The Weirdos on the Fringe

#EatBuyGrow Talks Feb 19 Melbourne


Salatin finishes and my friend, a boy crazy cheesemaker, texts me from three rows behind where I sit at the #EatBuyGrow talks to ask, ‘Who are you sitting next to!?’ I haven’t looked at his face (we are the tightly packed sardines fighting the apocalypse in here) but our elbows and shoulder are touching and I like how his left thigh looks. He probably thinks I’m Monsanto, sitting here with recording gear on my lap dressed in corporate clothes. To my left is a woman who is running an organic business and is entangled in bureaucratic red tape- behind is a Pomonal sheep farmer with a Keyline obsession- and I can see the back of David Holmgren’s head.

The second speaker is a woman trapped in the eye of a media storm. Vicki Jones, from Mountain View Organic Dairy, is the farmer the media has blamed for the death of a toddler who allegedly died after drinking raw milk.

Jones starts by talking about how inspired she felt upon seeing Salatin in the 2008 doco Food Inc and explains her background, ‘My parents were from Europe so we were blessed to have a very free range and organic upbringing…Always had raw milk…Dad never let us eat white bread or cocoa pops which we thought was really horrible…We had the European understanding of good quality food.’ Jones married her neighbour, a dairy farmer and saw things in the dairy industry, like calf induction, that didn’t sit well with her. ’For a young wife I remember walking around the paddock with my husband and they had needled 80 cows and my husband was knocking these premature cows on the head.’ Jones lists practices like tail docking, the killing of bobby calves, the use of RoundUp, that she was ‘very determined to stop,’ and did. ‘Every time we did something like this it would come at a financial cost but we weighed up the financial and ethical and we were prepared to take the financial loss for the ethical gain.’

In 2002 the farm grew; they got some Holstein Friesan cattle, renowned for their productivity. ‘We got the experts out and they told us what to feed them: soy, corn, canola…’ but, ‘We got stuck when we hit a drought and prices of feed went through the roof.’ In 2005 following the get big or get out line they bought a bigger farm, ‘We were good farmers, used a lot of grain, a lot of nitrogen…The fertiliser and grain people loved me because I used to spend about $300 000 a year.’ Their farm was productive but during this time Jones was paying attention to what was happening globally in the industry: Foot’n’mouth disease, the collapse of Argentinian beef, escalating costs, the 2008 dairy scandal in China and the 2009 GFC. In Australia the price of milk dropped 50%. The Jones’ switched to organic. In 2011 they opened Mountain View Organic Farm.

They stopped feeding the cows grain, ‘I pretty much made the decision that we would never feed grain again.’ Next they developed a model where instead of putting their milk on a truck never to be seen again they got to know their consumers and built partnerships. ‘It was like being born. I didn’t realise how disconnected we were…It is so important for the farmer to know the community.’ Part of their model is not sending bobby calves off to be killed and instead raising them then selling them as dairy beef to their milk community. Dairy beef doesn’t fetch top dollar but ‘The bottom of a good market is good.’ Jones echoes Salatin and the pigness, ‘I really love the fact that we can honour our cows and let them do what they love doing being Mums.’

2013 is talked about as being the hardest year on record for Australian dairy farmers, ‘The tsunami of everything that could go wrong went wrong. It was dry, prices were down, feed was up, fertiliser was up, good farmers were taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt just to keep going.’ By this time Mountain View had reduced their herd size from 400 cows to 120. This concerned their bank who saw their downsizing as high risk even though they had never missed a payment and they put their interest rates up dramatically, in 2014 to a whopping 18%.

Despite the obstacles, Mountain View Organic Farm kept on trucking. They changed banks, supplied an organic factory, started doing work with refugees, ‘And then the big bang hit. December 2014.’ Mountain View got a phone call from the Health Department saying that some children were sick from drinking raw milk. The media showed up at the farm. Mountain Organic initiated their own independent inquiry, ‘They did have access to our milk but what he media didn’t tell us was there was a bit of a time delay. The first child got sick in May. They actually tested our milk for e coli and the test came back negative…There was no proof that the milk was responsible. The Health Department at the time said “It wasn’t your milk”. The other child, it was in the paper at the time and it read something like, “Child drank milk. Child turned grey. Child went to hospital..”’ Jones explains, ‘It should have said, “Child drank milk in September…went to hospital in October.”’ At this point the emotions hit Jones when as talks about the child who died, ‘That child drank the milk in August and he died on the 13th of October.’ Jones says the report will be out shortly.

