You often hear about farmers ‘doing it tough’, regardless of the state of the economy, and it is eminently understandable given their reliance on forces and factors beyond their control. The weather, and specifically water availability and drought management, are the big issues in Australia, the world’s driest inhabited continent. Sometimes droughts last for years. Yet here I am in the company of such a cheerful, optimistic and enthusiastic farmer that you would never guess at great hardships.
I first met John Atkin some years ago at a cooking class; at our next encounter, outside his stall at the Byron Farmers Market, he thrust a bouquet of flowers into my arms. Any man who does that and who addresses me as ‘darl’ has me instantly charmed and so it was with John, who did both. John and his wife Kathy run Jumping Red Ant: Small Crops and Flowers, and after inimitably getting lost here I actually am at the Duranbah headquarters. Standing, moreover, in an enormous room whose many windows throw up vistas of hills and dales: lush Northern Rivers countryside. Two of John’s teenage kids are being tutored in French at an endlessly long table; Kath is making cups of tea and as I perch myself on a barstool at the massive granite benchtop I am chiefly conscious of base envy. This is my dream kitchen!
John is utterly passionate about cooking (hence the cooking class; hence the kitchen) but it is after all an extension of his passion for produce. ‘I’ve always been interested in food’, he tells me. And yet his background was in fitness – he and Kath used to own six Body Works centres in Brisbane. In the 80s he read an article about olive-growing which inspired him (until he found out more about it) at a time he was realising that the fitness industry, and increasingly his administrative and managerial role within it, was no longer to his taste. They found their 10-hectare property in the 90s, intending it originally as a retreat and a weekender. ‘We used to come down here to get away and relax’, John says. When it became available to buy they purchased it – although it wasn’t until 2001 after a 3-year stint running the pub at Wooli (John : ‘Kath didn’t like it’; Kath : ‘ I’m not a pub person’) that they thought, why not try farming!
They began selling their produce at a little market in Kingscliff but it wasn’t until the Byron Farmers Market kicked off that things began to take shape. Markets in general were becoming a lot more popular and ‘it’s been the best move’, John tells me, ‘it’s a good association and great ethics …I think it’s one of the most authentic farmers markets in Australia. I want to see it expand!’
It has however taken them ‘nearly ten years to get to this stage’, he says. Kath handles all the administration and looks after the burgeoning business of roses and flowers; John ‘coordinates the farms and does the veg.’ Farms’ refers to the share agreement he has with fifth-generation farmer John Julius whose 50-acre property is a short drive away. Off we set in the four-wheel drive to visit paddocks of corn and taro, pontiacs and eschallots, silverbeet, broccoli and sweet potato, avocados and citrus, tomatoes and capsicum, zucchini and eggplant ‘A whole ratatouille!’, I exclaim. John Julius on a tractor over the other side of the paddock waves at us; an assembly of white cockatoos is poised
on the rich red soil of another. No insecticides, no pesticides. ‘Farming’, John tells me, ‘has been able to provide the lifestyle that we like, unlike the pub – being able to be around my family and see them every day …I think it’s all to do with managing things …’ He is excited about the Northern Rivers Food Link and ‘what could develop out of that funding.’ An active committee member of the Byron Farmers Market, he would ‘like to see all the markets come together, pool resources and set standards …a sort of co-op. They would have more power and everyone benefits: the farmers and the community.’