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Mossy Willow Farm: Creating a healthy ecosystem and fertile farm
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Mossy Willow Farm: Creating a healthy ecosystem and fertile farm
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Mossy Willow Farm: Creating a healthy ecosystem and fertile farm
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21 February 2019

Mossy Willow Farm: Creating a healthy ecosystem and fertile farm

This story originally ran in issue #58 of Dumbo Feather

Mossy Willow Farm is a thriving market garden that uses regenerative, no-till practices and feeds more than 500 people a week. Based in Main Ridge on the southern coast of Victoria, it is run by dynamite farming duo Keren Tsaushu and Mikey Densham, and owned by Berry Liberman and Danny Almagor of Small Giants (the same family office that owns Dumbo Feather). Building nutrient-rich soil is central to Mossy Willow’s methodology, which in turn creates an abundance of nutrient-rich produce year-round. Customers attend weekly farmers’ markets across Melbourne, have boxes of seasonal goods delivered to their door, and travel to the farm gate to shop, meet the farmers and see where their food is grown. In the two years that Keren and Mikey have run Mossy Willow, a community of passionate farmers, growers and eaters have come together around the work. They are part of a new era of agriculture: one where high-quality production doesn’t come at a cost to nature. Here, Keren and Mikey talk us through creating a healthy ecosystem and fertile farm. 

Sourcing seeds

Keren: The seed has all the potential for something to grow and become our food. It holds the energy to sprout and survive for a short period of time—from a tiny tomato seed you can grow a four-metre plant. We source our seeds from a range of companies. At the moment we’re not producing our own, which is a beautiful but complex world. When you grow seeds on your land and save them properly, you’re slowly breeding them to work with your climate, soil, UV, pests; to work with the way you manage the land. That’s how people have been breeding seeds for years. It was never a coat-and-lab job. It was usually the amateur breeders, often women, who would recognise a quality in a kohlrabi or a broccoli and want to develop that seed. So there’s a whole set of tools and techniques involved, which we haven’t yet experimented with.

Mikey: There’s also an economic reality to saving seeds. There was a time where there would be a seed-saver, and they’d be seed-saving for the community. But as big seed companies have come up, they’ve started buying out the smaller guys. So growers start relying on larger companies for seed stock. There is a positive and negative side to this reality, so I will note that small- scale growers like us do definitely benefit from highly predictable and reliable seed produced by modern techniques and companies.

Keren: We’re trying to create the most beautiful ecosystem we can while making a living. And that has in part to do with the seeds we choose, because certain seeds will perform in a way that benefits us. They’ll be high-yielding or have good germination. We currently get close to 100 percent germination from the seeds we sow. We are careful to find a balance between production and making sure the varieties work for our land—and also taste amazing and are what people want.

Transplant shock

Keren: We seed the seedlings in the nursery, and most plants will spend around four weeks there. It’s like kindergarten for the plants. They’re nurtured, watered and have the best conditions to thrive: humid and warm. After that, we move them outside and there’s a period of time where we harden them off. So we take them out for the day and put them back inside for the night or roll up the sides to make sure they get exposed to the temperatures outside. Then they move into the fields.

Mikey: There’s something called “transplant shock” which is like when a kid finishes high school and there’s that period between going to university or the workplace. It’s an “Oh my God!” moment. Plants experience something similar. If you don’t nurse them through that process, they can be out in the wild world exposed to wind and sun going, “Holy shit!” If you make sure your seedlings are good and strong, then most likely your plants will be good and strong.

Diversity builds resilience

Keren: Before we plant, we prep the plots using a huge garden fork which helps aerate our clay soil without changing the conditions inside. So it doesn’t put oxygen and light where oxygen and light shouldn’t be, and doesn’t overly break up any of the soil structure. It’s very gentle. After that we’ll add compost, which is our main fertiliser. If there was a crop previously in the bed, we leave the root mass in the soil—adding more carbon to the soil and providing food to the life there in that transition time. Then we plant these strong, ready-to-photosynthesise seedlings into the soil. Most important is that we plant a diversity of crops to build a resilient, self-sustaining ecosystem. Between every plot we’re planting a big row of flowering natives, which then provide pollination for bees and habitat for predators that prefer woody perennial habitats rather than leafy annual ones, which is mainly where the pests lay. So by providing predators a safe, year-round home, we ensure our produce is protected without having to use pesticides. The natives also provide shade and some wind and frost protection when they get bigger.

