Therese and Andrew Hearne run a 22-acre farm, Near River Produce, in the Hastings Valley, nestled in the hinterland of the NSW mid-north coast. There they produce fruit, vegetables and eggs using nothing but good old-fashioned organic techniques (like compost teas and peppering), hard work and a lot of love. They package their goodies into boxes that they deliver to local families, and also grow specialty heirloom vegetables and herbs for local cafes and restaurants. Here, Andrew chats to us about what inspired them to start their own farm, the trials and tribulations of organic farming, and how their chemical-free aspirations were initially subject to a little underground betting by the locals…

Tell us a little about your story. You moved from a city life in Sydney to the life of an organic farmer in the NSW Hinterland. What inspired this change?

We left Sydney about 4½ years ago. I had a long history as an environmentalist (active in the Gordon below Franklin protests, No Nukes campaigns and the like) and had followed a career as a horticulturalist and landscaper in Sydney. Therese, who hails from Ireland, lived in Tasmania when she first arrived in Australia some 20 years ago. When we met, it was clear that eventually we’d create an organic farm, but the real impetus came from David Suzuki. We were at a lecture in Wollongong, which was very inspiring, and just before he left the stage David roared, “and start eating organic food!”. We both turned to one another and realised that we weren’t getting any younger and if we were going to do this, it needed to be now. We then spent one weekend a month out of Sydney looking at areas to live, inspecting properties and going to field days and agriculture shows. Then one day we found our piece of heaven on earth.

Once you’d recognised this as something you wanted to do, where did you even begin? How does one go about starting an organic farm? 

With my background in horticulture I knew I was able to grow plants, but turning out 100 head of lettuce a week is very different to maintaining a camellia garden. The key for us has been research – the internet is a huge treasure trove, from leading research institutions posting various papers and findings, to new and old farmers alike posting videos on YouTube. And once you are in a community, the support that fellow growers give to one another is priceless. Another great source of info has been the various organic industry bodies that exist.

As to where to start, for us we started small – all our funds had gone into the purchase of the property, so a tractor and other ‘big boys toys’ had to wait (we are only now about to buy our first tractor). We didn’t even have a ride-on mower for the first year we were here. We hired neighbors to slash the paddock we would set the market garden up in. But the thing to do is get something, anything, in the ground. Why? Because the results are SO inspiring. Tasting your first crop of field-grown rocket, or tomatoes, or citrus is one of the best ways to forget the aching muscles, long days in the heat and sun, or the amount that the wallabies get before you do.

The main thing that you have to realise is that farming is a very long-term game, and city dwellers have lost touch with that concept. We are planting trees that will take 5 years before they are useful as a windbreak, and 10 years before they really ‘work’. And our orchard won’t reach full production for some time to come. This Chinese proverb comes to mind –

The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time, is today.
Our soil-building program, whilst it has some immediate results, is the same – it will have ongoing benefits for many many years and harvests to come.

Can you give a brief description of the farm and your farming practices?

We grow a range of vegetables and herbs, and keep a flock of chickens for their superb eggs. Our chicken stocking density is miniscule compared to commercial farms – at present we have 130 hens, so a little over 6 hens an acre (that’s 15 hens per hectare)! We will be increasing the flock to 300 by next spring. Whilst they have access to the whole property, the girls tend not to roam too far from their run, which is moved around various beds and plots in the vegetable production areas. We also grow a range of fruits that we use to produce our handmade fine preserves including mandarin marmalade, rhubarb lime and ginger compote and rhubarb paste.

You follow organic and biodynamic processes. What does this actually mean?>

In short it means no use of any petro-based chemicals and fertilisers on our property, nor in the production of the feed that we bring onto the property for our poultry and pigs. We compost green waste from the restaurants and food service businesses that we supply with our produce, and mix that with the chicken manure and grass clippings to build large heaps. We also follow planting by the lunar phases, and utilise biodynamic preparations to build soil health and vitality. Our premise is to feed the soil, while chemical agriculture tends to feed the plant. And utilising the animals (poultry and swine) to turn, clean and manure the soil is also another sustainable practice.

What about your pest management processes?

We have a number of practices to minimise the impact of pests and disease. Firstly we overplant by approx 10% as a sacrifice to wildlife. Where possible we companion plant as well, and the main practice is that we grow such a diverse range of plants that, so far, pests have had little impact on our produce (chemical agriculture tends to plant mono crops). We also rotate our crops through the various production beds and plots which assists in minimising soil-borne problems. We do utilise horticultural oils on the citrus, and other allowed sprays on the vegetables. We also apply compost teas regularly, which among other things, strengthens the plants allowing them to withstand pest and disease attacks – note that these problems only occur on weakened crops, so keeping strong healthy crops minimises these problems. Peppering, a biodynamic practice to discourage unwanted plants (weeds) and animals from an area, is also practiced.
 
