David and Pauline Roby live in Alstonville, in northern NSW, where David grows avocados and vegetables and Pauline works from home as a creative artist. Davis has long been an active member of the Tweed Richmond Organic Producers Organisation (TROPO).
The Roby property was certified by NASAA in 1990 and I first visited David a decade ago, when avocado and custard apple were the mainstay of the farm, on a conference field trip, and was pleased to find in David another advocate of organic growing, compost and sustainability, who looks to his surviving natural bushland and the principles of ecology for inspiration. David is now growing vegetables again on part of the property. "A return to where I started" he says, "as my first growing experience was vegetables."
David told Acres he first started to seriously think about organics and sustainability in 1987, when he was frightened by the concept of the ozone whole, and how it brought home the message about global scale degradation. He said "until then I had thought about what I was doing, but had not realised the need to think both upstream and downstream from my own operations." He continues "I also realised that just adopting an alternative lifestyle was not enough, somehow everything has to be sustainable, and organic ideas have to move into the mainstream." At this time he spent several years recovering from an accident, during which he attended the Aquarius festival. He was annoyed by the "garbage" he heard spoken about organics, and determined to find out more for himself. He attended the first of the sustainable agriculture courses run at TAFE by local trainer, David Forrest, was inspired, and the two have remained friends since that time.
After concentrating on tree crops for some time, David was motivated back to vegetables by a mixture of tree health problems in one difficult site, chiefly Phytophthora, which is present in the soil and would always have made that area problematic. Phytophthora is a disease of woody plants and does not affect vegetables. He is also involved with the Rainbow Region Organic Market, at Lismore, and fonds it convenient to grow almost entirely for that market, although he still sends some avocados down to the main Melbourne wholesale markets.
Phytophthora is a significant problem for the avocado industry in this area, and David continues to battle the fungus in the remaining orchard, where the trees survive better. He has become quite knowledgeable on Phytophthora control, and advocates high organic matter inputs, mainly by mulching and composting, and retention of natural leaf drop. He makes a hardwood-based compost for the avocado trees, which is made in a long windrow. David has a unique approach to compost turning, and hires in a tracked excavator, whereas most farm-scale growers use a bucket, forks or rake. David says the excavator can turn 150 metres of row in half and hour with less turning and back and forth that a front end loader.
David says the avocados make a good leaf litter under the trees, but the natural 'Big Scrub' rainforest leaf litter contains much more leaf diversity. He strives to emulate the example of the natural areas, although he knows that monoculture production has significant limitations. The compost and various plants introduced, or tolerated, under the trees helps to diversify the habitat and provide different niches within the mulch and soil-surface layers, David is also planting more bush food crops, and sees them as a good way to include cropping and income diversity, while also building environmental diversity and enhancement into the farm.
David does keep one Siteria paddock, just to harvest the grass for compost making.
Sheep are also used to graze weeds in the orchard. They graze the canopy up a little, but there is also little need for other weed management in the orchard.
There are few serious insect problems. Fruit spotting bug does cause a hard raised area on the fruit, without causing serious devastation. David has tried spraying with pyrethrum, but that is expensive and it is difficult to get good coverage on the large avocado trees, so he mainly tolerates this pest.
The vegetable production area is very much focussed on the Rainbow Region Organic Market, and on self sufficiency. The market is held every Tuesday morning and Thursday evening in Lismore. David is a regular and attends both markets. He says some buyers do on sell the vegetables, through stores or home delivery, but most are individuals or families. The focus on the market significantly impacts on the design and planning of the business. Firstly, there is the need to offer some diversity. Individual shoppers will only purchase small quantities of each vegetable type; therefore to increase the 'take' per customer, it is necessary to grow a range of produce. The garden is therefore designed on small patches of frequent successional plantings, which very useful for supplying the Roby household own table too.
To develop the vegetable garden, David removed the avocado trees and ploughed out the mounds they were planted on. From that point he has tried to minimise use of the plough. He plants sorghum after the crops is finished, which he slashes about three times for organic matter. He then pulls out the rows with the toolbar on the tractor, ready for the next crop. The sorghum provides ample organic matter and smothers the main problem weed, which is nutgrass. He may also plant Dolichos lablab if the area needs nitrogen. David usually manages two crops on each bed before starting the process over again. At the time of my visit, near the beginning of October, Brassica crops are nearing the end of their cropping life, and will not be planted again through the main diamondback moth season. He will sometimes spray Brassica crops with Diple, but usually just stops production before the problem gets bad. At this time, near the end of the winter and before summer crops are mature, beetroot is a mainstay. David says he can sell 80 bunches of beetroot per week at the Rainbow Region Organic Market.
David uses a manure dropper to spread the hardwood compost over the vegetable beds. It is an ideal way to cover the beds, and just the right width. David is now starting to make a more bacteria rich compost, with softer materials, as Elaine Ingham recommends it for annual crops. He finds this compost does not pass through the dropper as well, so there may be some adjustments to make to the technique.
David keeps a separate area for seed production. He reasons that it it is too difficult to produce sed from the main cropping area. Due to successional plantings, and the need to fit in green manure crops, he finds it easier to trash the crop residues and old beds at the end of the pick, rather than leaving old plants to develop seed and interfere with routine development in the main garden. The seed area doubles as an experimental area, where new varieties can be tried out, to test their suitability. David is also well aware of the requirement to use organic seed from next year. He produces a loty of his own seed, and some of the market growers help each other out with seed exchange. He sees that some growers are lagging with preparations, but believes they will catch on after a few problems show when the new rules come into force.
There are various experimental and fruit salad gardens around the property, including an old permaculture grove, in need of renovation, and a dense plantation of coffee, Davidson plum, xxxx and tamarillos, behind a wallaby proof fence. The old custard apple orchard has now been replaced by other orchard trees, especially lemon myrtle and riberries, however there is also a selection of other crops, for evaluation, home supply and interest. Even young jackfruit could be found, and a magnificent magenta lillypilly.
David says he has always had three main crops, to give diversity of income over the year, and so that they act as insurance against a bad season in any one product line. For instance this year the avocados have failed in the Northern Rivers area, so vegetable and bush foods will have to support the farm. However David looks forward to a big avocado yield next year, as the trees will build reserves this year, with no fruit to support.
David and Pauline have 21.5 hectares, of which only 4.8 are covered by certification. The remainder is bushland reserve. Although NASAA would like David to put all the land under certification, he is reluctant, as he will have to kill the invasive woody weed, camphor laurel, with direct injection of Glyphosate, at some time in the future.
David's property is a popular destination for field trips and conference tours, as it is very scenic, and there are many organic principles and innovations on open display. David himself is also an articulate and entertaining speaker and a keen advocate of sustainability and down-to-earth organic philosophy and practice. He is helping to keep his local community well fed on carefully grown and loved, nutritious organic vegetables, and to feed their heads with good ideas and the example of his farm, and his open, friendly, inviting personality.