Mikey: We often say to people, “What we do here is market gardening.” A lot of the conventional farms are one-dimensional and grow all the same crops. What we’re creating is diversity and beauty as well as food. So we have customers at our farm gate walking through our vegetable field as if it’s a garden. There are trees, bees and chooks. People breathe out and it’s like, “Wow, this is beautiful.” It really feels like something therapeutic, something relaxing—like a garden.

Soil love

Keren: When it comes to soil management we are far from perfect and have a long path ahead. That’s important for me to mention, because we don’t know everything and are always striving to do better. We interned on a really special farm in California called Singing Frogs Farm, and Paul and Elizabeth and the whole team are just unbelievable. All of the no-till practices and habitat creation that we have at Mossy Willow are inspired by them. So we practice no-tillage farming. Meaning, we don’t want to disrupt the soil, break up the structure and disturb the micro- or macro-organisms that live there. The roots of tilling date back to Egypt with the hand plough, then the ox; it has evolved over 10,000 years of agriculture. It was used because short-term it’s very beneficial for the farmer. It breaks up the soil, meaning there is a flush of nutrients that arise after tilling and the soil is easy to work. But in the long run, extensive tillage is far more detrimental than it is constructive and leads to a number of issues—from erosion to loss of water retention and the destruction of soil carbon.

Mikey: People don’t often understand that soil builds over time. That’s because there’s a very strong relationship between the roots of plants which are in the soil and the fungi and bacteria. With the right conditions, those elements are what practically build soil. So if you’re putting a seed on top of hard or compacted ground, where friable or loose soil hasn’t built up, the roots struggle to penetrate down and successfully germinate. This was a basic reason why people began practicing tillage in the first place, to simply loosen the soil and enhance the seeds’ chances of germinating and growing. I think science is revealing, and also practice is revealing, that tillage—and I’ll say “incorrect tillage” ’cause I don’t want to be so binary to say that no-till is the only way—incorrect tillage can alter landscapes in a really dramatic way. It’s tearing up the soil and breaking up that biosphere. So we are gentle with our soil, and as our soils improve, they’ll be able to store more carbon, more water and more nutrients. The reality is that the food we eat is accessing nutrients in the soil. So what’s in the soil is essentially what the plant holds and then what we eat. The healthier we build our soil, the greater the nutrients that we gift on to the people who are consuming it.

Keren: Often, the deficiencies in our bodies are the soil’s deficiencies. I hear that a lot of people in Australia and New Zealand are lacking zinc. That’s because the soils here are really deficient in zinc.

Building a community

Keren: What’s been most exciting to see is people coming together around the farm. We started out doing veggie boxes two years ago, mainly for friends and family. We had around 33 members that season and we’d get to experience the whole process, right to handing over the box. It made our lives so much more fun because we’d get to meet the people who appreciate the food. Then winter came and we went into planning what we call our first big season. And the first big change was doing a farmers’ market. People came up week after week and we’d get this whole other opportunity to connect with people. We’d hear what they cooked with the food. We’d get to know their kids, their dogs. It was this relationship that could be summed up in no more than five minutes of chatting each week. Knowing our customer brings with it an extra accountability around what we are doing—we want to show up with good produce for our customers. We are the ones providing them with their nutrients from week to week.

Mikey: These relationships, whether it’s with a customer buying food at a farmers’ market or a restaurant owner, are what fuel us. We were travelling Israel and one of the chefs we work with, Charlie Carrington from Atlas, was over there. And we ended up catching up with him, talking, eating meals, it was amazing. There are highs and lows in farming, and if you have a community that rides the wave with you and understands what you’re going through, that creates resilience. It’s like the more plant diversity there is, the more resilient and healthy the ecosystem is. We see that in terms of Mossy Willow Farm being part of Small Giants too. Berry and Danny, the landowners, are creating this diverse ecosystem of businesses that can support each other and create the necessary change. The resilience of a new economy will come from people sharing a story and a vision. So that relationship between landowner and farmer is also hugely important, between the farmers and visionaries amongst us to put our powers and finances together and do the work. That’s the only way we can create magic. Also the ideas and the fun that’s come out of Berry and Danny being involved and energised by this work has been amazing. We open the farm gate up and it’s a time for us to hang out together. They bake cakes and come down, help us set up, chat with the customers. It’s a beautiful thing.

