Community Interviews

Erin O’Callaghan believes in the circle of (soil) life

Former physiotherapist Erin O’Callaghan always knew that she wanted to grow veggies. “I just wanted to grow veggies for my local community,” she says. Although she’d always kept veggie patches and felt the constant “itch to be outside a bit more”, it was only when she went back home to to care for grandmother that she decided to pursue farming full-time. “My grandparents were sheep and broad acre cropping farmers,” she explains. “That’s a pretty tricky area to get into, so I started looking into different options.”

After getting her certificate in permaculture and working on some other small-scale farms on the coast of New South Wales, Erin set up her own market garden, RAD Growers, just outside her hometown of Albury. The farm smells like crispness, according to Erin. “But that might just be because it’s so cold at the moment,” she says. “When I finish a crop, it gets mowed to small pieces and I turn that back into the soil. So if I’m turning in basil, then the whole place smells like pesto.”

Every week Erin meets up with her customers – mostly local families – to hand them a box of fresh, seasonal produce. “The box system is great,” she says. “My aim is to give them enough things to be able cook most meals of the week. So I want to have onions and garlic and real staples in there. That way they don’t have to go to the supermarket to supplement it.” It’s a new way of cooking for some people, but Erin’s customers have been happy to adapt. “They’re so open to it,” she says. “They want to try sweet potato leaves or stinging nettles. Not because it’s hip and cool, but because they want to try something different.”

RAD stands for Real and Delicious – ‘real’ because Erin doesn’t use any chemicals or pesticides and ‘delicious’ because she’s “growing for taste”. “We have really good nutrients in the soil, but also in the soil life,” she explains. “There’s a heap of bacteria and fungi and all this life in the soil that we can’t see, and that has a symbiotic relationship with the soil. Micro-organisms in the soil feed the plant, and in return the plant feeds the soil. That’s how the plant is able to extract those nutrients. And if the plant is able to take the nutrients that it needs, then it’s going to be a strong plant, it’s going to be able to repel pests, and it’s going to be nutrient-dense food.”

The farm is built on the principles of permaculture – a system of agriculture that’s sustainable and self-sufficient. “If you can keep it as one system, if everything can live in unison, and you can make that work, then that’s the ideal,” Erin says. “Once you start buying things in, regardless of what it costs, you’re taking something from somewhere else and throwing things out of balance. So say somebody cuts hay from their land. They cut it, we buy it, we feed it to our animals. But what’s happening over there where they’ve cut it? What’s happened to that soil? It’s just been mined of what’s in it and nothing’s actually been returned. If you can create that loop, that cycle, then it all feeds itself.”

Her proudest moment is harvest day – every harvest day. “I don’t know how many bunches of carrots I’ve pulled, but every time I pull a bunch of carrots, I’m like, ‘God, we grow great carrots,’” she says. “I actually posted our first cauliflower harvest on social media. You get a lot of different cauliflower seed varieties these days. There are even some pretty fancy geometrical ones. But I posted a photo of just the white, normal standard cauliflower and said, ‘How awesome is just plain cauliflower? One day I’m going to pick it and be like, Oh, it’s just another cauliflower.’ And a farmer who’d been farming for 30 years said, ‘Nah, it never tires.’”

Image: Georgie James

This article first appeared in frankie magazine issue 73 (Sept/Oct 2016).

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