered soil health, where again the role of Biodynamics featured. We covered seeds, seeding, transplanting and irrigation – all in quite a level of detail.
In the practicals, we learnt how to make seedling mix and sow properly and consistently into the seed trays. We learnt to direct seed and transplant seedlings on a large scale.
Seeds and seeding
During these sessions we’ve learnt so may practical tips how to do our vegetables so much better with a lot less effort. Not to mention labelling, note- and bookkeeping, which we’re not very good at or consistent with (yet).
Here we covered crop rotation, crop planning, succession planting and all the factors that affect your crop planning, seeding, transplanting and harvesting. Olivier shared with us how they do their crop and seedling and transplanting plans. As a practical group exercise we did a very high level crop plan for a biggish market garden. It’s really interesting to see how different people approach it, and also what tools and representations work for them – from spreadsheets, to lists, to drawings to pin-up boards. I can see we’re going to have to make space for a large pin-up board – I just love that physical visual representation.
We also covered harvesting – discussing the processes and efficiencies, as well as the equipment you need to have in place. I always knew harvesting early in the morning was very important, but obviously if you’re operating at scale you have to sequence your harvesting, because you just cannot cover all your crops early in the day. So it’s very important to know which crops react to heat and damp and so forth. Together with harvesting goes marketing and selling – there’s a delicate balance you need to manage between harvesting what is required and not letting produce go to waste either.
We ended with some discussions on tools, pests and pest management, irrigation and a few other related topics. It’s very interesting how the tools used by a typical market gardener differs from what is sold to the domestic gardener in the common hardware warehouses. You can actually work more efficiently with a smaller set of tools, but which is more tailored for exactly the task at hand. Of course in our very diverse environment, where we are taking care of trees, both in an orchard and food forest setup, producing compost manually and working on raised beds, we may need some of the tools from both these diverse tool-sets. There is massive difference between managing a pre-tilled no-dig vegetable bed and preparing a big enough hole in hard-pan clay for a bare root tree.
Olivier demonstrating market gardening tools
People make the world go round
As with any course, you also learn and gain immeasurably through the interactions during the course. People’s dreams, aspirations and inspirations; their challenges, approaches and solutions all contribute to the experience. We had a smallish class – about 12 people – a wonderful group from a wide variety of locations and backgrounds that were all willing to share and participate. It really was great sharing with and learning with and from everyone. I would love to see each one’s journey from here onwards.
The really interesting question for me at the end of this all is – so where is the balance? We need to balance the freedom of a permaculture-based food forest with rigours of a market garden business and somehow find that magic equilibrium between nature taking care of itself and us as farmers guiding it to optimal productivity while only spending the minimum dollars, time and energy.
Fasten your seatbelts guys, we’re in for a very interesting ride. Fortunately, I’m loving the ride. It just feels that it’s our destiny to jump on this bucking bronco and gallop ahead.
I have learnt so many lessons during this course – my notebook is full of things to investigate and an equally long list of to-do items to add to the list. I would pick out the following highlights:
- We need to be way more “scientific” – in terms of our business planning, site planning, crop planning and so much more. We don’t even know what our yearly rainfall is, or how long our carrots take to mature. (OK I do know that our water tank capacity is enough to see Homeland through a dry summer.)
- We can grow our vegetables so much better and do our bed preparation, seeding, transplanting, care and harvesting with so much more “precision” and through that efficiency – both in terms of manpower input and productivity of the output.
- We need to have much better utilisation of our space. We currently have massive areas that are way under-utilised, such as vast square meters under mulch, and that big permaculture no-no – lawn. When these guys talk about half an acre under vegetables, they mean every square 10cm has a vegetable growing in it, productively.
A common problem I notice in some agricultural operations is the eagerness to expand into new production areas before perfecting what is already in production. More resources are needed for a larger area than a more efficient smaller area.