The family-centred, lively-minded thinking people, the ingenuity and creativity of Roni and Cathy Cohen, the integration of productive and 'life-style' activities and the proximity of ocean and bushland wilderness make this one of my favourite properties to visit. The property is certified organic by NASAA and produces Organic honey and bee products, garlic, almonds, mixed fruit and vegetables.
Roni Cohen was born in Israel, in the first generation of 'Kibbutznics'. Roni says that this experience caused him to have "ideology in my blood".
Roni grew up in a community populated with many with Zionists, socialists, communists and various other outlooks, all striving to create a new society. Roni describes the Kibbutz as "an organic community", on the edge of the Negev desert, based on intensive mixed agriculture. At the same time it was "technology driven". They were opening new land, experimenting with new agricultural systems, and used high inputs and high labour involvement to produce two or three crops per year from the same piece of land. The Kibbutz had 400 milking cows, 1 million egg birds, orchards (mainly oranges) and vegetables.
Roni became interested in organics as a development of his involvement with ecology. He worked as a nature guide in the Sinai Desert and at an outdoor education school. About this time, when Roni was doing his military service, he read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Later Roni worked for the 'Society for the Protection of Nature'.
Cathy was a New Zealand visitor to the Kibbutz and a voluntary worker. Several years after meeting, they began a relationship and traveled to Thailand, India, Nepal and New Zealand, with the aim of returning to Israel to live. While visiting Cathy's parents in NZ, Roni was struck with how good it was. Roni is still obviously impressed with how rich and productive the land and opportunities are in the region, compared with the hard labour of the Kibbutz and the desert. The couple re-thought their plans to settle in Israel, where land is so expensive, and came to Australia to look for opportunities.
In Perth Roni worked in his trade as a welder, and Cathy worked as a nurse. When enough money was accumulated, they started to look for suitable land. When they found their 80 acre block, close to the sea, with a river, bushland and an $18,000 price tag, they thought it was too good to be true.
They were the first to buy a smaller block in the vicinity, in a land division, from a local organic - fertilizer manufacturer, Bob Douglas Hill.
Roni and Cathy made their claim on the land and independence from the start, by refusing to borrow money - a philosophy that they still rigidly stick with.
The land was rejected from soldier settlement schemes after the last world war. There had been an unsuccessful attempt to farm it in the 60's, which failed due to low nutrients, high roo numbers, possums and the lack of good roads.
Roni and Cathy built their own house, from clay excavated from a dam site. Like everything Roni does, it is stamped with his natural curiosity for different things, imagination and creativity. The carved timer doors, lead light windows and the home-built compost toilet are a few features which give the house a special character. Stepping up into the toilet, the door is heavy to open. The toilet seat is carved from a hollow log. The full-glass window-wall overlooks native bushland that is alive with birds and reptilian visitors. Stepping down, the door opens easily with the aid of gravity. In this way Roni has helped to overcome one of the main limitations of compost toilets - neglect of aeration. The toilet door is connected to the aerating arm, so that you cannot enter or leave without performing the necessary stirring action.
The first Cohen child, Shaheen, was born nine months after the couple wrote the cheque for the land purchase.
Roni says "organic was an obvious choice for use. It needed low financial input to get started, and I had lots of time".
"We realized early on that Phosphorous and humus levels were low and that we had high acidity (pH 4.5 - 5). We cleared yaccas and some regrowth, with the old 1952 tractor (called 'Freddy'), which is older than either Cathy or I."
Roni also identified low -lying areas as having or at risk of salinity problems.
Roni says "we were free from any dogma about growing things".
"We looked around and saw trees everywhere, so we thought that we should grow trees. Our first major planting was tagassaste, which we planted, fenced and irrigated. There was about 50 - 60% failure due to wallabies, but we eventually established a plantation, which dropped the water level and eased the salinity. We treated acidity with a tonne of Little Sahara lime to the acre, and we used North Carolina rock phosphate. We also used blood and bone from the island abattoir and recycled everything we could."
Roni describes his system as "only harvesting the cream". He says that with no debt, he can set his own rhythm and pace. He refuses to get big or to become stressed and quietly says "we are not rich in money terms, but what we do have is a very good quality of life."
Roni has always had a garden, chickens and fish from the sea and river, which contribute to his self-sufficiency. The tagassaste was originally planted to feed cattle, but this project was short lived. "Mistakes" says Roni, "sure we made lots of mistakes. Our system is so low on inputs that we have made room for mistakes. I would rather make my own mistakes than borrow them from others."
The cattle failed. Latter a small sheep enterprise failed. Latter still a meat-bird chicken business failed. The problem was always with marketing, especially from such a remote base as the south coast of Kangaroo Island.
