“The support we have received has been brilliant. More than you know, you have all supported us and helped us to rise beyond the ashes. Thank you.” Those are the words of Christine and Chris Watts from Blue Sky Organics (above left pic – with Ian Watts on the right). Over the past two weekends, our first volunteer project has taken place with the Watts family from East Gippsland.
Fire burned through 95% of the Watts’ farm near Buchan, East Gippsland on New Years Eve. When they were allowed back onto the property a week later, they discovered that miraculously the fire had gone around the shed holding their drying garlic crop, along with their historic cottage and Fergie tractor. But nothing else was spared.
Penny Kothe, ORICoop Volunteer Coordinator extraordinaire (that’s Penny above in the middle of right hand pic), pulled together a team of a dozen volunteers to travel to East Gippsland and camp out for 4 days to help process the garlic for market. Together we snipped and cleaned 600kg of organic garlic!
CERES Fair Food has been a Blue Sky Organics garlic supporter since day one – Chris Ennis has written wonderful reflections on the Blue Sky Organics story so far: The Healing Process and Open Hearts – a must read, both of them! And, you can see more of the Blue Sky Organics farm and their farming principles in this video. It has been a privilege to be involved in the start of the recovery process for this family and their organic business.
As Christine Watts says, “The challenge for people after the fires is going to be the ongoing trauma. After all the initial attention fades people will feel forgotten – that’s why we need to keep coming together to heal.”
Last Saturday, the project continued in Preston at the CERES Fair Food warehouse, with a whole new team of volunteers (pictured above), to process the elephant garlic that was discovered to be heat damaged from the fires during our first weekend on the farm. ORICoop has supported Blue Sky Organics to find an alternative market for the elephant garlic – originally intended as seed garlic. Now perfect as a food grade garlic – ready for a creative product! Special thanks to Mohammed (pictured below) – for his generosity of spirit in managing the day at CERES, and rallying more volunteers from their packing team for the week, to see the Creole garlic fully completed by the end of the week. We cannot thank you and your team enough!
Reflecting on the previous weekend, Christine wrote: “These gorgeous people, whom we didn’t know before Thursday, held our hands and hearts as we realised our normally brilliant elephant garlic was not suitable for it’s normal purpose. The fires continue to take their toll for so many people who thought they were nearly through the worst of it. “They also helped us see there were solutions. Solutions that no doubt we would not have imagined possible amidst the busyness of recovery. “The greatest gift we received over this time, and as a result of the fires, is connection”
On our first volunteer weekend over 75% of the volunteers’ food was donated – almost all organic, locally grown and direct from producers across Victoria! Special thanks go to Christine Li – our incredible volunteer cook. And to CERES Fair Food, Hazeldean Farm, Timbarra Farm, Schulz Organic, Tarago Valley, Organic Angels, Loafers & Dench Bread, Crofter Dining, Peninsula Organics, Zankers Organic Ways Eggs, High Country Eggs & All Things Natural for their generous donations of organic food! Plus Rodwells & Yenckens in Mansfield for gloves and secateurs. And thanks also to CERES & Baw Baw Food Hub for their generosity as central collection points!
We will continue to work together to help organic and biodynamic farmers affected by the bushfires. We have been grateful to those in the organic industry that have walked beside us to support these farmers. Ben Copeman from Southern Cross Certified met with these farmers from East Gippsland last week, to help them with free organic certification amidst the complexity and cost of fire recovery. And volunteered to assist these local farmers in their long recovery journey back. His heartfelt response was simple – he will never forget the generosity shown to him when their farm was burnt all those years ago.
The real challenge for these farmers is in long-term support, and real support happens slowly, for long-term recovery. That’s why we’re planning to return to Blue Sky Organics and East Gippsland in winter, to help regenerate the oasis of land with native plantings.
Our next volunteer projects are coming up at Prana Produce in Braidwood, where we are looking for longer term volunteers. And Ontos Organics in East Gippsland, together with Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island to come shortly. Register here if you’d like to be on the mailing list for these and future projects to support farmer recovery.
Join us on Instagram! ORICoop has launched a new Instagram account specifically for the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal – check it out here. You can see more of our first volunteer project with Blue Sky Organics, the incredible events that continue to happen and partners that are joining the Appeal. We will be sharing more farmer stories, volunteer projects, and joining in the conversation about recovery, regeneration and positive community led direct action here and on our blog.
A few more shout-outs! Great to see people out there fundraising for the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal right around the country and beyond. In Perth, Organic Grocery Store, Dunn & Walton sold coffee and scrolls with 100% of sales to the appeal recently – thanks so much! Over in Harcourt, Victoria the Gung Hoe Growers have put together a sold out Luscious Local Bushfire Fundraiser, with many Central Victorian producers chipping in – it’s going to be a feast and many donated local goodies are up for grabs on the night in the raffle. In the Adelaide Hills, The Organic Market & Cafe has been raising funds at the store for the past month – thanks Bron and Graham and all your customers!
And in Paris this week, Tasmanian fermentation guru Adam James came together with a group of friends including Australian chefs James Henry and Shaun Kelly to cook a special dinner with proceeds to both the Appeal and Firesticks Alliance. Not only that – the group are holding a silent auction, with many generous and talented people donating goods and their time for unique experiences to be bid on – including a private farm tour and lunch at James and Shaun’s La Ferme du Doyenné farm project, with bidding currently sitting at 720 Euros – amazing!
