Growing hungry spuds

Simon GodfreyWhen the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2008, Far North Queensland mixed cropping farmers the Godfrey family felt the impacts.

It was the nail in the coffin for third generation farmers John and Daphne and son Simon, who had struggled to achieve results with conventional farming practices on the Kairi property for some years.

The 157-hectare property of rich, red volcanic soil has been tilled for more than a century, with synthetic fertilisers first used in the 1960s.

Simon explains, “John and Daphne had grown a lot of hay and grass seed and were always very conscientious about the health of the soil and inputs.

“We weren’t getting results from conventional fertilisers and when the GFC hit we lost some of our markets for grass seed and hay.”

After searching for alternatives, the Godfreys came across organic farming and liked what they heard.

In 2010, the family applied to Australian Certified Organic and were granted precertification, triggering a three-year journey to full organic certification.

During the 12-month precertification period, growers must farm organically but are unable to market their products as certified organic.

Simon, 31, says putting the entire farm under organic conversion placed the family under financial pressure.

He says, “Most people we talk to now say you are better off to go one paddock at a time and ease into it for learning and from a financial point of view.

“It put us in a position where we had to learn – and learn quickly.”

The Godfreys decided to farm two paddocks conventionally to ease the financial pressure and continued farming the remaining land organically. (The two paddocks have since been converted to organic.)

They stopped using chemical fertilisers and sprays and worked on improving the nutrition, fertility and health of the soil with biological inputs, green manure crops and legumes.

They started seeing results, albeit slowly but enough to give them the impetus to continue on the organic journey.

In October 2013 they were granted full organic certification.

Simon says, “We cracked the champagne.

“It was a good feeling. We know that we still have a challenge ahead of us to get the quality and production but we feel we are going in the right direction.”

The Godfreys grow certified organic potatoes, maize, hay and silage, wheat and legumes. The maize and wheat is sold locally, fetching a small premium, which Simon says helps compensate for the lighter yields.

They sell their certified organic potatoes locally and to southern markets.

Simon says growing potatoes organically has been a learning curve.  He says, “They are such a hungry crop and take a lot of nutrition and they have a lot of pest and disease problems.”

“We use certain certified organic products for pests and have tried to lift the nutrition of the plants and select varieties that are more resistant to disease and grow well.”

A 100-head certified organic Santa Gertrudis cross Senepol herd, including the first drop of certified organic calves, graze on the grasses.

The breeds were selected for their tick and fly resistance and early maturing.

Simon says, “We are grazing the cattle in a lot more diverse range of grasses and legumes, which is a plus for weight gaining and the health of the cattle.”

The family uses various farming management techniques to restore soil fertility and maintain biological cycles, including green manure crops and companion planting and a no-tilling planter that they modified to suit the farm’s soil.

Simon says, “The planter enables us to plant crops straight into the ground without disturbing the soil, reducing the risk of erosion.”

The Godfreys are quick to point out that while they have achieved organic certification, the challenge remains ahead of them.

Simon says, “We are trying to lift our yields closer to the conventional market. Farming is hard and although organic farming is more challenging, it is satisfying.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel.

“For us organics is sustainable, ethical and has health benefits … and it tastes good too.”

By Lea Coghlan

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