Diversity is the name of the game for Vince Haberfield, who is digging deeper than just growing vegies. RICK BAYNE has the story.
On the surface, Vince Haberfield’s Eck Cottage Farm grows vegies, but Vince actually digs a bit deeper than that.
His first priority is to grow good soil and he’s making strong inroads on that goal on his farm at Ecklin in south-west Victoria.
After working in retail and tourism and studying environmental science, Vince has combined all of his past skills into his new venture.
He admits starting a microbusiness in the current economic climate is a tough road, but he is enjoying the challenge.
After dropping the “lin” from Ecklin to avoid confusion with other farming enterprises in the region and stepping back from his part-time job as a milker on a dairy farm, Vince has forged ahead with his plans.
“We need diversity within our agricultural economics, which is part of the reason I’m doing what I’m doing,” he said.
“We can’t rely on single crops. We see cycles with our sheep and beef prices and the dairy price will dip again. My philosophy behind this is that we need to get to a point where small holdings are also an option and on farms themselves there needs to be diversity.”
As a starting point, Vince took the advice of a climate scientist who told him farmers like him don’t grow vegies, they grow soil.
“We’ve got to get our soil and infrastructure right and then you can start growing vegies,” he said.
“I’m still working on it. Getting your soil right is not a one-season thing, but I’m getting there.”
Eck Cottage Farm covers only 1.6ha with about 2500 square metres dedicated to the vegies, with the size of the plots doubling in the past year.
One small paddock started as an orchard; three areas are dedicated to vegies.
Vince is facing a challenge in controlling the weeds, especially as it’s all done by hand.
“I know I’ve got five or six years to get rid of the weed seed bank,” he said.
He bought the property in 2016 and left retail in 2019, keeping his head above water since then by milking for neighbours.
Although they didn’t impact his land, Vince says the 2018 St Patrick’s Day fires were a turning point, leaving a lasting impression that is reflected in his art which lines the walls of the on-farm shop and his decision to move out of the retail world.
He planted the first vegies in 2021 and started selling at Warrnambool Community Garden and later at markets in Terang, Camperdown, Cobden, Timboon and Mortlake, which still provide his main outlets.
About nine months ago he stopped his milking job to concentrate on getting the garden up and running.
“The last 12 months have been challenging to get things started with nothing. Everything I earn goes straight back into the farm and the cost of living has gone through the roof and mortgage payments have doubled,” Vince said.
“I know the next year or two are going to be tough and I don’t expect make money out of this for another four years.”
Vince said micro agricultural businesses need longer-term government support funding.
He needs a tractor, shedding and other improvements, but hasn’t got the financial backing.
Vince has accessed Self Employment Assistance Program funding but that cuts out in August. He will be looking at other opportunities, but a lot of government-assistance programs only last for 12 months.
“Agricultural businesses take longer than that to properly establish,” he said.
While there is light at the end of the tunnel, Vince admits it’s a hard slog.
“I can’t remember when I bought a decent bottle of wine,” he said.
Markets are his main source of income — he doesn’t want to grow too big and have to fulfil regular supermarket contracts — but he has had to miss a few because of the cost of fuel.
The farm shop is isolated and on a dirt road so has limited sales.
“The shop is a work in progress,” he said. It was open for four or five months last year and will re-open later this year.
Vince started his business with the generic vegetables — cabbage, tomatoes, broccoli, beetroot, onions, a lot of lettuce.
There have been a few hiccups along the way, including losing 300 tomato seedlings last year due to contaminated potting mix. Tomatoes remain a big part of the business, although this season finished earlier than expected.
Eck Cottage Farm has a few points of difference, including a small crop of saffron, believed to be the only one in the district.
The saffron has done quite well.
“I sold all my crop last year. The flowering happens in April for three weeks and this year’s crop is curing now and will be available soon,” Vince said.
“Last year I got 680 milligrams and I’m hoping to have over a gram this year and expand more in the future. It’s one of my long-term things and a point of difference.”
While Saffron is manually harvested and challenging to grow, it attracts a good price when sold.
Black Spanish radish has great shelf life, New Guinea bean and kohlrabi have a growing market and Vince has trialled ochre okra, which wasn’t successful but he will give it another go.
Vince has plenty to keep him busy, handling everything from seed selection to sales.
He is getting closer to what he needs with soil quality.
“The soil is getting there,” he said.
“I’ve got parts to the stage where I’m quite happy and the weed seed bank has been reduced.”
Organic lifter is his only fertiliser, along with a bit of dairy effluent and mulch, and a tribe of ducks is his pest control.
“We’ve got no problem with white moths, crickets and other pests thanks to the 20 ducks,” Vince said.
There’s no chemical fertiliser.
“This is one of the oldest agricultural landscapes in the world and there’s enough energy in the soil and sun and in what we’re producing here to put back into it without destroying our soils by importing gross bulk hyper-fertiliser which can negatively impact soil and water assets over time,” Vince said.
“I don’t yet have the mirco-biota I’m looking for and it would be great to get to a no-till stage, but I don’t know if that would be viable.”