Farming for a living on half an acre

Agriculture success can come in a small package when done with precision


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Taranaki micro-farmer Jodi Roebuck has also found a love for carbon sequestration on 20 acres of pasture where 90 day rotational "rest" grazing allowed 16 plant species to recover , much to the benefit of his 65 DSE Texel/ Cheviot flock.

Taranaki micro-farmer Jodi Roebuck has also found a love for carbon sequestration on 20 acres of pasture where 90 day rotational "rest" grazing allowed 16 plant species to recover , much to the benefit of his 65 DSE Texel/ Cheviot flock.

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New Zealand micro-farmer, Jodi Roebuck is advancing the concept of small is big when it comes o making a living off the land. This week he tells his story to keen listeners in the Tweed Valley.

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Modern minds of agriculture will come together in the Tweed Valley and Byron hinterland for a multi day forum this week, the Farm 2 Plate Exchange, May 13-17.

One of the speakers will be New Zealand micro-farmer Jodi Roebuck, Taranaki, who with his wife Tanya Mercer, is making a living selling salad greens off just half an acre.

Granted the soil is volcanic and the rainfall is 2.3m a year but Mr Roebuck, who trained as a designer before passionately pursuing the smallest of farming enterprises, is adamant that the micro-farming revolution applies to all climates and soil types. Through regenerative agriculture techniques his soil is improving in spite of the intensity of production.

Mr Roebuck pursued four years in conventional orchard management and two years with a heritage vegetable seed producer before expanding his skills' horizon with a season in California.

By the time he started his own sustainable farm Mr Roebuck already understood the notion "you can't be green if you're in the red".

To this end he established half an acre of high-value crop which offered fast days to maturity.

"For us on small acreage there's no money in long season cash crops," he said. The same can be said for long season cover crops. To make things work growing time is critical.

With an excellent relationship with his retail partners, Mr Roebuck concentrates on baby salad greens and fast growing root vegetables supplying a fish shop, restaurants and two farmers' markets with produce 52 weeks a year.

Mr Roebuck now plans to expand his operation to one acre, including a couple poly tunnels for efficiency. In fact polyethylene sheet has proven useful in the way it provides a barrier against drying and too much rain when preparing soil beds for the next crop.

A bed of field peas, for instance, can be grown quick and dense, like sprouts, with seed soaked over night before being rolled into tilled volcanic soil and covered with flat boards for four days. With the coverings removed the sprouts are allowed to grow upwards to 10cm at two weeks before their tops are harvested as salad greens, at a gross return of NZ$750 per bed.

But there's more.

"When those peas are 10cm tall they're roots are 30cm deep so we cover the harvested bed with plastic and let it incubate for five weeks," said Mr Roebuck.

In that time the carbon and nutrients stored in those roots are composted with micro organisms like earthworms and then the bed is nitrogen ready for the next planting of micro greens.

The small farm's rotation included two crops of leafy greens followed by one root crop such as turnips or radish followed by a cover crop which is cut and dropped before covering in plastic.

At the end of the day 40 per cent of the farm's time is spent post-harvest in the form of making sure quality is retained along with marketing to retailers.

"That post harvest effort is key to our viability," said Mr Roebuck.

"We harvest at first light, washing, drying and chilling before the heat affects the product."

He says micro greens last in their package for one week and leafy greens last a fortnight.

Retail relationships count as more important.

"We were initially told to be the middle person but in fact retail incomes involve small margins - about 15 per cent.

"We're big on relationships with the buyer," he said. " But we still have a lot to learn about producing at a different scale and in different climates."

But the proof is in the enterprise with enough net income to sustain the couple and free time to pursue activities like speaking at Farm 2 plate.

For more information visit regionality.com.au

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