Those habitués of our local farmers markets would be familiar with the sight of Bob Gray. Perhaps in defiance of his surname, his vibrantly coloured shirts shine out as brightly as his smile as you approach the organic ginger stall he and wife Liz have been running ever since the markets started up, some ten years ago.
Bob’s wearing a trademark shirt the day I drive out to their Goonengerry property – you can’t miss him down amongst his ginger plants. But first there is Liz to greet me as I pull up in front of a little church. A church? All will be revealed anon. Liz leads me off to the fields and I am grateful as we tramp damp terrain for my sensible boots. Spectacular land rears up all around us: lush green rainforest and rich reddy-brown soil, the sheer abundance of growth and fertility.
Half of the Gray’s seventy acres is for wildlife. In 1978 the couple moved up from Melbourne to a property which, apart from camphors, was completely bereft of trees. ‘There was nothing here at all’, Bob tells me. ‘Thirty years ago you would have looked at this and thought what a wasteland. The transformation has been magical – it’s the power of life to reclaim!’ With the assistance of Rainforest Rescue they planted rainforest trees, home now to koala families. They put windmill in, and now canopies of trees over the creeks shade the lantana out and keep the creeks clean. Their 30-year plan, Bob explains, was to retain about thirty acres of ‘really top-notch agricultural land, land that was state-of-the-art.’ As he talks his pitchfork is diving into the soil and lifting out huge ginger plants, soil which writhes with fat worms . ‘The greatest resource is this soil’, he says. ‘The main work we do is soil-building.’
And to do that Bob and Liz empty vast quantities of both mulch and compost into it. ‘ You need ten times the amount of mulch for the area you are mulching’, Bob tells me. ‘ Thirty six tonnes of compost were emptied here. It all gets blanket-mulched to keep weeds out and moisture in. It’s so clean!’ Liz says that they have tried to strike a balance between open space and agriculture but it all takes a lot of mulch. Ginger is not natural to the area and Bob tells me that they pioneered their own techniques for growing it here.
They started the ginger crops about ten years ago, and it has now become their major crop, along with turmeric, potatoes, garlic, galangal and tropical flowers. Of the latter they have about five acres and are one of the few organic flower growers in Australia.
That ginger, however. Fat firm bulbs pink- tinged with skin so fine it does not require peeling: Bob explains that it is only recently that such young fresh ginger has become available, and that most people are used to buying mature ginger. It all grows, he tells me, from a small chunk of ginger called the ‘mother’. It takes them about two hours to pull out and clean all the ginger they will need for the markets, and apart from help during harvesting and planting, they pretty well manage on their own. ‘We’re doing the maximum we can do with help without going to the next level’, says Bob. Which they do not wish to do, and which is the reason they limit themselves to just the Byron Bay and Bangalow Farmers Markets. ‘If you’re going to run something like this you might has well enjoy it’, says Bob.
Over mugs of tea I ask about the church. When the couple relocated from Melbourne (‘for Bob it had always been a dream to have a country property and for me my grandparents were from rural Victoria’, says Liz) they noticed the lovely old wooden church for sale at Mullumbimby. And so they bought it; it is now Bob’s shed!