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Rural News

January 2000, by Heather Chalmers

Making his first tentative steps in to organic farming 15 years ago, Tim Chamberlain says he initially wanter to be a "closet organic farmer".

His cover was quickly blown when a friend put up a sign facing the road proclaiming "Don't panic it's organic" in his first paddock or organic wheat.

For Tim Chamberlain and his wife Rose Donaghy, who farm at Leeston, in Central Canterbury, a lot has changed since then - the crops they grow, the markets they grow for and management.
This season, for the first time, 100% of their 160 hectare mixed sheep and cropping property is Bio-Gro organic certified. As well as making a successful transition to organic farming, they have also shown that returns can be as good, if not better, than other similar farms being farmed conventionally.

Actively involved in the Canterbury organic scene, the couple have now gained wider recognition for their efforts, winning the 2000 Lincoln University Foundation - Rabobank Farmer of the Year Competition, which focused on organic farming. They plan to use their $7500 overseas travel scholarship to study organics on the West Coast of the USA.

Chamberlain said he was introduced to organic principles in 1984 by Rose, an "Australian hippy" he met while in London on his OE. From an environmental pint of view he was interested in what organics could do. "I was aware that farmers, as custodians of the land, had opportunity to more for the environment than most other people." The couple also questions health issues such as cancer, and whether there as an association with the way people were farming.

In the mid - 1980's, niche marking was a buzz word, and Chamberlain was keen to be demand, rather than production driven.

On the couple's return from overseas, his father did not share the same enthusiasm for organic farming, but agreed to trial it on a limited scale. About a quarter of the farm - 40ha - of hard-to-irrigate land was put into organic production.

Initially mainly cereal markets were available, until the family was approached by Heinz Watties in 1991. Since then processed vegetables - peas, beans and carrots - have been grown for the company, as well as local market and to a limited extent, for export. Seven people are employed on a casual basis for planting, weeding and harvesting, while more than 100 people have stayed on the farm as part of the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) scheme. As the property is close to the University and Crown Research Institutes at Lincoln, it has also been used for organic trial work.
The growing network of people involved in organics - growers, marketers and processors - were an important part of their business - said Chamberlain.

"When we are growing a crop like carrots, onions or potatoes, we like to have a process option, a fresh local market option and an export option. We focus on growing five or six main crops and experimenting with two or three others" To get the best returns they aim to be flexible in what they grow, "and on a cropping farm it is not that difficult".

In 1985, before the move to organics, the farm used to have four crops and sheep. Now it grows 11 crops with 850 ewes. This season, crops range from the more established processed vegetable to and experimental 0.3ha of dandelion and o.2ha of shallots. On a financial basis over the last 15 years, the farm had ranked slightly above the average for operating surplus per hectare compared with their accountant's conventional intensive cropping farmers. Over the same time they have been able to buy the farm from Chamberlain's parents. Chamberlain said it was satisfying that the financial results had continued to be maintained while they were converting to organics, "something that in a lot of countries people get subsidised to do".

To enhance the environmental features of the farm they have established three wetland areas and have an ongoing programme of fencing off and planting corners.

Although the couple are interested in the philosophy of organics, this is balanced by the commercial need to run a successful business.

In future they will grow fewer crops but for a bigger spread of markets, and to be more involved with consumers. They are also widening their interest in organic growing, this year becoming involved in a joint venture growing 20 ha of organic apples at Ashburton.

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Copyright Timothy P. Chamberlain. Page last modified on 12 June, 2004