How does your farming approach differ from conventional farming practices?

I guess the main difference is that we place a high value on the organisms that live in our soil, and we go out of our way to provide an environment for them to prosper and multiply.

Did you face any challenges in the process of setting up? Any resistance?

Coming into a community that is set in its ways, and declaring that you are going to do things differently, often meets with resistance. And I’m sure most of our neighbours and others in the valley had seen it all before. The funny part is that we heard that the locals were running a book on how long we’d last before we resorted to using chemicals and applying Roundup to beat the grass and weeds. I think our determination not to do that, in the long run, has won us some kudos in the community.

And there are lots of challenges – the weather (too hot, too dry, too wet) and how that impacts on what you can do; wildlife and learning to restrict them, or should that be ‘educate’ them; and building a whole new set of skills (like fencing); I’m an experienced irrigator, but had no dealings with pumps: and then there’s the whole world of marketing, and I don’t think there’s enough space here for that!

What are your biggest challenges now?

Our biggest challenges now are the weather (we are in business with Mother Nature as a partner, and most times she’s the controlling partner), and managing our growth, and ensuring that the capital investments we make will provide the necessary returns (we are in the process of building a coolroom, and will need more shedding to cure our garlic crop as we increase production).

What have you loved about the process? What’s been the most rewarding thing?

What there is to love about the process is to look around our property now and start to see the impact our effort is having on the landscape, and also how what we are doing is impacting the broader community here on the Mid North Coast and further afield. The most rewarding thing though is when young children come up to your stall at a farmers’ market and grab a cherry tomato and chomp it down, and their mum comes over and says, “My daughter never eats tomatoes. What is it about yours that makes them so tasty?”.Insightfully our bodies know when it sees good, nutrient dense produce – as a society, we’ve just gotten out of the habit of searching it out.

What does a day on the farm look like?

Full! Up with the sun, or maybe just before, to feed the ‘girls’ and let them out of their night housing. Then we check on the seedlings in the polyhouse, and run any irrigation that may be needed. If there’s harvesting to do, that will be undertaken. Then we’ll wash and pack any produce. Bed preparation or weeding always needs to be done. Some sowing or transplanting is usually done in the late afternoons. Then there are eggs to collect and package, and compost heaps to turn. There might be a new batch of preserves in from the chef to label, or hopefully a handful of orders to pack and dispatch. And at this time of the year there’s always some garlic to clean. And squeezed in amongst this might be a run into town to deliver produce and collect some green waste (from local cafes and restaurants).

What do you love about living this ‘tree-change’ lifestyle?
Through what we are doing, people are able to reconnect with the food they eat, how it is produced and who produces it, and also become aware of the impact that the quality of their food has on their health, the health of society and the health of the environment.

What does sustainable living mean to you?

Minimising our use of the limited resources that the planet has.

Tell us a little about the events you hold at the farm? What do you hope people walk away with?

We hold 4 on-farm events each year – all feature the paddock to plate ethos, and combine our produce with the unique setting and atmosphere that our farm provides.

Meals in the Fields is a four course sit-down dinner for 50 in our front paddock featuring local produce, wine and craft beer, and is held in March every year. Attendees have the opportunity to roam around our market garden before joining a long communal table outdoors to enjoy the meal prepared by three of the region’s leading chefs.
Breakfast in the Beds is held over a weekend in October, with a kid’s version on the Saturday and an adult version on Sunday. Participants spend a morning collecting eggs and harvesting asparagus and spinach, before handing it to the chefs who prepare the breakfast for them and have it served in a giant marquee.

The last event is our annual Open Day on Easter Monday where our friends and customers come and see where there produce has been grown; children meet the hens and pigs, and after lunch, help us plant some trees in our orchard or along our shelter belts.

All of these events are undertaken with a view to having our community able to interact with their farmers, and to demystify agriculture. It’s like farming has skipped a generation, and these events are part way towards rectifying that. It would be great if they took away some understanding of what’s involved in food production too.

What’s your favourite vegetable and how do you like to eat it?

My favorite vegetable is asparagus – when it starts popping up out of the ground I know spring is a coming! The best way to eat it is lightly steamed, with some baby garlic braised in butter, a poached freerange egg or two, a slice of sour dough and shavings of parmesan – the perfect spring brunch, and all fresh from the garden.

Visit Near River Produce at their website, like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

Therese and Andrew provide the following cafes and restaurants with their delectable organic produce. Check them out if you’re in the area:

Rockpool Bar + Grill, Sydney
The Corner Restaurant, Port Macquarie
LV’s on Clarence, Port Macquarie
Cafe Buzz, Port Macquarie<