I have known about "Central Coast Organics" for many years. At one time Bill Denniss had over 100 growers supplying his retail store and managed several properties himself. On this trip, it was the road sign which attracted my attention, as I drove down the road from Calga to Wollombi. Segments of a cut orange form the 'O' from 'Organic'. The sign is one half of the old sign from the store, and after some recent health problems, Bill has now settled to a quieter life, as a BFA certified mixed fruit and vegetable grower.
I turned into the driveway. A little way up was Bill, on his knees, picking bunches of flowers from the large daisy bushes which lined the track. Before the introductions had finished and I could explain why I had stopped to photograph the sign, another car pulled into the drive - a couple wanting to buy organic vegetables. While they were off in the paddock selecting fresh vegetables for Bill to cut or pull, I studied the long grass on the driveway verge.
"Something is working well here", I thought. A dozen varieties of flies were hiding in the grass. Some were brightly coloured, with metallic blue bodies. I suspected that these were very desirable parasites of snails and other pests. There were large, Cranefly-type insects, which I had not seen before and could not identify. I'll eat my hat if they weren't good guys too. There were predatory shield bugs, hunting beetles of various sorts, ants, a large black cricket, numerous spiders and a diversity of other insects.
The property was attractively laid out, with flowers between the rows of vegetable, sequential plantings and a range of grazing animals including cattle, sheep, horses, ducks, chickens and a turkey. The produce came straight out of the ground, as the farmer and customer stood together in the field and selected size and maturity of the produce. The conversation between the grower and customer ranged from weather to growing methods, freshness, chemical residues, price, supermarket dominance and directions for travel. A really useful exchange of information and views was happening, and twenty minutes later the car pulled out of the driveway, laden with fresh-picked organic food.
Bill and I talked for the next half hour, as the light faded. The next day, I was able to return to see more of the property in daylight. It was the sign which attracted me, but it was the conversation which kept my interest.
Conversation focused around several topics which loom large in any organic producers concerns - weeds, market competition and certification. It was obvious that Bill was less than happy with some of his experiences in the industry. Competition between the larger stores and wholesalers for access to produce, the problems of getting a fair deal from the wholesaler and gaps in supply have lead to jealousy and rough-dealing. These are problems in horticulture generally, but the small organic market is an intense microcosm of all possible industry problems. Lack of supply leads to bickering over produce, attempts to circumvent supply chains and, inevitably, accusations about bad practices from competitors.
The last matter involves the certification organisations. Certification is central to the growth and success of our industry, but we still have a long way to go before we have it right. Cost, quality, the bona fides of produce, complaints mechanisms, infighting between certifiers and domestic lack of legislation are only some of the issues which growers have legitimate concerns about.
Inspired by complaints from competitors, Bill reckons he has been "checked out" more often than any other grower, with no problems found.
Bill gestured into the paddock "they have asked me how can I grow with all the weeds, - but how can you grow without the weeds?"
Bill Dennis crops
Bill was a little embarrassed by the weeds, we all have times when the jobs get a little ahead of us, and we agreed that it was desirable to top the mustard before it flowers. I property was not untidy or exceptionally weedy, but growers such as Bill often feel they could be more on top of the basic tasks. I could not help but relate the weed cover back to the diversity of beneficial insects on the road verge.
"I don't like to use anything really, and I try to rely on healthy soil and natural biological control" said Bill. "I use Dipel very occasionally and, if I need anything else I would use a home made garlic and chilli spray."
"I would never use pyrethrum, as it kills the beneficial insects."
I asked Bill how he got started with organics. He told me that he had a store on the Newcastle - Sydney Road 27 years ago, eventually opening a stall on the Sydney markets and developing markets for 123 growers. "I started out advertising 'home grown, chemical free' produce. I first heard the word 'organic' from a Canadian traveller, who saw my sign."
"I developed the logo with a friend, who was a commercial artist. I cut open the orange and saw the potential, and he drew it."
"Some Japanese saw the logo 15 years ago and wanted me to send carrots to Japan. I resisted at first because it seemed too hard to get a fresh organic carrot all the way to Japan."
"The logo seems to work and brings all types of people in. I have had visitors from Russia, Japan, Canada, Germany, China and Canada. Some of my produce has been sent produce overseas, mainly through Adelaide agent Sam Mercorella. These days I can't even grow enough produce for the local market."
Some of the systems which impressed me most were the long rotations (at least three years before the crop is replanted on the same ground), sequential planting, the strip hoe and the diversity of grazing animals.
Flower lined driveway
Bill said there are problems with sequential planting. "It sounds OK but the influence of the moon is large." He shows me crops planted at two-week intervals, where some crops have easily caught up with previous plantings - "I have to pick crops together, even when planted four weeks apart, because of the influence of the moon."
The strip hoe can be used for various purposes. The most common is for hoeing over the top of young plants (such as lettuce). The hoe works effectively to control weeds on either side of the row, leaving the crop intact.
Bill and I agreed that a diversity of grazing animals is as important as any other diversity. Each species will favour different weeds, have different dunging habits (and values) and have different behavioural characteristics. Bill said "they do some damage occasionally, such as these broccoli which were damaged by geese, and they need to be managed, but they do a lot of good too".
Bill is an experienced organic farmer, with a practical, confident approach to his land and farming system. Remarkably, he is the third generation of 'natural farmers'. His father and both sets of grandparents were natural farmers, "doing many of the things which would be called 'Biodynamics' these days.