As a witness to the meat bird operation, I believe it was one of the best and most sustainable I have seen, and the birds were highly praised and sought after by top chefs such as Cheong Liew. Roni offered significant competition to the local abattoir (also growers) - the only one he could use for his birds. He had too few birds to send to Adelaide, and some bad deals along the way. Roni tells a familiar story - a small producer forced to deliver when the birds are ready, to accept the price offered, and with an occasional bad debt souring the business.
The birds were free ranged under the tagassaste (15 - 20,000 trees), living in portable houses, but roaming where they will during the day. They fed on tag seed and leaves, weeds and occasional inter-planted crops, excess from the garden and a little purchased grain. A little garlic in the drinking water and good organic tucker was all they needed to thrive - provided the hawks stayed away.
Throughout this time, the Cohen's mainly lived off the property. They worked a little off the property, and did not take social security. Cathy was able to make a good income from nursing, while Roni managed children and worked the property.
Large amounts of compost have been used to establish and maintain the orchard and garden and this appears to have corrected the indigenous trace element problems. Compost materials include kitchen waste, feathers (and paunch) from Roni's own chooks, sheep manure from local KI sheds, weeds, seaweed and other green wastes. An elevated sickle bar mower can be used to cut tagassaste for the compost.
Roni and Cathy decided, on the basis of experience, to use the advantage of remoteness and to concentrate on non-perishable products, products that could hold "the marketing gap - they could be stored before sale, to obtain the best price".
The first crops were garlic and almonds. Organic certification was another obvious choice. Remoteness makes compliance with the standards a lot easier.
The current emphasis is honey. Kangaroo Island only has the quiet-natured Ligurian bees. It has few bee diseases and lots of healthy bushland. Honey is not perishable and it is possible to get a premium product, and a premium price.
Roni says "garlic is also good, because we get the water at the right time". (Summer water is a problem - the dam leaks and as the river level falls, salt water creeps upstream from the sea - although rainwater, dam water and river water are networked, supply still falls low during the summer). "We have bred our own strains of garlic and bees because we have the time to select only the best - no-one is pushing us."
Almonds are less successful. Having netted to keep birds and possums away, the rats have moved in. Living this close to the bush does present challenges with wildlife, such as the large goanna that was found in the chook pen during my last visit.
The tagassaste also provides nectar for the bees, and an occasional harvest of seed.
Roni has been instrumental in starting and continuing the local Landcare Group. He says "we are vulnerable to salinity, because we are low-lying and close to the ocean." The group was started eight years ago and has been very successful, with 30 - 35 farmer members from the 700 square kilometre catchment, about one-fifth of the island. The group has managed grants totaling around $400,000 to fence bush, especially the creeklines. Roni comments "there are now many young farming families in the area, who see the need for action, and the future looks very promising. We have created wildlife corridors, protected coastal vegetation and buffered the National Park". Roni's current Landcare project is to connect the South Coast National Park with the Goss and Flinders Chase Parks. He says the committee has a vision "to live together sustainably with nature, with the minimum effort".
"Recent development" says Roni, "has not abused the environment".
"Knowledge", he says, "came here before the bulldozer".
On his own property, Drooping Sheoak, preferred food of the rare Glossy Black Cockatoo, has been planted in large numbers.
I asked Roni about his vision for the future. He said it is "to provide an example which people can follow."
"Being an island. We have natural quarantine. This is really an opportunity to create "island agriculture'. We cannot compete with the mainland because of freight costs, so we have to turn remoteness into an advantage."
"The whole island could become organic."
"We have roads, power, infrastructure and smart people."
The conformity, complacency and blasť attitude of Australians is mind boggling for Roni. His experience of hard work and striving on the Kibbutz compared to the ease of life in Australia is always with him
"Some people see what a paradise we can have here" he says, "while some only winge that we are too far from the city."
Some ideas which Roni shared with me were for islanders to purchase their own boat, to put a limit on the number of tourists and to create a queue, like Norfolk Island has done.
"Because we are an island, we can isolate pests. Even the terrible Bridal Creeper has been contained and isolated, and eventually we will grub it out."
"At Naturally KI, we are almost drought free, with reliable waterways providing 100 gigalitres of water".
Roni is also active in the Lions, the School Council and the Karratta outdoor school. He says the school "lets kids peep into the bush" and he enjoys his role as night-time story teller. Roni tell ecology-based stories, his accent providing added character and interest. He says "being with the children is the highest value of all" and he is proud that Shaheen represented South Australia in the recent Canberra Rural Youth talks, and in the SA Youth Environmental Forum. "She is the next generation of environmental activist, and has been to Canberra twice last year."
Roni says "farmers judge people by deeds not words. They must see success, and a good system which makes sense, and they are not fooled - their whole focus is on survival."