North Arm Farm Collective

By Anna Dowd

We all need to eat and for local farmer Tom Macindoe, the future of food is small scale, local and regenerative farming.

At The Mandarin Bend, their farm in Nambucca Valley, Macindoe and partner Kaycee Simuong are walking the talk – and joining forces with other small scale farmers to make it viable.

Alongside Alex Columbe and Kerryn McFarlane at Harvest Owl, and Camilla Bonicci and Bryce King from Autarky Farm, they form the North Arm Farms – a collective delivering fresh picked produce to the area via online ordering of vegie boxes, and selling at the Bellingen markets.

Macindoe says they were friends all riding the highs and lows of being small scale organic growers, when they realised joining forces was a more viable, and ultimately, resilient way forward.

“Farming is risky, because you’re trying to work a business within chaotic natural systems. You’re at the whims of mother nature and you realise that. Then there’s market prices and just so many things that make farming a really big gamble.

“By working collaboratively we can ride the shocks and the seasons more easily, and have enough to offer customers that want to buy a box direct from us.”

The differences in scale and micro-climates at all three farms allows them to bring a mix of seasonal produce to the table week to week.

“The guys at Harvest Owl in Valla rural have a different situation to the top end of Nambucca here, so those guys can grow things we can’t in the winter like beans and even zucchinis and tomatoes right through the cooler months, whereas we get frost up here, so tend to grow those cold loving plants that need that to sweeten them up.”

Terms like regenerative farming and food resilience are popping up more frequently in recent times, and for Macindoe, small scale growers are at the coal face of changing our broken food system.

“The shocks to the existing food system are coming more frequently now with extreme weather events and things like this pandemic – they really highlight how much we all still rely on refrigerated transport to get things to supermarket shelves from great distances.

“Businesses like ours where we’re selling to the local area, the transport miles are small and the people who’re purchasing our produce know us directly – it’s tight.”

Perhaps the biggest investment in doing food this way, is a passion close to any regenerative farmers heart – soil health.

“I could talk about soil forever!,” Macindoe laughs. “Regenerative farming is taking a degraded base, which is just about everything we have now worldwide, and trying to rebuild the soil’s organic matter. Every time we take a crop off the ground, if you don’t work with that soil in the right way, you are degrading it.

“ We do things like not turning our soil, we’re layering it, so we take the cream off the top but then we add a lot of compost and other processes and imputs that stimulate the soil microbiology, the bacteria and the fungi.

“Then you get a thing called soil crumb structure, which is soil with that beautiful dark, crumbly, moist chocolate cake look about it. That’s the ultimate goal of any regenerative farmer, crops just tend to thrive in it.

“We don’t just want to sustain a system, we want to improve upon it.”

It’s a simple enough equation, and done right, the result is food that’s packed all the good stuff – nutrients.

“If your soil is unhealthy, your crops are going to be unhealthy and you’re going to be open to all sorts of problems going into the future. But also, your foods not going to be as nutrient dense.

“We’re really fortunate in this area that we’ve got communities that truly appreciate quality food.

Eating high quality nutrient dense food has a real impact on people’s health. Saying that our food is more nutrient dense from the food you get from Coles and Woolies is not just a gimmick, we test for this stuff.”

Ask Macindoe what he loves about his job, and he says there’s so many things – and providing people with nourishing food and seeing the soil get better each year are up the top of the list.

“Knowing how appreciative people are and that people who’ve brought our produce are taking it home to nourish their families, it’s just pretty cool.

“And then seeing our crops get better as the soil get’s healthier. For us, this year has been a real turning point, you can see how healthy they are, and the taste is amazing.

“It just feel meaningful. You certainly don’t do it for the financial renumeration, it’s more like a calling. Having that deep connection to the ground you’re working, it’s hard to explain. And we all have to eat!”