Few farmers are brave enough to take on the many, many challenges that come with organic farming, but Don and Elaine Murray have managed to turn a modest vegetable growing gamble into a national-scale enterprise.
In little more than a decade, the southern Riverina novices have established two farming operations almost 3000 kilometres apart to keep up with demand for their organic vegetables in supermarkets and greengrocers across eastern Australia.
They now annually harvest more than 1000 tonnes of premium value crops ranging from zucchinis and pumpkins to sweetcorn, onions, sweet potatoes and snow peas, employing a workforce of up to 40 to help with their labour-intensive enterprise.
The Murray’s were not even farmers when they bought their first 25 hectare sandy irrigation block near Coleambally in the NSW Riverina in 1999.
The soil was seriously lacking in organic matter, struggling to grow lucerne pasture or legume crops for the first two years.
Determined to try organics, Mr Murray, a former poultry industry manager and sales agronomist, worked to rebuild the block’s soil humus levels, repeatedly slashing and ploughing in lupin and pasture plantings.
Mrs Murray, a one-time CSIRO agricultural researcher, kept the family budget afloat working for several more years as an information technology manager with an irrigation business.
They eventually lifted the former potato farm’s soil organic content from 0.5 per cent to 2pc, gaining full organic producer status in 2004.
That 25 hectare block is now part of a four-farm, 150ha aggregation run by son, Brendan, while his parents run several farms on Far North Queensland’s Atherton Tablelands.
The vast distance between the two drip-irrigated cropping operations provides a key counter seasonal production advantage for the Murray’s brand, Nature’s Haven.
About 100ha at Dimbulah in the north grows crops during the southern winter when production opportunities are fewer and slow to yield at Coleambally.
Nature’s Haven is now the biggest supplier of organic zucchinis in eastern Australia, with varieties and growing strategies carefully chosen after years of trial and error.
Mr Murray has even bred his own tropic-hardy pumpkin variety, Amber Sweet, and dedicates space for about six new produce variety trials each year.
Farming is a risky business at the best of times, but even more challenging when tackling the pest, disease, weather and marketing hurdles that come with relying on natural system cropping techniques free of synthetic fungal treatments or pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers.
While organic produce is enthusiastically promoted by celebrity chefs and food marketers, organic sales represents a tiny 3pc cent of Australia’s total fruit and vegetable business.
Demand for organic food is growing, but vegetable volumes tend to be keeping pace, making it a competitive marketplace.
To cover the extra labour, packing and transport costs involved, price premiums on Nature’s Haven crops from North Queensland need to be almost double the wholesale prices paid for equivalent conventionally-grown produce, or 30 to 40pc more for its Coleambally crops.
Supermarkets add a further 100pc to set their retail prices.
The Murray’s initial commercial cropping efforts focused on organic tomatoes, but “not very successfully” as they struggled to achieve viable yields in the face of two notable pest and disease issues - tomato spotted wilt virus and green vegetable bug.
“Everybody expects tomatoes to look good all the time - even organic consumers don’t want to pay for blemishes,” said Mrs Murray.
They changed tack, testing the possibilities with zucchinis.
“It wasn’t really the most financially rewarding crop to choose because zucchinis are actually relatively easy to grow,” she said.
“It’s very easy to flood the organic market if you’re not careful.”
The financial rewards came with mastering how to grow healthy plants to yield for longer into the season, delivering better long-term returns.
The farm’s first city market consignments of zucchinis and tomatoes sold to Melbourne organic wholesalers BD Marketing in 2004, then expanded to Sydney the next year with the focus on zucchini, lettuce and pumpkin production.
“We lost money the first year, broke even in 2005 and by 2006 we finally made some money,” said Mr Murray.
Seven years after buying their farm, and with enough production and marketing insight under their belt, Mrs Murray left her job to devote herself full-time to the farm.
By then, the largely hand-weeded, zucchini crop covered up to five hectares, with another two hectares growing pumpkins, with uncropped vegetation left between plantings as refuge areas to promote beneficial insect numbers.
While modest compared to typical conventionally-grown crops, which might cover up to 40ha, the crops were already getting too big for the couple to work without help from a few employees.
Labour is a big cost for the organic business, which now has about 20 extra workers at harvest across both farms, plus 12 to 20 permanent staff.
Mr Murray estimated extra labour requirements add up at least 40pc to organic production costs compared with conventional vegetable production.
For example, it takes five days of chipping and meticulous hand work for one person to weed half a hectare of onions - a job which might be completed with conventional sprays in a couple of hours.
“We do a lot of weeding,” he said.
“We’ve tried using black plastic on the ground to stop weeds, but you still get growth around the edges of the plastic sheet and in the crop.”
Steam and flame weeders had also been looked at, but required considerable skill and investment and were “not really very successful at this stage”.
To help control crop pests, typically caterpillars, the Murrays use biological sprays based on natural bacteria and viruses, but not plant-based pyrethrin products because they are non-selective and cull friendly insects.
Mineral-based products using copper and wettable sulphur are deployed if needed to prevent mildew.
While the Nature’s Haven market footprint is impressive, getting produce to market each day has its challenges, particularly from the Atherton Tablelands which can require up to four days of travel and re-loading time.
In fact, the business must budget on losing between $50,000 and $100,000 a year to spoilage.
“Transport is the biggest headache we have - and temperature control is a big part of that problem,” Mr Murray said.
“Our (comparatively small) consignments might go into a refrigerated truck at the optimum six degrees Celsius, but it may then get loaded with more produce which may be a lot warmer, sending the temperature levels out of whack.
“Or, it might take too long being reloaded in Brisbane, or somebody turns the refrigeration off by mistake - there are lots of potential pitfalls.”
The couple began looking at spreading their production base over two states relatively soon after their sales expanded into Sydney and Brisbane produce markets.
They eventually moved north six years ago, converting and developing former tobacco farms to A-grade organic status.
Not surprisingly, planning and budgeting for the organic market’s specific needs and making the Nature’s Haven business work is a complex job.
Mrs Murray developed her own yearly budgeting formula to assess when, where and how much of every crop will be needed, the margins involved and month-by-month cashflow from each.
“Varying seasonal conditions mean it isn’t perfect every month, but over the year it works out pretty close to expectations,” she said.
“We get a fair bit of guidance from our bank manager, too.”
The family business now has daughter Jodi co-ordinating packing and dispatch operations at Dimbulah, while Brendan’s partner Ivy has a similar role at Coleambally.
“It’s a very big commitment for everybody involved,” Mrs Murray said.