Lance William was forty-five when his health began to deteriorate. If he caught a cold it would turn into pneumonia; essentially, his immune system was impaired, and he knew why. Born and brought up on the land in a farming family, he had been around pesticides all his life. ‘I was growing beans and tomatoes and zucchinis with my brother as young as ten years, exposed to those dangerous chemicals and sprays’, he tells me. ‘We just wore sandshoes – there were no masks in those days – and we used misting machines. We think we did well to make it to 50.’ And so Lance, now closer to sixty, went organic.
Bananas are Lance’s main focus, although since becoming a certified organic farmer he has been taught the value of diversification, so also grows avocados and pawpaws and carambolas, mangos and citrus and broccoli. Bananas were what Lance continued to sell at his usual modest price at the farmers markets even when, post-Cyclone Yasi, they were commanding up to $18 a kilo. As he says, it’s their ethos at the markets, to look after people at a local level.
We have driven into the lush dense heart of Upper Burringbar, unsealed hairpin-bended roads through forest which occasionally parts to admit vistas of sculpted green hills and barely a trace of civilisation. There, suddenly, is habitation in the form of a big timber house, barking dogs and tattooed teenagers and Lance himself coming to greet us. On the wrap-around verandah we pull up chairs to chat against the stunning backdrop of the banana plantation.
This was Lance’s father’s land, much of the 200 acres now sold up or subdivided, leaving forty acres upon which he, Lance, now farms. Because it is all native forest with a huge insect population Lance finds it deeply satisfying that, since going organic, he is no longer disturbing the natural ecosystem. The rich red soil slopes downward but ground cover ensures that none of that soil is lost in heavy rains and its nutrients remain. ‘The downside of being an organic farmer,’ he tells me, ‘is that it’s very labour intensive, it’s a lot of work. If you had undulating flat country it would be much less work. This property was set up for conventional farming, using Roundup. A lot of slashing goes on!’
For all Lance’s belief in the value of organic farming I am struck by a bleakness in his attitude. He explains that what he is up against is the deeply ingrained conservatism of farmers, especially older farmers, who feel threatened by change. He says that a lot of the people with whom he has associated all his life treat him like a fool. ‘The older farmers – you’ll never change their ideas’, he says. ‘Australian farmers have a reputation for being the most efficient in the world – but at what cost? They cut corners, and the cost, apart from physical and emotional health, is the cost to the environment. I find it so perplexing with agriculture because it’s so difficult to change things, and it’s the archaic marketing system we work under, the old supply-and- demand system. I believe until that’s changed
it’ll be a tough slog for farmers. I’ve got ideas how things could be changed, but they’re pretty radical. The system is so entrenched – everyone is so comfortable with the system in the supply chain.’
Lance does, however, concede that people’s increasing awareness about aspects such as clean food, provenance and food miles, via farmers markets and education, gives cause for hope. He also believes that the value of farmers should be equivalent to that of professionals like doctors and lawyers. ‘Producing food is very important,’ he quietly understates. Given the tenuous status of global food security at the moment, I could not agree more.