Where are they now: Nathan Free

Nathan Free, Nuffield Scholar

Nathan Free, Nuffield Scholar

Where are they now: Nathan Free

This month we chatted with Nathan Free. If his name sounds familiar that comes as no surprise – in 2014 Nathan was awarded the AUSVeg Young Grower of the Year Award and is a current Nuffield Scholar (2015). He is definitely one to keep an eye on and shows no signs of slowing down. Nathan has been travelling the globe as part of his scholarship and we chatted about his journey so far. From learning more about the organic industry abroad and new adaptable techniques to where he believes Australia is positioned globally in the organic industry.

What have you been doing since your scholarship was awarded?

My Nuffield Scholarship has taken me around the globe. The first stop was the Contemporary Scholars Conference which was held in France in March. This was a 10 day conference including 75 2015 Nuffield scholars from around the world and myself, learning about the global view on world agriculture. The event was a fantastic start to the Nuffield experience and I developed a deeper knowledge of the global food market.

On the 1st of June I left with a small group of scholars to start my Global Focus Program (GFP). This program saw us travelling to 6 countries over 6 weeks to discover the agricultural economies relevant to these countries. My group and I travelled to Singapore where we were given a briefing from the Australian Government and different industry sectors. We then travelled onwards to India, Qatar, Turkey, France and the United States. After completing the GFP program I began my personal study. This took me approximately 8 weeks to complete, travelling throughout America, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and France.

On your personal study abroad what did you learn whilst visiting different countries?

My personal study program was to research topic sustainable organics. My idea was to learn from both research organisations and commercial growers on the most up to date practices in building soil health and growing certified organic produce in an economical way.

While I was in the USA I was impressed with the commitment of research organisations. Universities and institutes are developing new techniques to improve the efficiency of organic production. Additionally some highlighted notes were soil testing specific to organic production, organic no till, premium compost production and weed management.

The Netherlands was a great visit as I got a greater understanding of the supply to developed organic markets, how large scale organic production can work and the assistance it requires.

From production on their mineral rich soils to smart pre-packaging techniques and extensive sales networks, the Netherlands is a great success. Fresh production growers also had a great range of processing companies offering contract based production.

My time in France was based on soil health rather than organic production. It was great to see things that I had learnt in America and other countries were also being used in France. I attended some great informative workshops that discussed crop rotation, soil biology and no till options. A great deal of producers are not using the above practices but the workshops were still full of people keen to understand the principle.

How do you think Australian growers benchmark with horticultural growers internationally?

Organic producers within Australia generally rank lower than the majority of their international counterparts. I believe international research organisations and organic industry groups are a lot more committed to achieving a great result for their producers.

We need to be looking at industry collaboration to develop committed working groups that can effect change in our industry. Building soil sustainability and economical production will be key in building our international recognition. Like any progressive business, we need to be looking at what the biggest factor is holding up organic sales, which in my opinion is price, so we need to be open minded in the way we change and adopt efficiencies.

What is the most innovative aspect you have seen as part of your industry visits this year? Organic no till farming was one of the most interesting things that I have noticed from around the world, and could have great results in Australia if adopted. The key benefits to organic no till are consistent ground cover, low soil disturbance and greater soil biodiversity making organic production more economical. This method has been tried and tested throughout the world with great success. Brand of origin is also becoming really big in America more specifically New York State where locally produced food is pushed by government and respected by consumers. This kind of initiative will be positive for our organic industry in Australia as we have a smaller grower base. Change can be effected quickly, giving consumers a greater understanding of the story of where their produce comes from.

How is your research shaping the knowledge you will bring back to Australia once your Nuffield Scholarship is finished? Some of my goals on my return to Australia will be to set up an organic research farm where growers and researchers can test ideas that will be beneficial to the greater industry, and to work with seed breeders and researchers to develop organic varieties of fruits and vegetables specific to the Australian climate and conditions. My goal will be to improve the sustainability of certified organic industry in Australia, through the whole supply chain starting with the growers, then the packers and all the way to the retailers that are dealing with the most important part, our consumers.

Nathan Free is currently the managing director of Wattle Organic Farms trading as Alkira Organics. Nathan is responsible for vegetable production, packaging, marketing and dispatch. You can check out Wattle Organic Farms on Facebook here