Growers explain why farm-gate organic produce is popular, and why it is worth the effort and cost

CERTIFIED: Grower David Tatman with some of his certified organic vegetables. He explains labour costs and the rigorous certification process is what makes produce more expensive. Photo: Kate Healy
CERTIFIED: Grower David Tatman with some of his certified organic vegetables. He explains labour costs and the rigorous certification process is what makes produce more expensive. Photo: Kate Healy

It is a frequently heard protestation; “I’d love to buy organic but it is so expensive,”.

Organic grower David Tatman agrees many people are struggling to balance the budget, avoid chemicals and eat better but they don’t know why it costs more and resent having to pay more to eat healthily.

“I can understand the dilemma people face in the supermarkets ... there are two cucumbers on the shelf that look the same, but one costs more. If people can’t see where produce comes from, they will choose the cheaper one,” he said.

Mr Tatman and wife, Lisa run a 48-hectare property and 12 hectares are currently sown with organic vegetables. Their farm gate business is growing rapidly.

“Once people come out to the farm and see where the vegetables are grown and how naturally we farm, with no pesticides or chemicals, then they are happy to make the trip out,”

Mr Tatman said 90 per cent of his clientele are return customers and he operates most of the time with a honesty box. “It’s a trust thing but I have found the majority, 95 per cent, of people are honest.”

“I have had people coming in the night on their way through to somewhere, so this way they can get their vegetables when it suits them.”

Picture: Natasha Morgan

Picture: Natasha Morgan

“It works both ways. Sometimes people don’t have the right money, so they will leave a note saying they will collect the change next time.” He said while it was a risk, he had also done the figures on what it would cost to employ staff for the stall, and it was still more economical. Most people do the right thing.

Spargo Creek horticultural designer and grower Natasha Morgan is one of a growing number of business owners using the ‘farm gate’ as a sales outlet. 

Her preserves and cordials are her core business but she also sells fresh produce  from her “tiny stall by the roadside”. “I only sell what is fresh and seasonal, at the moment the pine mushrooms are just starting. they only grow in one or two places.”

Ms Morgan said there are a plethora of roadside stalls, particularly along the Ballan-Daylesford Road where passing traffic is continual. Produce on offer includes: raspberry canes, spring bulbs, strawberry plants, cut flowers, honey, and bagged horse manure. Most of these farm gate and roadside stalls operate on an honesty basis. Ms Morgan said the honesty ratio is about 90 per cent. She has the occasional customers who don’t do the right thing, but overall she believes most people want to do the right thing.

Saffron, 7, holds a mature pine mushroom. The mushrooms are seasonal and grow close to pine trees. Photo: Natasha Morgan

Saffron, 7, holds a mature pine mushroom. The mushrooms are seasonal and grow close to pine trees. Photo: Natasha Morgan

She also agrees that the produce costs slightly more. “I charge a slight premium on my preserves and cordials because I have to factor in the cost of ingredients. I use organic sugar which costs $1.85/kg.

“Also the yields are lower because we are not using pesticides or chemicals, so there’s less to sell.”

“There is definitely a shift towards people wanting fresh produce and this way you are dealing with the people who grew it and you know where the food has come form, and when it was picked.”

Mr Tatman said he tries to reduce costs wherever possible because growing organic produce was still a cost and labour-intensive process. “We use clean, certified organic products on the crops and the fertiliser alone that costs $2000 a tonne, whereas there are many far cheaper options that are not chemical and pesticide free. “The other major cost is farm labour, especially weeding. The wage bills are a huge sum and my biggest business expense.

So weeding is a big job. Obviously we can’t use chemicals to keep the weeds down and in summer, I have eight people working full time, five days a week.

David Tatman, organic grower

“It’s a big cost but if we don’t keep the weeds down, we lose the crop. It happens … I’ve had to plough a crop of parsley in after the weeds took over.” He said they also have to contend with the usual pest insects, including white butterflies that attack all the brassica crops – cabbage and cauliflowers. “And, lately … crows! Crows have been a big problem. We haven’t grown peas for a year now because the crows stripped the peas from the pods of 80 per cent of the crop. Now it is the tomatoes … they are very clever birds.”

“Most don’t realise how costly and time consuming it can be to grow truly authentic, organic vegetables.” He said the most expensive and most difficult vegetable to grow was the parsnip. “Any root vegetable – carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes and swedes will absorb whatever is in the soil, and that includes pesticides; it is so important that the soil is clean.”

Mr Tatman also explained that the certification process is very stringent. “I don’t think people realise how difficult and expensive it is to be registered as a certified organic grower. We are audited annually by Australian Certified Organic and it is an arduous process that takes 3-4 hours of questions and checks; where crops are planted, when were products packed, the type of fertilisers and products we use and so on, but we do use all the right processes. I couldn’t look people in the eye if I knew things weren’t right.”

Picture: Natasha Morgan

Picture: Natasha Morgan

Spargo Creek horticultural designer and grower Natasha Morgan is one of a growing number of business owners using the ‘farm gate’ stall as a sales outlet. While preserves and cordials are the core products she produces at Oak and Monkey Puzzle farm, Ms Morgan also sells fresh produce from a “tiny stall by the roadside”. “I only sell what is fresh and seasonal,” she said. “At the moment pine mushrooms are just starting.”

Ms Morgan said there is a plethora of roadside stalls in the region. Along the Ballan-Daylesford Road she has spotted all types of offerings, including raspberry canes, spring bulbs, strawberry plants, flowers, honey, and bagged horse manure. Most farm gate and roadside stalls operate on an honesty basis and Ms Morgan said in her experience, the honesty ratio is about 90 per cent. Despite the occasional customers who don’t pay for what they take, she believes most people want to do the right thing.

She also agrees that the produce costs slightly more. “I charge a slight premium on my preserves and cordials because I have to factor in the cost of ingredients. I use quality ingredients such as organic sugar which costs $1.85/kg, rather than the other at 70 cents. Also, yields are lower because we are not using pesticides or chemicals, so there’s less product to sell.”

Ms Morgan said there was definitely a shift towards people wanting to buy fresh produce. “This way means you are dealing with the people who grow the food … you know where it has come from and when it was picked.”

What is organic?

Organic is not just “chemical free”. It is a whole system or holistic means of growing and handling food from soil through to plants, animals, food, people and the environment. Certified organic products are grown and processed without the use of synthetic chemicals, fertilisers, or genetic modification. 

Organic certification involves auditing an operation’s methods to ensure that they comply with the guidelines of organic production. Standards are upheld by a rigorous auditing and third-party reviewing process.