City customers give organic farmers and sellers reason to keep growing, writes Carli Ratcliff.
"Organic food is an imposition of city folk (worried about their colons) on farming folk, telling them how they should farm.'' So said A. A. Gill on his recent visit to Sydney. Though far from the most inflammatory statement the British writer made while on our shores, it didn't earn him any favour with proponents of organic food.
Organic farmer Quentin Bland, of Kurrawong Organics near Bathurst, sells his organic vegetables every Saturday at Eveleigh Farmers' Market, Darlington, and Sydney Sustainable Markets at Taylor Square. Bland views his city customers quite differently.
''We've had great support and a real appreciation for our work from our customers in Sydney,'' he says. ''They are the only customers I grow for now.''
Bland, a brassica specialist - broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts - has diversified his crops in line with the demands of his city customers. ''It means I don't have to grow for supermarkets,'' he says. The farmer has nearly doubled his plantings and output in the past year and works with his son, Alexander.
''We have planted garlic, fennel and herbs,'' he says. Bland has been farming for 25 years, certified organic for 12 years.
He believes the attraction of organics is two-fold. ''The feedback from customers is they love the taste,'' he says ''They also appreciate that they are in season and produced without chemicals.''
Phil Nelson-Marshall of Marion Plains Pastoral, near Bourke, grows organic lamb, beef and free-range pork and has had a similar experience. ''We have built a large customer base that comes back each week,'' he says.
He raises meat just for the growers markets at Eveleigh, Frenchs Forest, Warwick Farm and Newcastle. ''We decided to sell direct to customers because we couldn't get a good enough price from wholesalers,'' he says. Nelson-Marshall is passionate about sustainable agriculture, which led him to organic farming. ''The word organic tends to get overused,'' he says. ''For me, 'sustainable' is a better term because that is what we are about: looking after the soil and the animals in a way that ensures that there will be food tomorrow and for the next generation.''
Retailer Allison Findlay of Always Organic at Brookvale says many of her customers buy organic foods because they have similar concerns: ''They want to avoid genetically modified ingredients, hormones and chemicals in their food and they have concerns about the environmental impact of intensive farming,'' she says.
Fluctuating supply is not the issue it was. ''We get consistently top-quality produce from our farmers,'' Findlay says. ''And while some weeks some items may not be available due to weather conditions, our customers understand that is nature. It is how our food supply is meant to flow, in line with the seasons, not the false sense that we can have what we want, when we want it.''
Matthew McLennan of Taste Organic, Crows Nest, says his customers have shifted their expectations, too. ''By definition, organic and biodynamics are all about diversity and biodiversity - working with nature rather than against it,'' he says. ''Our customers understand that by buying in season they will find fruit and veg at their best, fresh, abundantly available and therefore less expensive.''
Critics and several studies point to evidence that organically raised vegetables do not contain higher vitamin and mineral contents than conventionally grown.
Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton says that the vitamin level debate should not be the focus when it comes to organics.
''There is as much difference between the nutrients in one [conventional] carrot and another, as there is between an organic and a regular carrot,'' she says. ''There are other reasons for choosing organically produced foods - mainly environmental reasons, including soil quality, water conservation, biodiversity and of course, pesticide use.''
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