Nature’s metaphors

Mikey: The appeal of farming for me was being able to work outside and witness things. I think the lifestyle now is a little more fast-paced and intense than I imagined it to be. I thought it would be slower, some quieter moments watching eagles fly over the farm. Mostly if that happens I’ll be like, “Whoa, beautiful!” and then put my head down and start picking. I think we will get to that point, where we work a bit easier, but at the moment we’re growing and still have lots to learn. Often, interacting with nature prompts me to observe myself, and ask what the best “me” would look like if I tended to myself the way I tended to my crops. Weeds are a big metaphor for life. Weeds will always be in a crop field. The conventional farming method is to go in and spray. But you never get rid of them. People perceive weeds as a battle in the war, the same way we might perceive certain parts of ourselves we wish weren’t there. The real path is not to have that negative relationship with weeds, but rather understand that they’re a natural part of the system. The weeds will always be there, and they’ll be in you. The work is to keep them at bay. Meditating for me is going inward and picking out a few weeds and ensuring they don’t grow so large that they overwhelm me— same way that we do weekly sessions weeding the fields, keeping the system in check and balanced.

The decision to become a farmer

Keren: I can point to the minute where I decided I wanted to do this. I’m from Israel, I went to the army and when I finished I was all about social justice. That was my path: working with youth movements and youth at risk. Then I went travelling and volunteered with an NGO group working in Nepal. I was on a team for women and early child development, and there was also a cultural team who I went to visit one day. They were living in this rural village in a house with this tiny kitchen garden out front. An American guy called Matthew was in charge of it, and he’d give orders. Suddenly I was completely in love with tending to this garden. I would wake at 6am, freezing cold, and obsessively water the carrots—waiting desperately for them to grow. That whole lifestyle of being outside, being with the other guys in this village, seeing them working from home with kids running around going to get the buffalo milk, it was incredible. And I didn’t struggle with any of it. I jumped out of bed to do it. I dug this crazy dam by hand because it was so rewarding. I came back to Israel and decided this is what I had to, I found a permaculture education centre in a kibbutz and spent the next three years there. That’s where I met Mikey—he had been visiting from Melbourne, working there. After that, we went to California and eventually this opportunity came up. When we got here, we couldn’t leave.

Farming is NOT romantic

Keren: Farming is such a rollercoaster. Like, it’s not romantic.

Mikey: It’s so romantic.

Keren: It’s hard work, really hard work.

Mikey: Getting to watch the eagles fly overhead.

Keren: Getting up early, sometimes working long into the night.

Mikey: Walking in the fields as the moon rises with you.

Keren: Shut up! But you keep doing it, because you love it so much. It’s so rewarding and so tangible. I remember in Nepal we were talking about climate change and saying, “What the fuck can I do?” Common question, right? Then suddenly the one thing you love doing the most is the best thing you can do for the planet. It’s such a win-win.

Mikey: And you get to cook a great meal at the end of the day.

Keren: And you’ll never really be poor because you always have food.

Valuing food

Keren: A big part of the change that needs to happen is recognising the value of food. We value things with money in this ridiculous way where we will spend a thousand dollars on an iPhone but struggle to spend five dollars on a head of broccoli, which involves so much work. I think once people visit the farm, walk around or work in it, they understand how much work goes into the five-dollar head of broccoli that sits in the field for three months. The working of the soil, the feeding, the watering, the constant attention and care.

Mikey: I had someone give me the raised eyebrows when she put one of our garlics on the scale and saw the price of it. I said to her, “This sat in the field for seven-and-a-half months. And we had to nurture it to get to this point.” Then she looked at me and said, “Alright!” Just like that. In her head she went, What is three dollars for a big head of garlic when eight months is a long time? It’s important for customers to understand that eating from organic farms and supporting farmers can be a lifestyle for them. We want them to understand the seasonality of food and get excited when tomatoes come in. Customers, at the end of the day, are the ones who will move this forward.

This article is part of our healing the land campaign at Dumbo Feather. For more stories, inspiration and ideas, purchase Issue 58—”Healing the Land” or subscribe.

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