Meet: Justin Russell, market gardener
Photo - Justin Russell
Justin Russell was a keen gardener and a writer about gardening until last November, when he and wife Kylie plunged into full-time market gardening. Here we asked him how it’s been going.
What precipitated the move to full-time farmer?
When Kylie and I first started gardening seriously about 15 years ago it was food that we grew. We love growing food and when you do it for a long time, you produce a huge amount of excess. So in a sense it was a natural progression to do it on a larger scale.
The average age of farmers in Australia is over 50, so you’re breaking the mould here!
That’s true, and certainly market gardening suits younger people. It relies on human labour, hard work. We both turn 40 this year, so there’s a time frame! Plus I was sick of sitting behind a computer, I wanted to do something tangible, something physical, make a difference.
Photo - Justin Russell
What is the big challenge facing organic market gardeners?
The first is access to land. I figure you need about a 5-acre block to have a viable market garden, house, a bit of livestock. Around here that would be $200,000. Probably in Sydney it’s even worse. Young farmers don’t have the capital. We need landsharing schemes and other supports like those that exist in the US were there is financial support, mentoring, succession planning, all kinds of policies for small-scale food production. Until we see beyond broad-acre farming, and see that you can farm viably on a couple of acres things aren’t going to change.
You farm on 1.5 acres, is that right?
Our home farm is 1.5 acres and we set that up when we moved here with vegie patches, perennial vegies, orchards, fruit trees. But it’s only really half an acre of cultivated land. One of the things that held us back was that we didn’t think we had enough land. I think you need an acre under cultivation to be viable. So we were looking at maybe moving to Tasmania, until some friends offered us some of their cultivated paddocks to use for free. That’s another 1000 sq m or so and we plan to ramp it up to an acre.
The paddocks at dawn. Photo - Justin Russell
What are the keys to maximising yield in a small space?
It’s a bit of a leap going from a home garden to market gardening. One thing is that you need to extend the season so succession planting is critical. We thought people would want specialty lines, but there is a big market for staples: carrots, potatoes, beetroot, salad, things you can get at the supermarket cheaper, but that people would prefer to buy organically and locally grown. So succession planting is something we need to work on. As much as possible we need to have seedlings ready in the glasshouse to replace crops that are finishing to reduce downtime.
Kylie prepping veggies. Photo - Justin Russell
How many people are you feeding?
We’re selling direct to our customers through our online store. People order and we deliver to them locally, and to a central pick-up point in Toowoomba.
We’re supplying about 20 households at the moment. We’re aiming for 50 good size boxes a week, so a few months in, it’s going really well.