Sandy Creek Organic Farm sits happily in the beautiful valley of Beerwah, selling organic fruit, vegetables and nuts, with Les and Marji Nicholls as the caring, hardworking, ‘semi-retired’ owners. Writer, Jacqui Hensel, met with them recently to learn more about the process of running an environmentally friendly farm.
by Jacqui Hensel
Watched over by the Glasshouse Mountains, Sandy Creek Organic Farm has moved to another phase for Les and Marji Nicholls. The farm is set on deep alluvial soils with a richness that only comes from a lifetime of stewardship.
For Les, what he calls semi-retirement would be another man’s full-time work. But the love of organic production and a loyal customer base keeps Les from stepping away entirely.
They are hardworking vegetable and fruit growers who are looking at retirement in a different way to the average person.
They are still rising early to pack the produce they have grown to get it to the markets early on a Sunday morning. While the rest of us might be dawdling over the coffee and papers, Les and Marji have already put in a good day’s work.
“For some reason I always wanted to be a farmer. I don’t know where I got it from. My grandfather was a forester in the ACT Forestry, but I think he would have liked to be a farmer. It’s really only in the last 100 years that we have moved away from farming. Before that, everyone knew farmers or had family who were in farming,” Les muses.
“My wife Marji and I bought a little farm before this one and I followed on from what the other farmer before me had done. I used the pesticides and herbicides. But it never sat well with me. There had to be a better way than killing everything. And what about the birds who needed to eat the insects I was killing? (Darren – can you make this a standout quote?)
“It was so indiscriminate and I thought there must be a more intelligent and scientific way of growing produce,” Les said.
This was in the 1990s, when the organic movement was just taking off in Australia. Les and Marji were in the vanguard of the movement.
“I only knew of one other organic farmer in this area, but they only grew strawberries, so they knew a bit more than I did about some things. But mostly I had to research and find solutions for myself,” Les explains.
“Then we moved to this farm in about 2002. Originally it was 86 acres, so the idea was to produce a broad range of fruit and vegetables. We built the farm up until we were growing 80 different kinds of produce all year around. Veggies and lettuce, herbs, strawberries and melons.
“We had organic certification for this farm from the beginning. Then we moved into supplying veggie boxes, which was an idea I got from someone in Sydney who was doing it at the time.
“Originally it was a mixed variety box that had a little of whatever was in season that week. It was done on a subscription basis which gave me a direct link to the customer and bypassed the market system. As a business that allowed us to have greater control over our income stream.
“We were able to plan our cropping to suit our customers’ needs and it was a more satisfactory way of doing things for us. There was much less wastage too,” Les adds wryly.
“Veggies are a perishable product and sending it into the market gave us very little bargaining power, plus it added time between picking and delivery to the customer. So I thought there must be a better way. Fresher produce, lower food miles and happy customers.
“It was a very new way to do business, many customers had never heard of it. It was a lot of word-of-mouth and promotion in local media.
“I would speak to local gardening groups and people would come to the farm when we had open days a couple of times a year. Often, people would drive past and see our sign for Sandy Creek Organic Farm and they would stop in and come and speak to us,” Les smiles.
“We didn’t really have a shop here. The idea of picking something in case you sell it wasn’t the way I wanted to work. I didn’t want to have to throw out unsold produce. Selling veggie boxes meant you picked the number you needed and the rest would stay until the next round.
Les and Marji ran the veggies boxes from 2003 to 2018. But with thoughts of retirement they decided to scale back the farm so they could do other things too.
“There are a lot more people doing home-delivered veggies these days,” Les adds.
“My wife Marji did a lot of the administration. She spoke to customers and did the packing, she wrote our newsletter and organised orders. She did so much, so I could be out in the field with our staff.
“So, recently we cut back on all the administration that comes with staff, customers, and ordering systems. We are just running what we can manage ourselves.” The satisfaction is evident in Les’s voice.
“We have moved into a more part-time arrangement with a scaled-down farm and we go to the Northey Street Organic Farmers Market in Brisbane where our customers now come to us each week. This market is only for certified organic produce and it is run each Sunday. We also supply a few organic stores and cafes in the area.
“We will be running our farm open days again. We have lots of food and music. People bring the kids and a picnic lunch if they like. I run tours and show people where and how their food is grown. It is really popular and lots of our Brisbane-based customers come up for the day.
“We will be running the next one in autumn as that’s a great time, we have lots of produce to show everyone. I really enjoy sharing what I have learned about successful organic production,” Les says with understated pride.
Sandy Creek Organic Farm can be found at 2471 Old Gympie Road, Beerwah, 4519. Phone: 5496 9501