Bundjalung Country, Australia
“They know that they are supporting the creation of ecology with their purchase.” – Tom & Nicole
According to the ABS, the average age of the Australian farmer in 2018/2019 was 58 years old.
While the newest report fails to update this data, it is clear that the world’s farming population is growing older, and with more people choosing to migrate to metropolitan areas, this naturally raises the question of who will grow our food?
Luckily for those of us in the business of eating, we are beginning to see a rise in people reinventing what it means to be, and in fact who can be, a farmer. Once upon a time, the only way to get into farming was to take over a family operation, but young producer’s like Tom and Nicole of Misty Creek Agroforestry are showing us that there’s another way…
By navigating the challenges that act as the usual roadblocks to pursuing agriculture as a career, such as access to land and stigma around farming as a lifestyle, Tom and Nicole have developed their own unique approach to farming that uses principles of regenerative agriculture and syntropic agroforestry to create an inspiring legacy of land stewardship for themselves as well as their community.
I was not stimulated by my work, was without purpose, and escaped to the country every weekend. My now wife and I decided to leave the city, not exactly to start a farm, but to look for a life that was fulfilling. We then stumbled into permaculture and the decision was made.
What made you decide to start your own farm?
The catalyst was when Nicole and I took a permaculture design course in 2018, during which I realised there was a way of farming that worked with nature, rather than against it. I grew up on a cattle farm in the Central West of NSW, but like most of my peers, decided to leave the farm and pursue a career in the city. Agriculture was disconnected to both the land and people, and did not seem an attractive way of life. After a number of years in the city, I yearned to leave. I was not stimulated by my work, was without purpose, and escaped to the country every weekend. My now wife and I decided to leave the city, not exactly to start a farm, but to look for a life that was fulfilling. We then stumbled into permaculture and the decision was made.
What principles of regenerative agriculture do you employ in your practice?
The two main methodologies we follow, and integrate, are syntropic agroforestry and holistic management.
Syntropic agroforestry is a process based agriculture, as opposed to input based, based on the law of species succession. We use observation and management (planting and pruning) to grow our crops, rather than external inputs. Holistic management is a methodology that helps us make better decisions, and ensures that we stay on track to achieve the quality of life we desire. By using the tools learnt, we use plants and animals to achieve our environmental, social and economic goals. At their core both methodologies have the same basic principle; to maximise the capture of sunlight via photosynthesis, and turn it into plant growth. To achieve this, we follow principles such as maximum density of leaves for as much of the year as possible, 100% ground cover 100% of the time, and increasing quantity and quality of biodiversity.
Tell us about the evolution of your practices since you started.
Our initial vision was to turn our farm into an agro-forest, integrating both cattle and plants. After about a year, we had an opportunity to start growing pasture raised chickens, and soon realised with the size of our farm (28 acres), local market and the synergies possible with agroforestry, chickens would be the perfect addition to our agroecology. We have stayed true to our initial vision, and with 3 years experience we now see our practices become more attuned with the land, less inefficiencies.
What does a typical day look like for you?
The beauty of our integrated, diversified farm is that there is no typical day. Every day we must care for the chickens, but in between we may be at the farmers markets, doing seasonal work in the agroforestry, moving the cattle, or maintenance and improvement of farm infrastructure. This helps keep us stimulated and challenged by our work.
Is your business currently profitable? If not, when do you expect it to become profitable?
In the current financial year (2022-2023), we expect our farm to be profitable. Excluding capital investment (such as purchase of chicken caravans and building of sheds), in the previous year the farm was also profitable.
What has been harder than you imagined it would be?
The wet season that just passed was harder than I could have ever imagined. Having grown up in the Central West of NSW I know the despair of the drought, but this was no match for never ending rain, continual mud and record breaking floods.
The straw that broke the camel’s back however, was that our main farmers market was cancelled many times and overall less customers visited the markets each week. So not only did we battle the elements to grow, but also in selling our product.
What has been easier than you imagined it would be?
I wish there was something!
To date I am yet to see another example, on a commercial scale, of a conscious employment of poultry with vegetable crops
What feedback have you had from other poultry farmers on your product and the way you farm?
That they love the way we have integrated chickens with annual cropping and agroforestry. To date I am yet to see another example, on a commercial scale, of a conscious employment of poultry with vegetable crops. It adds a huge layer of complexity, and other pasture raised poultry farmers recognise this challenge, as growing the birds is hard enough, let alone managing for veggies and trees too.
We presume you charge more for your produce than the market average. How has the price premium for your produce been received by customers? Have you received any surprising feedback from them?
We do indeed, our ‘Tree Range’ whole chickens sell for $26kg, while your standard industrial chicken in a supermarket can be found as low as $3.50kg. Those who buy our chicken value both the nutrient density and the welfare of the bird while it lived, and are prepared to pay the price that gives a fair reward to the farmer who does so. They know they pay more, but are also aware of the fact that they receive far more nutrition for what they spend, and also know that they are supporting the creation of ecology with their purchase.
“We are conscious of growth for growth’s sake, and the way that it can force compromises on your values.”
– Tom & Nicole
How are you planning for growth for the business?
Our business has been through a period of rapid expansion over the past 3 years. Now that is done, we are now planning to have no growth! We have now reached a point that we can comfortably support ourselves, one full time and a part time staff member, and can still manage and stay connected to all parts of our farm, and also be able to take a break. We are conscious of growth for growth’s sake, and the way that it can force compromises on your values. As we move forward we will focus on our systems and processes, optimising them to become more productive and efficient, while staying true to our core beliefs.
What does diversity mean in your enterprise?
