Mel Edwards
Mel with his compost
Mel with his compost

It is nearly twenty years since Mel Edward's experience with The Organic Food Movement, the first organic certification program to operate in Australia. The Organic Food Movement did not last long, but the combination of farmer and property survived to become "Yulti Wirra Gardens" organic farm.

After all this time Mel finally believes that he has learnt how to grow organic produce and that in the last three or four years the slow development of poor native soils under compost and organic management has paid off.

Disillusioned with his Geologists employment, Mel settled down to produce something worthwhile from the earth, rather than rip it up for short-term gain. Inspired in the early days of the Soil Association of SA by Lady Eve Balfour, Sir Albert Howard and others, he learnt to make compost and to make plants grow. But the promise of healthy food from healthy soil was learnt step by step, with some painful and costly lessons along the way. To begin with soil was not healthy and nor were crops. At least during these years of soil improvement and hard labour Mel could enjoy the natural setting of this 30 Ha property among the native bush remnants on the surrounding farmland, adjacent to the spectacular Deep Creek Conservation Park and within whiff of the salty breeze from the 'Backstair Passage', between the mainland and Kangaroo Island.

The strategy for soil development included deep loosening, minimum till, green manures and removing the grazing stock. Mel refers to this plan as "cattle off, chisels in". He believes in the resilience of natural systems and their capacity for self-repair, if given the right conditions.

Mixed cropping at Delamere
Mixed cropping at Delamere

The main crops are strawberries and vegetables. Vegetables are planted in mixed beds of about three species, in a system similar to the "French intensive' method. Corn, silver beet and bush beans are a typical combination. Other crops grown include carrots and beets but the three major lines are celery, leeks and snow peas.

Celery is a very disease prone crop, which enjoys good soil and constant moisture supply. Few successful organic celery growers can be found anywhere, so demand for this crop is good. Snow peas are grown in beds which look rather weedy, but yields are good so Mel is unconcerned. The pea climbs the weeds and stays off the ground, the green manure left after the crop is more useful, with increased organic matter for turning in or composting and presence of weeds provides valuable habitat and diversity for benefical insects.

Three main crops grown on the farm, strawberries, celery and beans are salt sensitive. The creek water which is used for most irigation is about 2000ppm salt. Careful management of water additions and occasional irrigations from the dam is therefore necessary, but Mel has not seen any signs of salt stress.

Mel is contemplating returning to brassica production, which was a specialty for Yulti Wirra gardens. Several years ago the entry of a large producer to the organic brassica business made it impossible to compete. This grower has now left the industry, which should allow small producers to find economic returns from broccoli again.

Compost is the main input on the property. Finding enough materials to make compost is therefore one of the main tasks and problems. Much of the pelletised manure fertiliser added to the property over the years was used via the compost. In the past large amounts of manures and straw were imported from the surrounding area and mixed with vegetable trash. More recently a forage harvester is used to bring in meadow hay from the grazing paddocks. This permits greater quality control on the raw material and reduces potential for contamination from these sources.

A recent discovery for Mel is a commercial worm cast supplier. He supplies a worm compost with which Mel is very happy, despite the high cost per tonne. The product is booming with life. Mel's eyes light up as he picks through the heap looking for worm eggsacks. "Each one of these is twelve worms waiting to hatch" he says, sifting the small yellow egg-cases from handfuls of black, sweet smelling compost, "nothing I have seen makes soil come to life like this stuff".

Although he has seen many pests in the past, few problems remain. Mel regards this as payoff for twenty years of investment and toil, and the result of soil development using organic techniques. The establishment of control organisms for major pests over time has also contributed. Trichogramma wasp is established. It is useful for control of cabbage white butterfly. Ladybirds are visible as we walk around the property. This year no permitted fungicides have been used on any crop either. This is an unexpected pleasure for a strawberry and celery grower and certain evidence that something is working right.

The interplanting of species assists with pest and disease control. It also provides some income protection. If the year is too wet for strawberries, the celery will grow better.

Mel and I discussed the fox terriers which are kept to control rodents in compost and in the strawberry patch. These are now bred on farm and the progeny sold. The understatement contained in this relevation from Mel is an archetype for organic growers. What started out as a solution to a pest problem has become an enjoyable hobby or pastime and produces at least a partial return on investment.

The strawberry patches are rotated around the farm. Three years of berries are followed by snow peas, then celery or another heavy feeding crop. The land can then be returned to berries.

An important limitation on production is reliable labour, especially in this quiet area, remote from population centres. Mel has many enquiries for more produce, especially from interstate, but is reluctant to expand beyond a size which he can handle himself, with some casual picking and packing help from the few locals who Mel can trust. Strawberries are a fragile crop. Their attractiveness and keeping qualities are severely reduced by rough handling. Therefore a caring attitude to harvest is required. While this come naturally to the farmer who has laboured and cared for the crop, it is not easily found in itinerant labour.

However new markets are being developed and the pressure to expand is being felt. Woolworths has developed an organic section in 5 targeted stores, which Mel supplies. He is keen to support this initiative as the network of organic stores in Adelaide is insufficient. Several excellent stores concentrating on organic produce can be found in the city, but more outlets are needed.

Mel Edwards
Mel Edwards

Mel's advice for new organic growers is "patience, the system does workafter a time". He also stresses the need for soil development, and the ability to take some setbacks in the early years. He also laments the lack of co-ordination in the marketplace, which sees growers competing with each other instead of co-ordinating their supply and assisting everyone to make a living.

As I prepare to leave, the white cockatos soar screaching out of a magestic old Eucalyptus viminalis; a wedge tailed eagle is gliding by overhead. For me it is a symbol of the wildness of this beautiful place.

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