On September 2, 2015, Rosnay Organic was honoured to be presented with one of three Australian Government’s Innovation in Sustainable Farm Practices NSW Landcare Awards. Below is some of the story behind the award…
Background – The Big Change
In 1995 the Statham family made a big change in their lives as farmers, selling their wool property in northern NSW and buying a 140ha irrigated property on the Belubula River near Canowindra, NSW Central West. The farm had been intensively cropped with sheep and wheat for decades, and had organic matter of 0.25% and a pH of 4.5. In 1997-8 they did a detailed soil survey (140 x 2m deep pits), converted the property to organic farming methods, and redesigned the farm as an organic Community Title plan now known as Rivers Road Organic Farms (RROF).
Over the next years they planted thousands of native trees between the farms, 20ha of winegrapes, 10 ha of olives and 0.5ha of figs which are now sold under their “Rosnay” labels. They have used many organic farming techniques, from the Yeomans plow to biodynamics, in the aim of growing the organic mater and life of the dusty, dispersive soils. They grew potatoes, melons, wheat, mustard and lupins and are now part of an amazing group of organic growers cooperating loosely as self reliant growers, sharing irrigation infrastructure and commons planted with natives and now abundant in birds and kangaroos.
The soil organic matter has quadrupled and pH returned to neutral under organic horticulture and time control grazing by one of the RROF neighbour’s certified organic sheep. Weeds are being controlled using a mix of grazing and low impact cultivation tools. RROF’s commonly owned irrigation system uses cutting edge monitoring and control technology from the US (Ranch Systems LLC).
Rosnay is a diverse family farm enterprise which spans production, processing and tourism. Productivity of our crops is on a regional average and in difficult years such as the end of the drought, the vineyards have proven more productive with far less input. In 2012 Richard and Florence Statham’s son Sam won the inaugural NSW DPI’s Organic Pioneers Award.
Innovative farm management practices
At Rosnay we began using a “shotgun” approach to rebuilding soil – applying as much as 10 tonnes per ha of composted feedlot manure to new vineyards, along with lime and basalt dust, rock phosphate, worm juice, microbial brews, and biodynamic preparations. The return of soil friability and crumb structure, microbial life and micro nutrient availability was almost instant, but at a high initial cost. In later years we have relied more on cell grazing, focusing on ground-cover growth and nutrient cycling through sheep to build organic matter. Biodynamics are still used, and less manufactured and transported inputs are used.
Initially we always believed “weeds are there for a reason”, but perennial tussock grasses under the drip systems eventually defied this approach. In the vineyard, our initial complete opposition to under-vine cultivation gave way after a study trip to hot-climate French organic vineyards which clearly had sustainable systems using low impact cultivating methods, and after which we purchased a german “Clemens” weeder which has resulted in healthier vines and reduced irrigation requirements.
Our experience of organic farming has included other difficult lessons in dealing with new pests for which effective organic controls did not exist, such as when lace bugs exploded in numbers in the olives at the end of the drought. The subsequent loss of production led to our largest distributors taking on imported suppliers, but we are now growing through it and will be much more prepared if there is a similar future event. In the same wet year, however, the vineyards outperformed the conventional vineyards in the region, due to fungal resistance.
Our first farm field day was in 2000, and Richard and Sam are both active in regional grower associations. Today the “field days” are coach bus picnics, social events and film nights on the lawn.
Productivity under Organic Management
Under an economic, quantatative analysis, organic farm productivity is lower on average. However the difficult years are when the innate resilience of organic farming systems are obvious. In 2011, Australia literally ran out of vineyard fungicides, conventional, and then organic. According to our suppliers, Australia used as much fungicide in that season as it did in the whole decade before it, when growers who had irrigation had no disease pressure during the drought. And how to close to witholding periods were they used, we wondered. However we had no more infection than normal, with minimal sprays and no system fungicides. An empirical study by phone to some fellow organic grape growers confirmed that we were not the only ones to find that our organic vines were totally resistant to late season fungal infection. In fact the fruit we delivered to the crusher were the cleanest at the winery (Windowrie Estate) and our 2011 vintage reds are as good or better than other “better” years.
Of course this is a positive example. In the same year our olive trees suffered from the wet season. And during the worst drought years yielded much less than conventional vineyards using fertigation whilst we relied on grass and weeds being grazed for nitrogen. However in a world of increasing climate extremes, productivity in difficult years should still be the benchmark for measuring sustainability.
Cooperation with others in sustainable/innovative farming practices.
Rivers Road Organic Farms is an amazing group of organic growers who we are proud to be one of. As a group of like minded growers with divers backgrounds, we are learning from eachother constantly and developing our own farm systems accordingly. Apart from typical strata title type governance, there are no rules in regards growing, other than the adherence to organic farming systems and certification. The result is a rich patchwork of different approaches that allows us to learn more again. At present there are five growers actively living and growing on the property with more planning to relocate permanently in a few years, and we look forward to seeing what will unfold in the next decade.
The Stathams enjoy being part of regional farming bodies, and Sam is currently chair of the Cowra Region Vineyard Association, which despite lower member numbers in recent years, has made the bold claim of having the highest majority of organic farming members of any wine region in Australia – 4 out of 5!
On the ground, we have learnt that some organic, or “deep green” philosophies dont always work, or only work when the system is stable. Sometimes we were still closed minded. For example, weed management, where we have finally realised that the undervine tussock grasses will forever robbing both the soil and the vines of water and nutrients, if they are only mowed and grazed. Once we put in the dollars and effort to control then, the annual “weeds” can come and maybe even improve the soil if they are deep taprooted winter annuals.
Sometimes we have had to engineer new solutions. During the olive lace bug outbreak in 2011, we had to have 100% foliage saturation with Eco Oil (vegetable oil) to get any amount of control, so with the help of a neighbour we had to modify a low profile ochard sprayer with a 4m high mast. By the time it was finished and we used it the damage was done, and now its probably going to sit in the shed until the next drought breaks, but it wasnt expensive, and we will be prepared next time.
On ground challenges are one thing, but where to start on the challenges, especially those we cannot actually affect, such as supermarket dominance of the wine trade, or their preference for imported products? We learnt that we start to have control over the bigger challenges if we work as group. At first, we were individualistic, and after visiting a few existing organic farms and having done our whole farm plan, we thought going organic would be pretty easy. But now we know that there are so many challenges in taking up an organic farming system, under strict standards and annual compliance audits, that it is certainly better to work as a group as we are now. We still do too much ourselves, and love our independence as a small family farm enterprise, but we also learnt that challenges are better faced through the cooperation we have with our neighbours within Rivers Road Organic Farms and beyond with our conventional farming neighbours. Thankyou!