It gives pause to think of the amount of media scrutiny the Mountain View Organic Farm have been placed under in the absence a coroner’s report when this week 18 people have contracted hepatitis from cheap berry imports. Vicki Jones receives a standing ovation and a bearded heretic like a young Socrates takes the stage.

Costa Georgiadis, clad in black, hirsute, demands to know, ‘What is this?’ of the scaffolding staircase at the front of the stage which he starts kicking. Costa quotes Salatin, ‘The pattern drives the function drives the form,’ and jokes, ‘This staircase reflects the orthodoxy of fear around every workplace.’ Costa reflects on the #EatBuyGrow rally that took place on the steps of parliament earlier in the day, ‘I think the ramifications of today are going to ripple far and wide.’ He talks about the prospect of Salatin incubating ideas up the East coast of Australia. ‘I spend my time deep in the regional and local, fertile compost piles of weirdos across the country and I think in many ways there is a lot of you here tonight that are those weirdos living on the fringe, in the compost that Joel is talking about… I’m in the privileged position to go around and dig around in that compost and take those ideas and then sprinkle that to inoculate.’ I love a good fungi metaphor. I forget about the man seated to my right and decide to start a new life with Costa.

Costa runs through a list of the things of things that are happening in the food movement. He talks about the imported berries that have resulted in an outbreak of hepatitis in Australia this week, ‘It’s the classic little upwelling of a news cycle story but what we need to do is keep talking about it and talking about it through the things that we’re doing to illustrate that it is not just a little upwelling, it’s a freakin’ tsunami…It’s not just about berries. What about the garlic? No one is labelling that it is dipped in methyl bromide.’ Costa implores, ‘We need, as the weirdos on the fringe, to bring that information out.’

Costa reels off a number of innovative projects: the Farm Incubator project, the Hills Food Frontier, ‘My good buddy Steve from Ballarat Permaculture here. He’s been chipping away down there doing amazing things with courses. He’s an incubator, he’s a shaper and he’s a weirdo on the fringe sharing this information,’ The Permaculture magazine, The Urban Farmacy and the Eastern Sustainable School’s Network.

Costa is a big fan of spreading the word. He suggests putting a tube of eco toothpaste on the dining table next to the salt and pepper as a conversation starter. ‘Think about ways you can share this information. You know, it doesn’t have to be standing on this over orthodox safety frame in front of people, you can do it just to your neighbour.’ He reels off sustainable initiatives that are happening all over the country and starts jumping up and down. ‘It is why we are here today. It is about making farming and food a priority.’ He tells how last year Clive Blazey from Diggers asked him to help judge the inaugural tomato festival and how at that festival he showed a kid called Noah how to save tomato seed and this year Noah turned up with every type of tomato he had grown himself. ‘Each and every one of you have Noahs all around them so just look out for them.’

Costa has an encyclopaedic knowledge of projects that are happening, ‘Geelong Sustainable Living Festival’,’one of the schools has turned one of their tennis courts in to a garden’ and ‘I’m launching the Fair Food film there tomorrow.’ He radiates excitement, ‘It is about how we engage…I was tooling around last night with Daz [Darren Doherty] and it was fairly late and somehow I wrote down I chew, I choose and I don’t know if it was a combination between auto-correct, a little bit of Greek, and a little bit of thinking…and it was like I Chew and I Choose. And that is what today is about. We Chew. We Choose. ..We’re gonna take this momentum and keep it going. The awareness that we have, the awareness that we share, can and will change the ethics of agriculture.’ Lucky for us Costa’s enthusiasm is as infectious as the hepatitis in those imported berries.


[The final instalment of this article will be out shortly. But I just have to go for a surf- ed]




3 thoughts on “The Weirdos on the Fringe

  1. Thanks again Sarah, great piece. As I said when I introduced Costa on the night- he is the man everyman wants to be and every woman wants to be with!! Everybody loves Costa!
    Lisa Heenan Director of Regrarians Ltd.

    1. Hello Grace,
      Thanks for reading. Hope your ceramics are coming along swimmingly.
      You might want to listen to Greening The Apocalypse next Tuesday at 7pm on RRR (102.7fm) (International readers can listen via website) while you’re elbow deep in the clay. We will be speaking with Matt Wilkinson and Joost Bakker. It should be pretty interesting.
      See you in the soup,

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