BEYOND LOCAL: Growers are keen to share their experiences of farming.
BEYOND LOCAL: Growers are keen to share their experiences of farming. Contributed

Samantha farms food for Australia

SHE is a farmer, a marketer, mother, wife, organic local food ambassador and now Granite Belt horticulturist Samantha Palmer can add Australian representative to her slightly daunting list of responsibilities.

The personable local is one of six Australians to be invited to the international conference of global family farming movement La Via Campesina in Jakarta next month.

It is the first time Australian farmers have been invited to join with representatives of the 200 million strong movement.

The movement represents small-scale, often family orientated agricultural operations in 58 countries.

For Mrs Palmer, it represents a rare chance to connect with like-minded rural producers from across the globe.

She is keen to share the challenges and experiences of establishing sustainable family farms.

And at a personal level, the La Via Campesina concept resonates with the local grower, who with her husband Ray, runs Symara Organic Farm, growing a large and constantly changing selection of vegetables, herbs and berries.

While their passion is growing quality organic food, sustainably, for their local community, they believe sharing knowledge is integral to success.

 

In recent years, this quest for information and shared experiences has taken them to places like South Korea and Japan.

They have also visited farms and orchards across eastern Australia.

"We've made the most significant changes to our own operation after visiting other farms and learning from other landholders," Mrs Palmer explained.

"La Via Campesina appeals to us because it represents small family farmers, peasant farmers, women farmers, people who often don't have a big voice.

"It is an umbrella organisation in many countries representing more than 500 farming groups from various countries.

"Australia doesn't have an affiliated farming group, because La Via Campesina's hardline approach to agriculture means their stance doesn't sit easily with existing Australian groups.

"(It is) anti-free trade; anti-genetic modification; the stuff that typically destroys small farming families."

An optimist, like so many in her industry, Mrs Palmer believes Australia may well follow the US, where there is an increasing number of small-scale niche farms.

"We believe that you don't have to get bigger or get out. There are different ways to stay farming.

"For us, that has been diversification and then direct marketing, as opposed to selling through conventional markets.

"The number of people venturing back into niche farming is increasing but like us, they are not doing it in a traditional way."

Both Ray and Samantha came from rural backgrounds. He was an agronomist, she has worked in natural resources and they admit they came to farming slowly.

"Then we decided, if we were to give this a proper go, both of us would have to commit to it 100%, so we transited and we haven't looked back…

"We have about 121ha and just two of those are devoted to our operation, so we are very, very small.

"We started with a very small range - like squash, cabbages, zucchinis - and we sold to the central market.

"Then we started selling through local markets, then niche farmers markets in Brisbane and then we offered produce boxes direct to customers on the Southern Downs.

"Today our produce boxes make up 50% of our income, with farmers markets accounting for the other half."

She said variety had proved the key to success, with the couple growing up to 70 different vegetables and fruits at their peak.

Nowadays, they have about 40 but are constantly trialling types and varieties.

"Diversity is definitely the key," she said.

"People are so used to going to the supermarket, so we try to replicate that as much as possible."

And while weather conditions have proved challenging, they haved trialled things like low poly tunnels through winter to boost production. It is limited water that impacts most on their operation.

"We are also organic and that is challenging," Mrs Palmer said. "Our other major issue is weeds. We are currently using biodegradable cornstarch plastic to combat them, which is expensive but not as costly as labour."

Despite the challenges, there is a big upside to their operation - they can connect directly with their customers.

"When we were selling through the central markets, everything was always too small, too ripe, too long, too short, too big, it was really deflating," Mrs Palmer said.

"Now people tell us how good it tastes or how fresh it was. And our customers want to know the story... they want to know produce was grown locally and without chemicals."

But she said running a small and an intense operation still had its challenges and being efficient was critical.

"We don't even plan to get huge. It just doesn't go with our values. But we are interested in getting more efficient and we are constantly re-evaluating how our marketing is working.

"But farming on such a small scale makes employing people hard.

"So we use Willing Workers on Organic Farms. They are mainly backpackers on their second holiday through Australia. We feed them and provide a bed and they work for us in exchange.

"We have also launched a new intern program.

"People who are interested in learning about farming - and there are so many keen to grow their own food - can visit our farm, work alongside us and learn from our mistakes. We have made so many mistakes over the past five years, and if we can save some people from making the same ones, that is good."

The Bush Tele will talk more with Mrs Palmer after her trip to La Via Campesina's international conference in Jakarta in June.



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