Pioneering organic wheat

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Alan Druce, from Kamarah, New South Wales, is a true organic pioneer. At 85 years of age, he has been an organic farmer for 52 years, and was one of the first certified organic grain farmers in Australia.

Sitting down to the kitchen table, Alan says, “I think I can say I know a little bit about farming, but I don’t know much about cooking.” Luckily Alan’s wife, Jessie, does – and she makes excellent bread from their own flour.

Alan is so full of ideas about farming, health, the environment and philosophy that a conversation with him is long and involved, swapping between farming memoirs, references to research papers and his particular approach to life.

Alan believes the world is heading for a food shortage, and that other countries, China in particular, are buying up Australia’s biggest and best farmlands and investing in United States seaports, an aircraft manufacturing company and huge areas on which to build big cities to prepare for future food needs.

Healthy soil, healthy food

Even more important, in Alan’s view, is the decline in the nutritional value of food, which he attributes to the decline in soil health. Poisonous sprays are getting into the food chain and are impacting on and even killing the soil biology. It is the soil biology that manufactures the essential nutrients that health so needs.

Plant and animal breeding, use of artificial fertilisers, overreliance on processed foods and poor food processing methods are all contributing factors. So Alan says, “The bottom line, in my book, is to grow quality food that’s rich in nutrients.” And the way to do that, he says, is to improve the soil. “It is vitally important to work with nature, not against it, to encourage the ecology, especially the soil ecology. It all revolves around the soil ecology, and yet we know so little about it.”

IMGP0031Organic pays off

Asked about how he came to organic farming, Alan says, “In early 1962 I started reading books about organic farming, written by Sir Albert Howard, Friend Sykes and Newman Turner among others. The principles they explained made so much sense to me I immediately started making changes.”

“My father bought Green Grove in 1918 and farmed it with his brother. Later, when I came home from high school, we purchased the farm next door. They used conventional farming methods and were focused on productivity rather than sustainability. By 1962 it was the most eroded, wheat-sick and worn out farm in the district. And, of course, bare ground sheds water like a tin roof and just erodes. I knew I had to do something, and although I was way ahead of my time, and friends, family and neighbours thought I was nuts, the ideas of these early organic farmers seemed like the way to go.”

Alan says he originally made mistakes and lost yield, but the experiment has paid off. “You can’t expect to change decades of farming overnight but in time the improvements have come to bear fruit.”

Green Grove is now a productive 1100-hectare property, growing about 200 hectares of cereal crops each year and running about 800 sheep and 45 cattle.

Top quality lamb, naturally

Alan has moved away from pure Merinos to a Suffolk Dorper cross. Alan says both the Suffolk and Dorper are well known for the quality of their meat, and the resulting cross proved to be capable of producing excellent meat even during the long drought – and there is no need to mules them. He says, “I could not see organic wool commanding as big a premium as organic meat.” Alan does not castrate his sheep either, as he says the lambs grow out quicker when left entire.

He says, “Castrating lambs or bull calves is tedious, messy and cruel, and it gives the animal a major setback, so we stopped castrating, despite the prejudice in the meat trade against entire animals.

“Today that prejudice is disappearing, mainly because of research from Europe and also by Professor Johnson and Professor Yeates at the University of New England, New South Wales. They found that at 12 months old, bull calves and ram lambs have 18–20 per cent more meat and 18–20 per cent less fat than their twin castrates do. Bull calves and ram lambs are more efficient at turning grass into meat (or wool) than their twin castrates or twin sisters.

“By leaving an animal entire, the animal’s natural biology is permitted to produce no more and no less than the ideal amount of hormones, the animal is saved from a cruel event and the end product is a healthier, happier, better tasting product, resulting in a healthier, happier consumer.”

The meat from the certified organic flock fetches double the price of conventional lamb. Alan is also pleased with returns from the cereal crops. He says, “While the conventional wheat price is falling, I can sell my organic wheat for about 250 per cent markup compared with the price for conventional bread wheat. I have had Korean buyers on the property who are offering even larger premiums, and who are keen to buy the entire crop.

He says, “It takes some time to build up the soil biology and to correct your mineral deficiencies – more than the three years it takes to get organic certification – so there’s an economic battle for a while for new organic farmers before they attain better yields and better prices. Therefore, I think the 100 per cent price increase over conventional prices is important to encourage others to make the change to organic.”

What next?

At 85, Alan is a good advertisement for his theories about nutrition and health. He has only just retired from the local tennis club and still does most of the stock handling, although he only assists with the cropping program now.

Alan’s property is probably the most studied organic cropping farm in Australia, with many researchers from the NSW Department of Agriculture, CSIRO and the Australian National University conducting trials and sampling his soil. He hopes that when he is no longer able to farm, the property can be transferred to another organic farmer, or even used as an organic research station.

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