10 questions with Jodi Roebuck
10 Questions with award winning bio intensive farmer Jodi Roebuck, Roebuck Farm
Regionality’s Farm2Plate Exchanges in Australia feature prominent names in the farm to plate value chain here and overseas. Bio intensive gardener, Jodi Roebuck, was a special guest at our inaugural event held last year.
Jodi runs award winning Roebuck Farm, a small scale working farm in New Zealand with a big reputation for high quality produce. The property has an international following and is an acclaimed model for sustainable food production. It won gold this week at the Outstanding NZ Food Producer Awards.
Thousands of people visit Roebuck Farm annually to observe the sustainable methods used there. We spoke with Jodi at the Farm2Plate Exchange about his bio intensive philosophies and why agritourism and, importantly, collaboration within the food to value chain is so important to Roebuck Farm operations.
- Can small scale farms be profitable and sustainable?
We’re on the west coast of New Zealand. We are a very small farm, on seven acres, and we graze sheep on other people’s land. Our real moneymaker is our small scale market garden on half an acre and we currently turn over about $120,000 from that space. We’re really focused on fast growing salad and micro greens and we direct market all of that through markets, but really the main income is through retail outlets in town. The salad is easy for people to use. They can make a meal and add the salad on top. It’s [micro green sales) going really well, every week is our biggest week.
- How do you farm at Roebuck Farm and why do you farm this way? Who buys your food?
At Roebuck’s farm we have a strong background in sustainability and it’s the more recent focus on the fast-days-to-maturity crops that’s become more and more profitable. Every week is our biggest week! We farm with very little outside input. We make all our own seed raising mix, we produce all of our own transplants. We use a lot of small innovative tools that make a difference—they speed up harvesting, bed prep and the planting of our crops. Also the washroom that we’ve built really streamlines everything. We have a shelf life of two weeks on our salads.
We supply to an independent fish shop, independent butchery, a high end small supermarket—so everybody! We’ve got dairy farmers buying the greens, families, people just wanting to know where their food comes from. We’ve got a big family in our small town of 100,000 people so we’re known for our certification and every week we’re feeding more and more people.
- When did Roebuck Farm start and how important is the way you farm to customers?
I’ve been farming for nearly two and a half decades and across different sectors. I’ve also done a lot of travel with the education side of the business so I’m able to see a lot of production and stack those new learnings into it. Really Roebuck Farm’s salad side of the business is about three years old. Prior to that we used to grow heritage vegetable seed. It’s the fast crops, the fast-days-to-maturity—like some of the micro greens are four days, field pea shoots are 12 days— that’s really given us a business sense. Everything is so fast! It’s in the ground and out the ground and off to retail!
The way we farm is really important to our customers. We’ve been on a national farming program, we’re a small farm with a big impact. Our people, that purchaser, our sellers especially, it’s that ‘taste the difference’ thing. It’s not grown hydroponically, it’s grown in the ground … People are ringing our retail shops, they are getting hooked on our salad, it’s becoming an important part of their diet.
- Do you invite your customers onto your farm to learn what you do and why is your farm unique to your part of the world?
Yes, we do tours. Last year we had about 2000 people come through the farm. Country Calendar had half a million viewers. One in eight New Zealanders saw our production and innovation. We’re really big about telling the story. We also train a lot of farmers who come to our farm and to our events. Passing on that knowledge is how I’ve learned in my travels.
I would say in some way our farm is unique to our part of the world, starting out with a really strong background in sustainability. Very few market gardens make all their own seed raising and grow all their own propagation. In some ways we’re unique but you know the small scale market gardening movement has really been pioneered in north America over the last 15 years. There’s a saying the one thing you don’t have on a farm is time, and it’s the new hand tools that are really making it viable to make a good living on a small parcel of land. For the right jobs the tools make it much more enjoyable.
- Why is the agritourism aspect of what you do important? Why?
The agritourism side of things is important for us. We’ve created a strong brand. People know us and have seen our work and how we do it. I think people are identifying with that and this is the way we’re making the most change. We are talking with policy makers—but we feel by doing our own thing, rowing our own boat we’re making much more change there.
- How important is collaboration in a local food system for your business?
Collaboration in the local food system is key for our business! As an educator it’s my job also to be a learner, I need to know the R&D. Things are changing every 12 months. Watching the movement and the cross pollination, using different tools for different jobs, picking out different techniques and strategies from other farmers and around the world … and stacking them into our production has been key.
- What is the difference between the way we farm in Australia and what is happening in New Zealand?
I’ve seen a lot of production in Australia over the years. There’s a pattern with humans. We need to have a challenge in the environment to seek innovation and a lot of the work I do in the world is in the drier climate. It seems to be the human condition that we have to have a partial crisis before we make change and I think New Zealand has a bit to learn from grazing practices that I’ve seen in some of the drier parts of the world. The east coast of New Zealand is becoming drier so there’s a lot to learn in this more challenging environment. New Zealand could feed a lot more people. We haven’t even touched the beginning of the potential to grow more food and to do it well.
- Is the drier climate on the east coast of New Zealand a result of climate change?
It’s generally always drier the way the mountains form, but yeah. You know the east coast of New Zealand still gets 1.2ml of rain and that’s plenty to be grazing on. If we talk about grazing we’re generally grazing on a younger grass in New Zealand and there’s a lot of potential to create a buffer for ourselves for the drier or wetter weather. It’s just a tweak of management really.
- Explain bio intensive farming ?
Biointensive farming is biological intensive farming. Part of it comes from the market gardening from the French “intensive”, the biological from biodynamics. Most of the tools are hand held, we don’t have a tractor, and our particular focus is five days to maturity crops. Everything is getting cropped in and out very fast. We focus on a deep growing structure, lots of compost, mature plant material cycled through that and intensive planting to cover the ground—basic crop rotations. If we improve the soil and living conditions for the plants we get higher yields and healthier crops. We’re also using a lot of strategies with row covers, thick netting, shed net to germinate seeds, black plastic for tarping. Due to the challenge of the climate, whether its drought, heavy rain, big wind, or insect pressure, it’s really these fabrics that are our insurance policy allowing us to produce say, brassicas, all year round. We otherwise couldn’t.
- How important are events like the Farm2Plate Exchange and sharing knowledge with agrifood businesses looking to innovate? Is Farm2Plate Exchange an important opportunity for you to spread your message about your way of farming to broader markets?
The Farm2Plate Exchange is fantastic for people to meet other people across the sectors and create relationships and new opportunities there….you can see and hear the stories in the room… the takeaways from people. Agriculture is forever evolving and there’s been no time like now… This event has been really positive… a great opportunity for us, and others, to showcase our production, and what’s been working. It’s key for people and farmers to get off the farm and see other methods, meet other farmers and come back with a new perspective and also new appreciation of what we do back home.