A Bountiful Orchard


Joel Orchard, farmer and food activist. Photo Jeff Dawson

Vivienne Pearson

‘I see farming as a truly nourishing enterprise,’ says Joel Orchard.

It’s a powerful statement from anyone in this age of supermarket fruit and vege buying convenience. It’s even stronger from someone standing among the two acres of vegetables he has nurtured from ground that was an unused paddock only two years ago.

Joel Orchard, farmer and food activist, is becoming a go-to person in the region on topics such as farming, food sovereignty and ecological agriculture.

His big-picture aim is to put the northern rivers on the map as a ‘clean food region’. By this, he means a region where food is produced in a way that equally benefits farmers, consumers and the environment. As he has pursued this aim, and realised how many issues need attention, Joel’s endeavours have expanded.

Firstly, there is a need for farmers. As the current average age of Australian farmers is 55 and climbing, Joel has started a support network for young farmers. Access to land is the most pressing need for those who will not one day inherit a farm. Joel proposes models whereby ageing farmers without a succession plan, or people who own underutilised acreage, welcome young people onto their land.

Secondly, there is a need for consumers who are committed to supporting local farmers. Joel is trialling a method of direct selling that is popular in the USA, whereby individuals make a season-long commitment to buy a produce box every week. ‘Anyone who is interested in food needs to be interested in food production,’ is Joel’s straightforward message to all.

Joel’s interest in food is longstanding. He came to Byron Shire in 2009 to escape the drought affecting Australia’s southern states. He has not ceased to appreciate the good rainfall. ‘The warmth is a bonus too,’ he laughs, contrasting this with his upbringing in southeastern Victoria.

Joel’s background is scientific imaging (he still enjoys photography as a way to ‘enjoy the aesthetic’ of his farming endeavours), as well as environmental activism (he worked with Greenpeace on a GM project). On arrival in northern NSW, he worked with Santos as their ethics officer. He learned his farming skills ‘naturally’ – on the job, from smaller-scale vege gardens and by using his research skills in conjunction with technology.

His current commitment to himself, at age 32, is to survive through farming work only. As well as the two acres, he works on two banana plantations. He is definitely ‘walking the walk’, meaning that he is experiencing firsthand the realities of the broader issues he hopes to influence.

‘Agriculture is the cornerstone of the community,’ says Joel. Most people would make this statement in the past tense but, for Joel, it is true in the present tense. His aim is to make this so for everyone.

Interested? is the ideal first point for further exploration or to get involved. You can also head along to a film screening of Polyfaces: The Film at Byron Community Centre, Friday 22 April at 6.30pm (tix $12 from Santos Organics or, if not sold out, on the door).

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Some of The Echo’s editorial team: journalists Paul Bibby and Aslan Shand, editor Hans Lovejoy, photographer Jeff Dawson and Mandy Nolan

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