Going organic harvests business boom for young farmer

Nathan Free, 26, a fourth generation Victorian farmer, named the 2014 AUSVeg Young Grower of the Year, runs Wattle Organic Farms. Launched six years ago by a group of like-minded organic growers, the business is growing at 200 percent year-on-year.

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Nathan Free isn’t a young man to let challenges stand in his way. The 26-year-old fourth generation Victorian farmer, named the 2014 AUSVeg Young Grower of the Year, has a goal to make organics mainstream by delivering a more affordable and consistent organic product to consumers. And he’s well on his way to doing that.

“I hate failing,” says Free, who heads up the family business Wattle Organic Farms, the largest organic farm in Victoria with continuing expansion in its sights. “We know there’s huge potential for organics in Australia if we can continue to develop more efficient production and delivery methods to be able to get the right product to more people.”

His belief that organic offered the best future for the family property at Lake Boga in northern Victoria was the driving force behind the move to convert the 200 hectares of conventional farming blocks over to organic production of stone fruit and vegetables.

Today, the Free family has 300 hectares under organics supplying Woolworths and wholesale markets nationally and has also begun exporting. A further 300 hectares of land is now being developed to expand the production potential of Wattle Organic Farms (which also trades under the brand Alkira Organics) and continue the diversification into fibre and cereal crops.

Wattle Organic Farms supplies more than 20 lines of certified organic fruit and vegetables, supplied by the Free family’s private business and outsourced produce from South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria.

Organic potential

Born with horticulture in his blood, Free’s interest in a more sustainable, chemical-free way of producing fresh produce with techniques, such as the use of compost and cover crops to enrich the soil, was nurtured when he began growing fruit and vegetables to sell at the age of 15.

“I did some courses on soil health and land health and you learn that there’s so much under the soil, so much biology and natural minerals,” he says. “And it just hits home when you’re seeing what you can achieve without utilising chemicals.”

The family made the decision six years ago to convert to organic seeing it as a better strategy for the business, whose mainstay then was stone fruit. “We were already trying to deliver healthier food using fewer chemicals and trying to drive a premium with more sustainable growing methods, but we couldn’t achieve that in the conventional market,” says Free. “So we decided to go certified organic.

“There was a big light there – there was space in the organic industry where there wasn’t much left in conventional stone fruit or vegetables. We had the ability and knowledge to enhance more of our produce in organics. And there was size; we were a conventional medium-sized grower, but we could be a large organic grower giving us the power to grow a stronger business.

“Once we got A Grade certification we were dealing with the major supermarkets and exploring export markets and developing very rapidly. That’s what kept us going, knowing if we’d stayed with conventional methods and business plans we would have been going backwards.”

Mainstream recognition

It’s his innovative approach and leadership in the development of the sector that helped earn him the industry award of AUSVeg Young Grower of the Year. As well as recognising his achievements, it was a nod to the more competitive position of the organics industry he’s helped fuel.

“Winning a conventional industry award when there are a lot of high profile people out there as competition was quite an achievement for me as a farmer but also for the organic industry to be recognised within the conventional industry,” he says.

Another accolade for Free was winning the 2015 Nuffield Scholarship, which he’s using to further expand his knowledge about world’s best practice in organic farming. In June, he headed to the United States to meet with young agricultural leaders from around the world before embarking on a personal study tour through the US and Europe.

His focus will be on finding more economical methods to enhance the soil for conversion of conventional land to organics.

“If you’ve got less expense setting up the field for production then that’s less expense consumers have to pay at the register,” says Free. “If we can figure that out on a large scale for organics that’ll be valuable for the industry and get more organics happening.”

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