Diversity is everything to us, and is important on so many levels. However, when thinking of our agribusiness, we diversify, but not too much. This means we can focus on what we are good at, have an advantage in and are profitable, yet still have profit resilience if things don’t go our way. How this looks in reality is that within our agroforestry we sow seeds of hundreds of different species, but only intentionally manage for around 20 species and only have 2 or 3 as a cash crop at any one time. So our ecology benefits from diversity but we aren’t managing too much complexity with too many enterprises.
Fast forward 10 years, what does your business look like?
Our property will be the subtropical forest that this land yearns to be, rather than the grassland that we found.
Our ‘Misty Forest Fowl’ breed of heritage chickens will be a large enough flock that we can consistently supply our community with slow grown chicken bred, hatched and raised by us, therefore completely removed from industrial poultry farming.
The chickens (and humans on the farm) will enjoy berries, bananas, stonefruit, nuts and seeds of perennial grasses and shrubs. This varied array of fallen fruit, along with the resultant insects and deep mulch, will mimic the diet of the chicken’s ancestors. Our purchase of grain for chicken feed will be much reduced.
As the forest develops, grass will begin to move out, and in 10 years we may no longer have cattle. Instead they are replaced by pigs foraging for tubers, and fallen nuts and fruit.
We will still be involved with the everyday running of the business, and engage with our customers at the local farmers markets.
What does success look like for you as individuals, as a business, and for the ecosystem you are stewards of?
Success as individuals means that we have purposeful and stimulating work, while having meaningful social connections and time for leisure. As a business, success means we make investments that experience exponential returns, such as planting trees and improving the soil. We provide dignified work for our employees with fair reward and opportunities for learning. We make enough profit for a decent standard of living.
Ecologically, success means that the quantity and quality of life on our farm is greatly increased. Our ability to grow more nutritious and healthy crops is improved while needing fewer inputs. Our animals forage a high percentage of their diet on the farm, and live a life according to their instincts. We are making maximum use of the sun’s energy through photosynthesis. Our soils are open, porous, spongy and full of life. Our ground is covered 100% of the time.
How has regenerative farming influenced your mental health?
I believe fulfilment and purpose is more important to mental health than happiness. I have found this through regenerative farming. There have been times of exhaustion, stress, frustration and sadness, but these times pass and the way this type of farming builds community and your sense of place in the world shines through.
How do you support others in your community, both within your industry and those with different enterprises?
We strongly believe that what goes around comes around. We tend to shop and eat at the businesses that purchase our produce. We often trade our chicken or eggs for other meats, veggies or anything else our neighbours may make or skills they have. Ultimately, this builds a local economy and fosters social connections. The agroforestry community has a strong ethic of seed and propagation material sharing, in the same ethic of ‘what goes around comes around’, where a gift given one day is often repaid in the future.
Would you wish for other farmers to replicate your model and if so, is there anything you would change?
Definitely, the benefits of agroforestry are profound on many levels, with no real disadvantages to speak of. The overall strategy of our integration of livestock and agroforestry is sound, so the only thing I would change if others were to replicate it would be small tweaks in plant species used and overall layout to facilitate movement of livestock.
What government support is required for rapid adoption of regenerative agricultural principles?
For the most part, I prefer community led support to government. Government support and subsidies have a place, but in general lead to perverse and unintended consequences. For example, a government subsidy to make our best-practice chicken affordable to everyone may mean that farmers abandon other livestock or crops in favour of what’s included in the subsidy. Therefore, diversity in food available is lower and there are potential ecological implications from higher poultry numbers, and we could be worse off than before the subsidy.
A community led solution could be: those with means can ‘purchase’ our meat and veggies from us, which then get donated to food aid projects. Government support could look like; tax breaks, making renewable energy and water technology affordable, including agroecological and real nutrition knowledge in education, and reducing bureaucratic red tape for small business such as licensing fees and excessive paperwork.
The transition to regenerative practices can often see certain issues become worse before they become better… You also need to be prepared for ridicule during this time from those who are close minded and resistant to change
What advice would you give to someone looking to either begin or transition their agricultural business in a regenerative way?
Start small, one step at a time, and be patient for results. For example, if you currently grow one crop, add a second. If you grow livestock, add a different species or add a crop to it. This means you don’t risk too much at once, there is less risk of overwhelm, and more chance to see the benefits.
The transition to regenerative practices can often see certain issues become worse before they become better. For example, for the two years after we implemented planned grazing on our farm, our pasture was overrun with two weeds that most people hate (but we love). In this time it would have been easy to say the grazing did not work. However, I did nothing to eliminate these plants, let them perform their job, and in the third year you would be hard pressed to find a single individual of either of these plants in our pasture, now thick with perennial grasses. You also need to be prepared for ridicule during this time from those who are close minded and resistant to change.
What is a common misconception about your business?
Many people assume that growing livestock or produce is the hardest part of an agribusiness, however, it’s usually selling the product that is hardest. Obstacles include lack of access to markets and consumers, restaurants and stores not wanting small invoices and orders, high costs in storage and logistics, licensing and regulatory compliance and consumer preferences for out of season produce/produce that doesn’t grow in our area, amongst other things. Another misconception is that chicken does not vary with the seasons. We are used to seeing (especially) chicken on the shelves of supermarkets year round, however, when grown outdoors it can vary significantly. They can grow faster or slower, with different fat composition, and therefore changing taste.
Many people assume that growing livestock or produce is the hardest part of an agribusiness, however, it’s usually selling the product that is hardest.
Finally, what does regenerative agriculture mean to you?
Regenerative Agriculture is simultaneously ecological, social and economic. Building life, community and wealth. It also means the wider network of the farm is considered too – for example if our chicken feed came from a conventional farm using chemicals and depleting soil then how could we say our farm is regenerative, if we rely upon ones that are degradative? It incorporates the whole system.