Stephen Pennell farmed conventionally for over thirty years. After becoming unwell, his wife, Angela, finally convinced Stephen to begin farming organically. Steve now says he wishes he’d made the change years ago. They sell their vegies at markets in Brisbane and locally. The Pennells are passionate about their organic leafy greens and vegetables, and over the years they have learnt to live with the weeds. The Scenic Rim Organics farm is just a few minutes drive from Lake Moogerah, a beautiful area in the heart of the Scenic Rim. Their roadside stall is often brimming with glorious just-picked greens, vegies, and Ange’s homemade jams and chutneys. (www.scenicrimorganics.com.au)
STEPHEN & ANGELA PENNELL
How long have you been in the area?
ANGELA: I’ve been married since 1985, so that’s thirty years this year. I grew up on Tamborine Mountain. It was hard to go from my beautiful mountain. It was dry here when we were first married, I think. It rains a lot — or it used to — up on the mountain. But this has a different beauty. It is gorgeous. That vista — you never get sick of it. It is really something else. After a little bit of rain, the air is always cleaner and greener.
Where did you meet Stephen?
ANGELA: He’s a Salvo and my mother used to coordinate the collection for the Red Shield Appeal for Tamborine Mountain. They always sent over a crew from this part of the world and he was one of them. He came to my twenty-first and then we started going out. Eighteen months later, we were married. So, that’s thirty years.
My background is farming. My dad was a dairy farmer, first of all, then he went into avocados and rhubarb on the mountain. I picked an awful lot of rhubarb as a child.
What does Scenic Rim Organics grow?
ANGELA: In the winter we grow silverbeet; three sorts of kale — curly green kale, red kale and cavalo nero, the black kale; shallots and leeks; broccoli; sugar snap peas … We are certified organic, and that’s our difference.
STEPHEN: The only difference between us and a lot of farms is you’ll see lots of weeds on our place in certain paddocks. And if there weren’t weeds, you’d scratch your head and wonder why. ‘Is it organic?’ To the conventional farmer, it nearly drives them nuts. They just can’t stand to see one weed. But we tend to catagorise them. We have the bad weeds that we know we have to get on top of, but there are certain weeds you just live with, and, funnily enough, if you leave a few, you do get a few more beneficial insects. But I wasn’t … This is the lady that has driven us to get into organics.
Why did you want to grow organically?
ANGELA: I wanted to do it years before we actually did it because the neighbours — the people who used to own the property next door — were into organics. It was the way I was brought up. We put very little bad stuff on the rhubarb or the avocados, just chook manure and good things. And my mother always had a vegie garden and we just didn’t spray anything. We either got rid of the weeds manually or lived with them. Stephen came home one day and said he had a massive headache. That happened two or three times and I said, ‘Well, mate, it is time to do what you need to do.’
STEPHEN: Broccoli, for the uninitiated, it is the thing that grubs like the most. Broccoli, cauliflowers, cabbages and wombok cabbage — they’ll move countries to come over to eat it. Consequently, you used to have to spray every week with probably the strongest organophosphate — what we call a bad spray — on the market. We were growing it and picking it into bins. I used to suit up with the overalls, the mask, the gloves, the rubber boots and do everything by the book. And I wouldn’t actually get crook when I was spraying, but about four days later you always go to a paddock to see what sort of a job the spray has done. One day, I came down to the paddock, and as soon as I leant over the bushes I started to get this dull headache right at the back of my head. I didn’t think anything of it. The next week, the same thing happened, only a little bit more severe. Over a period of about three or four different occasions … Anyway, I went to the doctor about it and had a blood test, and he said, ‘You’ve obviously reached your limit with that chemical.’ That was the catalyst for me getting on board with organics.
ANGELA: Giving kudos where it is due, he is the one that did all of the paperwork. It was just my initial idea. He is the one with all of the knowledge; he’s the farmer. I really just pick it, do the bookwork and cook. That’s pretty much the division of labour.
Is growing organic produce financially viable?
ANGELA: We wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t. I am not going to do that anymore. I did that for too long.
