Ian and Caryl Cairns operate a small organic farm at Liffey, in Tasmania. The farm is certainly one of the most successful owner operated organic vegetable enterprises in Australia, and the stunningly neat, organised and well maintained garden is always a pleasure to visit.
Ian works full-time on the property, and Caryl works part-time off the farm while helping with the vegetables several days a week, especially with preparation for sale.
The farm combines many features, including wonderful scenic views; a high level of self-sufficiency; a very high level of return from a small land holding; seasonal extension of production using unusual varieties, greenhouses and cloches; a high emphasis on sustainability, low input and biodynamic approaches; excellent marketing and presentation; and aesthetic appeal of the garden itself. These features, combined with the hospitality of the growers, friendly and lively conversation about production methods, sustainability, political activism and the management of the organic industry itself, make this one of my very favourite farms.
Originally BFA certified, Ian told me on a recent visit that he dropped his certification for a few years, feeling that he did not really need it. This is understandable, as the quality of the product is such that it will easily sell itself, and Ian's reputation as an organic grower is well established. However eventually Ian felt that "the whole system would fall apart if everyone did this", so he then sought and obtained certification by TOP (Tasmanian Organic Producers). As local production is all Ian needs, and local supply meets his personal criteria for sustainability of the farm, Ian is happy with the TOP certification.
Vegetable production is on 1420 metres of cultivated raised beds, 1200 mm wide, of which about 1000 m of bedding is under cultivation at any time. The production area is set on one corner of a 13-hectare bush block.
The soil was originally very poor white sand, but has been developed with regular additions of compost and is now dark in colour. Its sandy nature permits free draining of moisture. The garden is also 'early warming' due to its location on a perfect northeast facing slope, and does not frost. Natural rainforest water from the gully is piped in. Ian is fortunate to have the first use of the mountain stream. The main input into the garden, indeed almost the only input other than seed, is the manure that Ian collects (in exchange for vegetables) and composts with crop residue. Most compost is made according to the Indore system, but Ian also develops some long-term biodynamic compost heaps each year.
Ian has specialised in production systems for Mesclun salad ingredients and has an obvious flair for all aspects of the business including growing, marketing and display; skills which Ian has honed in the garden over nearly twenty years, after a previous career as a landscape gardener. Mesclun salad is a loose, ready-made salad and herb mix, increasingly common in grocery stores and supermarkets.
All plantings are based on a version of the French intensive method. Features of the garden include the wide variety of greens planted throughout the year-long production regime, the selection of 'garnish' crops, the inter planting of the ingredients, well maintained paths and raised beds, and high rates of compost application.
Ian aims to produce at least $10 per square metre from crops such as spring onion or Mesclun ingredients, but with a rotation of two or four crops per year as well as green manures, he would like to achieve $50-$60 per running metre of row. This makes the garden a very high return proposition, from a small area under cultivation, but there is a major input of knowledge by the grower to maintain this level of return. Managing the progressive plantings to give a yield of suitable quantity, quality and variety requires great skill. Ian is one of the very few Mesclun producers to have all year round production and to grow all the ingredients to make up the mesclun.
The Mesclun made by Ian and Caryl is delicate, colourful, well presented and in great demand. It is sold loose and in 150-gram heat-sealed bags. These bring in approximately $14 per kg. Ian has chosen to sell only through small stores, not supermarkets as a lot of time is required to clean and process the ingredients. A small workshop has been set up incorporating stainless steel preparation surfaces, a triple stainless steel sink for washing leaf vegetables, a stainless centrifuge for spin drying the wet leaves, ultra violet water filtration and a cool room. Two experienced people can wash 10 kg of mesclun per hour.
When I first saw this product, about ten years ago, it had even more spectacular colour and variety. Unfortunately one of the negative impacts of HACCP regulations is that the variety and colour has diminished, as it is not possible to adequately wash the flowers that were once incorporated into the Mesclun. "This mix was a true Mesclun, although the borage and calendula were always the most time consuming aspect of the growing. Now it is really more of a restaurant salad mix than a Mesclun," Ian said.
Ian can no longer use some of his preferred salad ingredients, such as chicory, because the bitterness of these greens does not meet peoples taste. Once, when he was the only producer, he could use varieties that suited his system and his own taste. Now there are more imitators, he has had to bend to the market. "The chicory was a good plant to have in the rotation, as it was a pretty-much bomb proof summer root crop".
Ian is humble about the development of his garden. Knowledgeable visitors however, will immediately see the enormous effort in work, organisational know-how, research, forward planning and stick-ability which a garden of this size requires; as well as the knowledge of species and varieties and their specific advantages, preferred seasonal growing periods, and special needs, from seed sowing requirements to seed collection. For instance, Ian grows 'spinach beet' as a good winter producer in this climate, and prefers shallots to garlic, as they grow faster and produce a higher return per metre of row.
A remarkable feature of this property is that there are no snails. This is very good for a Mesclun producer, as snails can reduce the yield from each bed. Snails could also require more checking and cleaning or sorting of the harvested leaves. Ian is very careful with any introduced organic matter, so as not to bring pests and weed seeds onto the property.
Other main salad ingredients include cress, mustard, bok choy, mizuna, rocket and a variety of very colourful lettuce. The mizuna can be harvested after as little as three weeks of growing, in summer.
Almost all work in the garden is done by hand, with assistance from a small tractor, used as a motorized wheelbarrow, for mowing and some compost turning. Ian says he still likes to make some compost by hand as well.
An interesting labour saving innovation, which preserves the organic nature of the recycling system, is the use of weed mat. At the end of a crop, when the bed is finished, the residue is quickly knocked down, and weed mat is pulled over the bed and left for one month. With the adequate ventilation through the weave of the mat, the remains of the crop quickly break down in situ, while weeds are also controlled. This technique not only saves labour, but the following crop can be established sooner. This is important when cultivating such a small area, as Ian requires each bed to produce a number of crops per year. It also preserves soil health and reduces the need for tillage.
The incredible diversity, the amount of sheer loving effort in compost and special attention that has gone into this property, it's almost-weed-free status and the colours of the mesclun ingredients and flowers (which still grow around the garden, even if not for inclusion in the salad), make Ian's garden a joy to wander through.
An addition to the property since my last visit is a small vineyard of Pinot, Merlot, Gamay and Chardonnay grapes, planted on a double Geneva trellis. The grapes are grown for home consumption, and Ian makes his own wine. He clearly finds both the wine making and consumption to be relaxing pastimes after working in the garden.
Caryl spends more time in the vineyard than Ian. She was able to establish the vines by entirely organic methods, whereas many organic viticulturists establish the vines with herbicide before converting them back to organic. Ian used weed mat under the vines, with dolomite gravel mulch around the holes cut for each vine.