Words Karen Locke Photos Honey Atkinson
Where COLLINS FARM, Atherton Tablelands, FAR NORTH QUEENSLAND
On a day of clear blue skies we made the drive through the mountains and tree canopys into the highest part of Far North Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands to visit a small farm owned and operated by John Collins and his son Adam. We were keen to learn more about the incredible biodynamic garlic that we’d heard the farm was producing.
After a warm welcome and once we’d settled comfortably on the homestead’s large back verandah, we started our conversation on the usual topic you would expect with a farmer …lamenting the weather. At the time of our visit, the usually green and lush hills of the Tablelands is unusually dry.
“The weather is just one of many challenges we’re facing,” says Adam. “And it’s mainly because the price of food is not realistic. If you consider all the costs involved in farming - fuel, fertilisers, machinery, labour - all of these things have increased in price, but food hasn’t. And yet we’re all complaining that food is expensive.”
With conditions like these it’s no wonder so many of our farmers are leaving the land. And Adam says they are seeing more and more of it in these parts.
“30 or 40 years ago, you could live off five acres of spuds. Now you can’t live off 50 acres of spuds. The face of the market has completely changed and farmers need to adapt and evolve. We need to encourage innovation, and realise that change is a good and necessary thing.”
And according to Adam, now is the time for farmers to make a big change. The huge outlays in machinery and equipment of large mono farms. and having prices dictated to them by supermarket chains, means that many farmers in the area are running at a loss.
“They’re all hanging on by the skin of their teeth, they’re being made to farm even though they’re loosing money, because the bank says if they stop farming they’ll pull the loan.”
“Most of the farmers up here live like that - they’re all in massive debt. They can’t see a way out. And they’re often third or fourth generation farmers so they would feel this huge amount of shame if they were the ones that lost the farm.”
But Adam is quick to point out that we shouldn’t view farmers as victims. “We hear farmers all over the country constantly blaming Woolworths and Coles for their situations. But it’s their own doing. They allowed it to happen, it was their choice, they gave their power away. And now they need to take a stand. To stop supplying them. They can turn it around, but they have to be willing to change.”
The Collins farm produces mostly garlic on their 30 acres of cultivated land, but they’ve been expanding every year and now produce several varieties of onions, potatoes, ginger, turmeric and several varieties of ancient grains. They also raise pigs, cattle and chickens.
But it wasn’t always like this. In mid 2000 when John and Adam first moved to the 30 acre farm, they leased a 150 acre property next door and set about growing corn and peanuts for the next five years.
“We had 100 acres of corn and 30 acres of peanuts that we grew semi-organically but mostly conventionally,” says John.
“We worked crazy hard but it was a big mono crop and we got completely wiped out by three cyclones in pretty quick succession. So we decided to stop leasing the neighboring property and just focus on our little 30 acre farm. That’s when we made the decision to go completely biodynamic.”
Biodynamics works with the atmosphere as well as the soil to increase the nutritive value and vitality of the food produced. Adam explains that he believes it is the role of the farmer to provide the best quality of food for mankind, not to just grow food for profit with little regard for the outcomes and effects on the environment.
“Farmers that use chemicals on the land are constantly trying to justify why they do it - you always hear ‘oh, well we’ve got to make a living’ or ‘there’s no other way’. But what they need to understand is that we’re all connected, we’re all a part of this world, and what they’re doing is actually poisoning themselves.”
“All the biodynamic purists were telling me that I couldn’t do biodynamics in the tropics, that I was mad. But that’s just bull,” says Adam matter-of-factly.
After a four week trip to India travelling around looking at biodynamic farms with Peter Proctor, Adam says he knew for certain that running a biodynamic farm in the tropics was totally feasible.
“The principles are similar but there are also a lot of difference to biodynamics in temperate areas.”
As well as hosting school groups and university agriculture students, and offering internships, Adam and John run a number of workshops on their farm - compost making and biodynamic workshops, and of course their horn burial rituals which are famed in these parts.
“I’ve always been known as a bit whacky and a bit of a hippy because we were different from other farmers in this area. We’re breaking the rules, burying cow horns and sacrificing virgins!” laughs Adam.
“What’s really fundamental about all of this is that we haven’t really ever been hungry. None of us have experienced what it is to be hungry. And therefore we don’t have that appreciation when we have food in front of us, when we sit down to a meal.”
“If you go through the whole of history, the downfall of most every civilisation, the main basis, is food. Or lack of. Food security. And it’s going to be our downfall too.”
The food on our supermarket shelves may look wonderful, but that’s just good engineering. It’s nutrient rubbish. And at the end of the day, our bodies need nutrient rich food in order to thrive.”
“We constantly watch farmers in our area sending their produce all the way down to Melbourne, only to find it in our local Woolworths two weeks later. It’s not fresh for a start, and what has it cost the environment? Not just in food miles, but that produce has now been sprayed, polished, and wrapped in copious amounts of plastic packaging. And all because farmers don’t seem to know how to diversify and sell locally.”
“We need to get back to diversity - don’t just grow spuds, grown ten different things. Then you’re protecting yourself as well because you’re less likely to loose your entire crop if something goes wrong.”
“We need a lot more smaller farms growing a variety of food, and a lot more people involved in producing the food that’s needed in every area.”
“And finally we need to take away this consumer expectation for huge selection. Do we really need 10 varieties of apples to choose from? Because massive selection means massive waste.”
Adam is confident that if we can take away that expectation, get to know where our food is grown, and encourage more people to work the land, then we’ll see enormous positive change start to take place.
“We need to return to the organic lifestyle of our ancestors armed with what we have learnt and with the technology we have created so that it becomes an enhancing feature rather than a damaging one.”