STEPHEN: We don’t have a big farm; it is only small. It suits us at this time of life. We employ backpackers.
ANGELA: Getting back to what we grow … That’s the winter crops. And, with the summer crops, pumpkins are our number one seller, and, after that, probably cherry tomatoes, eggplant, a few melons and rockmelons, and other bits and pieces as well.
STEPHEN: Around 99.5% of conventional growers in Australia are trying to do the right thing. Anyone that has stayed in small crops, in conventional vegetable crops, they’ve had to borrow the sort of money that you don’t really pay off in a generation. It’s a huge investment. That’s probably the other thing with organics, being on a small farm — it suits us. We weren’t prepared to go down that road.
Is growing organic produce challenging?
ANGELA: We’re just learning. I feel like we’re on the first rung of the ladder with organics. Our kids think we’re mad. It is labour intensive, it is very hot out there, and there’s no easy way to pick a bunch of silverbeet. It is very physical, but I have a good resume of picking rhubarb as a kid, so I am pretty good at it … not to blow my own trumpet.
STEPHEN: We’re just at that stage where we want something that suits our lifestyle. We have ideas for expanding. The one thing with organics is, you’ve got to remember, whatever the market is for conventional carrots, divide it by thirty and that’s what it is. That’s what stops people starting up and flooding the market. Our little edge over a few other growers in South East Queensland is our closeness to the market. I can get stuff there in a little ute if they’re short on an order. All I need is half a day’s notice, and they don’t have to get it from Victoria or Tassie. With fruit and vegetables, if you can get it on someone’s table in twelve hours, that’s the ultimate, and you work back from there. That’s probably why we don’t have any trouble selling our stuff. I think organics will pick up. Don’t quote me, but I think organics is about four per cent of the market. It is a lifestyle linked with a business.
ANGELA: I also grow these rosellas. I sell a lot of rosella jam and cherry tomato chutney.
Has anyone in particular inspired or helped you?
STEPHEN: My dad was the local butcher for the best part of thirty or forty years, then he sold it to my brother who did it for another six or seven years. We grow about eight to ten acres of the intensive leafy vegetables in a block every winter, and we rotate five blocks. Backpackers help, and my dad comes and does a bit of tractor work — he’s eighty and he has one arm! Tom Pennell — he’s an inspiration.
Can you describe a typical day?
STEPHEN: A typical day is: I might go down early, put the bins out and get everything ready to rock’n’roll. The backpackers come up here for breakfast. We usually look at an eight o’clock start. As it gets hotter, we start earlier. By December, we’ll be looking to start at six-thirty.
ANGELA: Last week we had five wwooffers. We go down at eight o’clock and pick for a couple of hours to do whatever orders are there for the day. Usually a couple of hundred of everything, which is quite a bit of picking. And then, after lunch, they do the other things that require washing — the leeks and the shallots have to be washed — and they’ll bunch those up. After, in the afternoon, if there’s any time left, we send them chipping … You know what that is? Chipping the weeds with a hoe. We do our picking in the morning when it is cool and we can get it into the cool room straight away.
STEPHEN: One thing you’ll notice is we have a lot of old tractors. We don’t need a brand spanking John Deere to do our sort of farming. It is pretty low tech. We buy seedlings in and plant from mid March through to spring. We started picking at the end of May and we’ll finish the first week of December — all our winter stuff … if the weather behaves itself. If we get a calamity of a storm season in November it might all finish up. You still have all of the outside things that can come out of left field and wipe you out in farming, just the same as conventional.
ANGELA: I give the wwoofers the three meals a day and the in-betweens. Because they’re working hard for us, I lay on a good bit of everything, and the vegetable side of things is catered for because we grow them. I pile up their plates with good organic vegies and I’ve never had any complaints.
What is the best thing about the farming lifestyle?
ANGELA: One of the best things about farm life is I can go out on any given day and pick something from my garden or the farm and it is a meal. I am always learning, too. This year I’ve tried to grow ginger and garlic, and I have a bit of parsley and basil down there. If I eat a lot of it, I want to grow it.