Certified organic brightly coloured leaves stretch over a vast expanse. Welcome to Coolibah Herbs, one of the largest suppliers of certified organic salad greens, vegetables and culinary herbs in Australia.
The company has five certified organic farms throughout Victoria and organic has been a part of the company for five years. From initial supply levels of around 500 bunches a week, Coolibah Herbs now sells almost 30,000 units a week of organic spinach, kale, wild rocket and salad mixes. With around 60 per cent annual growth rate, organic now comprises over 20 per cent of the company’s turnover and there are no signs of its slowing.
As certified organic producers, the farms are audited by Australian Certified Organic on site each year and also undergo random audits. Organic farm manager Jason Goodall says the organic farms and products are kept strictly separate from the conventional sections.
Sections of the farm are used only to grow certified organic vegetables. The organic lines have their own crates, their blocks are well signed and some of the machinery is used only on the organic blocks. “There’s a lot of juggling and organising with the organic side of the business because farm management has to abide by the Australian Certified Organic Standard,” Jason says.
Geographical diversity beats climate challenges
“We are successful in producing high-quality vegetables consistently. This is the advantage of having so many farms. If it’s too wet to produce from the Peninsula farm we can source from the farm in Mildura [northern Victoria].”
Jason worked on smaller organic farms before he started with Coolibah Herbs. “I like growing vegies – watching them grow right through to harvest.
“Our biggest challenge is the climate. You don’t know when it’s going to rain, when there might be storms or whether there’s enough water in the dams.”
Control the seeds, lose the weeds
No discussion with an organic farmer is complete without talking about weeds. Coolibah Herbs has a dedicated weed team, which spends most of its time on the organic farms.
The best approach to weed control for this company is making sure the weed plants don’t go to seed. “That’s the secret,” says Jason. “A clean farm is easier to farm than a dirty farm.”
Employ the good bugs
There is a misconception that certified organic farmers can’t use any pest controls. They can but their use is well controlled and monitored.
Coolibah uses copper and oil sprays if pest attack is a significant problem. The company also uses integrated pest management, which relies on beneficial insects to prey on pest insects.
Conventional benefits from organic practices
Michael and Jenny Bogicevic started the company in the 1980s. Michael says in the early period, under conventional farming practices, worms were few and far between. He says under organic farming they’re everywhere. “We’re seeing progress with heavy applications of organic compost/manures and we try to apply a lot of what we do on the organic farms to the conventional blocks,” Michael says.
Flavour is back
A farmer of 35 years, Michael says he was initially sceptical about organic vegetables tasting better than conventional ones, but he says there is a difference.
“There’s no doubt about it. I picked some broccoli the other day from the organic block and I hadn’t tasted broccoli like that for 10 years. Organic does have better flavour. It’s so different.”
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