Di Fyson loves dirt. She grew up on a farm and knew from a young age she’d return to one — to tend and plough the earth, and grow beautiful fresh produce. Charlwood is a certified organic retail business and farm. During the week, Di grows her greens on the fertile creek flats of the Fassifern Valley, and, on Sundays, she sells her produce, along with that of other organic growers, at the Northey Street Organic Market in Brisbane. In winter, Di grows broccoli, chinese greens, herbs, radishes, kale and chard, and in summer, eggplant, basil and a few cucumbers. (Facebook: Charlwood Organic Farm)
What brought you to the Scenic Rim?
I had always wanted to buy a farm, so I was pretty much gathering the funds. I had grown up on a farm and my dad had said, ‘I don’t want my children to be farmers.’ And then he had said, ‘If you have to have a farm, you can have one, but you can’t borrow money for it. You have to save up and buy a farm.’ So, I had sold a business in Melbourne and pretty much had a list of what I wanted. I wanted it to be organic, I wanted to have cool sheds, I wanted a creek boundary, I was pretty keen on mountains and I wanted it to be within an hour of a big city.
Biological Farmers advertised this on their home page. I flew up here, had a look around and bought it. My mum was living in Queensland, so it was good to move to Queensland to be closer to my mum. It just ticked all of the boxes. I came here and thought, ‘That’s a handsome farm.’ I wasn’t necessarily looking at the Scenic Rim; I was looking more around the Northern Territory. I didn’t expect to be in Queensland at all. It was this funny, almost rash decision. I didn’t look at any other farms. I just thought, ‘That’s the guy.’ And it was good. It is a beautiful place with a nice little community.
We have fifty-two acres, and twelve of it is across the road, but we really farm on five acres. We lease out the land to run some friends’ cattle on it and it is mostly to keep the fire risk down. That gully is full of cattle, and when it is not full of cattle, it is full of grass, and we get fires through there.
Can you take us through an average week?
I am busy. I usually get up at about four o’clock and do either housework or bookwork or sometimes there are jobs to do in the shed, which I don’t do too much now that it is cold. Then I start organising breakfast and lunch for the kids. Oskar gets on the bus and I run Ella into school at Mount Alford, and sometimes I buy parts in Boonah or something on the way home. Then I come back here.
Sometimes I have had a meeting by then with Lisa, who is the farmhand, so I come back here and join Lisa with whatever she’s doing. Every second week we plant, so we have a heap of seedlings go in, and the alternate weeks we usually do weeding, maintenance and paddock work. And there’s always some other office job to do; they’re relentless — when you get on top of them, there are more.
At half-past two, I pick up the kids and take them to gymnastics or whatever they’re doing, then I generally come back here, throw afternoon tea at them and head back down to the paddock for a little while. Sometimes, during the course of the day, I’ve thrown something in the slow cooker for dinner, and then sometimes I am scrambling, throwing dinner together, and organising readers and homework. Ella is starting to do the dishes, which I am eternally grateful for, and she does it with ease and grace, not like, ‘Can you do the dishes? Can you do the dishes?’ She just says, ‘I am doing the dishes.’ Oskar is in charge of bins and making sure the firewood box is always full. Then, somehow I get the kids into bed and fall into a heap, and start again a few hours later.
It is pretty busy. I have had this feeling, lately, that I am going to nail being a single mum right about the time these guys leave. I think, then, I’ll be so streamlined and efficient at everything, I’ll be a time billionaire. And then I’ll probably go crazy.
Fridays are different again because, usually on Friday, I head into Rocklea. This year and last year we haven’t done much wholesaling. I used to sell lettuces, coriander, chard and a few other things to the agents.
But I have been scrambling this year, so I haven’t been doing wholesaling. So, I go down to Rocklea, pick up stuff from the agents there, then do a kind of loop through Gatton. I pick up veg from Dave and Tammy — cauliflower and broccoli, at the moment. That’s pretty much a day’s work by the time you come home, do the price list and organise the truck. That day ends about fourteen hours later.
Saturdays I have two pickers come — Anja and Sam, my niece — and Lisa picks. So, four of us go down and pick all day Saturday for the market.
What about Sundays, market day?
We leave here just after one o’clock on Sunday morning to go to Northey Street, and we usually get home about two or three in the afternoon. So, it is intense. A long day, and it is sort of risky because your whole income is dependent on this day. If it rains … Everything, your week’s work, is reliant on one day.
How long have you been doing the market?
I’ve been doing the market for about thirteen years, I think. We arrived here in 2003 and we spent a year just wholesaling to agents. We turned over heaps of produce and we thought, ‘This is okay. We can do this.’ Then we paid all of the bills and thought, ‘Wow. We didn’t make very much money.’
I had a vegie stall at the Vic Market in Melbourne before that, and I kind of didn’t want to do retail again, but I think, to make a small farm viable, you have to do something a little bit different. You have to have someone else on the farm who is earning an off-farm income, or you have to be able to not be a price taker. Like, with the agents, one minute you’re getting $25 a box for lettuces and you’re going, ‘You beauty!’, and then the next minute you’re getting $10 a box and you’re going, ‘Well, the box cost me $3.50 …’ You just need something to give you a steady income.
So, with Northey Street, because we resell other people’s produce, we know we have a stream of money that just trickles in all of the time. We definitely make good money in the wintertime when we have lots of produce, and we kind of live hand-to-mouth in the summertime, but catch up on tax and all that madness — machinery fixing, green manure in paddocks and such. I don’t know how else to make a small farm viable, but I think everyone either has an off-farm income or they’re value-adding.
I have always been an organic consumer. When I was a kid — quite young — I lived in Melbourne, and I ended up studying at Burnley Agricultural College, and there you learn about chemicals, pretty much. The thing that struck me about chemicals — we were learning all of this safety stuff — and I was thinking, ‘It is just bizarre that they put this on food. It is bizarre.’ And a lot of the chemicals these days are systemic. There’s no washing them off; they are part of the plant. So, I found that kind of crazy to learn about what chemicals are and what they do, right about the time when I was becoming aware of shopping for myself and stuff. Then I landed a job at the Vic Markets, working in an organic shop — a shop that I shopped with — and then I was offered a space to have a stall there. I had an organic stall at the Vic Markets for about ten years.
What made you go from markets to farming?
I just always had this drive to go back to farming, and also, while I was at the market, I was going, ‘I love selling this stuff and handling it, and dealing with the growers, but, ideally, I just want to be growing it.’ I was also sick of doing retail as I am such an introvert, which is why I don’t have an Airbnb. But, yes, I like growing produce. I have to have a full-time farmhand now because I have two kids. Before, I used to spend all that time alone in the paddock and it was pretty bloody good, and Northey Street is now our one and only customer. Our customer, now, is the crowd at Northey Street.
How do you grow such healthy greens?
I think the thing is, I like dirt. So much goes into my soil. More than anything else in the paddock, I look at the soil. I pick up a handful of dirt — I mean, good soil smells good. Soil that is going to produce pest-ridden vegies or stunted vegies, it smells kind of acrid or something. It just has a bad smell about it and it feels lifeless. Good soil feels beautiful. It has a softness about it, and I guess that is all of the organic matter in it. So, I think the thing is, I loved growing vegies when I was a kid. I just thought it was magic that these little seeds knew what to be. That was the thing that blew my mind.