On Thursday afternoon the cars began arriving at Christine and Chris Watts’ Paynesville farm. Parking in an empty horse paddock, people lay out tents and swags, pull on work shirts and boots and introduce themselves. All of us have been drawn here by the desire to help out after the fires. Among the twelve volunteers is a young economist, a retired nurseryman, an arborist, a nurse and two organic farmers – who themselves had been burnt out three years previously.
At 6.30am the next morning, Penny, our volunteer coordinator gets us out of bed for a briefing. Under a makeshift shade beside drying racks filled with Creole, Silverskin and enormous fist-sized Russian Garlic, Penny explains that over the next three days we will be trimming and cleaning more than a ton of garlic. And so we make a start – clipping stems, talking, snipping roots, talking, rubbing off skins, talking.
CERES Fair Food has been buying Blue Sky Organics garlic since Chris and Christine’s daughter Madeline harvested their first crop as an eighteen year old ten years ago. The Watts family business grow their garlic up on their Murrindal River flats property north of Buchan Caves.
On New Years Eve the fire went through their farm. It was a week before Chris and Christine were allowed back in, escorted by police. When they got to the farm they couldn’t believe what they saw; everything had burned bar their drying garlic, a historic cottage and their tractor. With the fire continuing to flare in the surrounding bush they decided to bring the garlic back to their place near Paynesville for cleaning.
That lunchtime, our economist also our volunteer cook, has prepared an amazing spread from an abundance of food donated by farmers and organic businesses. Everyone wants to help; there’s milk from Schulz Dairy, bread from Dench and Loafer, eggs from Zanker Farm, apples from Hazeldean, veg from Peninsula Organics and Timbarra, bananas from Organic Growers Group even a delicious biriyani from Crofters restaurant. As we eat Christine Watts confesses they haven’t been cooking much lately – being adrenalised for a month has left the family in a collective brain-fog that manifests in inertia, forgetting and bursts of anger.
Early the next morning we drive up the Buchan Road to the Watts’ farm in Murrindal to collect two more trailer loads of garlic. Everything is normal until we hit Sarsfield, 19kms outside of Bairnsdale. Houses have disappeared leaving ghostly white concrete stumps. You can feel the panic from the hastily cut trees – dropped and shoved aside. We follow a truck loaded with round bales through kilometres of blackened forest. Already epicormic leaves are sprouting from eucalypt trunks but so many more seem too burned to come back. Recent rains have painted farm paddocks bright green. The contrast with the black trees gives everything an oddly benign feel.
We pass burnt houses here while others stand untouched and I recall lines from my old friend Pete Auty’s Black Saturday poem…
I don’t understand. Why this and not that?
Why burn on the ridges and not on the flat?
The little pink cottage surrounded by black,
The mud-brick houses reduced to wrack.
At the Watts’ farm the fire has burnt the bush on the ridges surrounding the property. But the grass has come back making the burnt-out hay baler sitting on its rusty wheel rims just a few meters from the garlic racks seem completely incongruous. We load the garlic stems and a kookaburra’s call builds and fills the river valley below us. Chris says when they first returned to the farm it was silent. But now the birds are coming back. Later on the way home we see a lyrebird scampering across the road and our spirits lift.
Back in Paynesville the news isn’t good; the Russian garlic we’ve begun cleaning seems to have been cracked by the fire’s heat. Christine hopes it’s just a bad batch but as the day progresses it becomes clear that 90% of the crop is affected. Most of these bulbs were to be sold as seed. Christine doesn’t know if they will be viable now. Everybody feels the strain and works on.
By dinner though we are sharing food and smiling once again. We eat and tell stories and later over ice cream, organiser Carolyn Suggate, explains that the most powerful part of the Appeal is the deepening of our relationships with each other, with our farmers, our food and our land. When I leave the following day I feel like I have been here a couple of weeks – the openness of Christine and Chris, the way shared manual work brings strangers together the opportunity to help, to learn, to appreciate and to bare witness is a privilege.
Since early December, ORICoop has been championing theOrganic Farmers Bushfire Appeal to directly assist organic and biodynamic farmers across Southern Australia to get through the bushfire crisis and back farming as quickly as possible.
Our original target was to raise $14,000 for one (1) semi-load of organic hay to fire-affected dairy farmers in NSW. The response was amazing with enough donations of hay, transport and cash to fund six (6) truck-loads of certified organic feed for desperate farmers! Since then bushfires have continued to burn out farms across Southern Australia and we’ve renewed our target to $50,000, and we’re getting closer daily – with over $40,000 raised so far and we are far from finished!
100% of Appeal funds will directly assist farmers to Restore, Rejuvenate and Regenerate themselves and their farmland by:-
replacing essential farming equipment
buying certified organic fodder & grain
providing livestock transport to alternative organic farmland
funding new seasons plantings
replacing burnt fruit & nut trees
coordinating teams of volunteers to restore farms
In the coming weeks we’ll be ascertaining farmers needs across different regions and allocating Appeal funds to as many organic & biodynamic farms as we can – farmers can register for support here.
LEND A HELPING HAND
We are calling out for volunteers to support recovery efforts after the fire danger has passed. If you have the skills, time or are just keen to lend a hand then register HERE
Businesses can support the Appeal by:
Encouraging customers to make a donation at the register
Includingthis flyer in weekly food boxes, or on the shop counter
Hosting a regenerate weekend nearby affected farmers – contact ORICoop for details
The Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal is coordinated by ORICoop (Organic & Regenerative Investment Co-operative) bringing together farmers, consumers, businesses and partners to support bushfire affected farmers in this time of need. Together we are focussed on increasing the amount, diversity and productivity of organically & regeneratively managed farmland around Australia, while building a resilient Australian food and farming system that can change the way our farmers do business … for the better!