Robin Osborne visits an iconic Nimbin valley farm to see how agricultural innovation delivers commercial success and helps local people stay healthy.
On land where generations of his forebears raised dairy cows, beef cattle and pigs, Frank Boyle grows pecan nuts and rice, not only farming these crops but value-adding to them by doing the processing, packaging and even the retailing.
“It means the difference between staying on the farm or not,” Frank said, over a coffee on the verandah of ‘Marlivale’, the restored 1868 farmhouse where he and his wife Andrea raised their three children.
For years, the Boyles, whose home is located appropriately in Boyle Road, Goolmangar, in the Nimbin valley, were no strangers to working ‘in town’.
Frank taught agriculture at Woodlawn College in Lismore, while Andrea had a position at Southern Cross University. She is still an academic, as well as working on a PhD related to tourism.
Like his younger brother, who spent time at Goolmangar public school with its most famous alumnus, Julian Assange, Frank was educated locally before undertaking further studies at Tocal agricultural college in the lower Hunter. While farming was in his blood, so was the urge to travel, and it was at the central Australian community of Yulara, near Uluru, that he met his wife-to-be, a lawyer by training, who hailed from England.
Back in the Northern Rivers, they saw the end of dairying on the family property by 1990 and started looking for an alternative pursuit. As the land is frost prone, macadamias were out, and the tree crop they hit on was pecans, native to the Mississippi-Texas area.
“America’s ‘national nut’ is the only fresh food to ever go into space,” Frank joked, saying that US astronauts munched on the highly nutritious pecan during their flights.
The Boyles started with 20 trees, later adding a few hundred, aware that they were facing a long-term project. Pecans take six years to deliver nuts, and around 10-12 years to become commercially viable. That assumes you know what you’re doing. To optimise their chances, Frank went to Texas for a pecan training course.
While awaiting their initial crop, the Boyles worked off-farm, returning home each day to raise three young children in this idyllic location.
The arrival of the first nuts was hardly encouraging – “A total of three nuts for the five of us!”
In time their patience would pay dividends. The 1,200 trees now in place yield around ten tonnes of unshelled pecans, which are harvested by shaking the trees and collecting the nuts using machinery adapted largely from the macadamia industry.
In the on-farm shed, with equipment put together by Frank, the nuts are cracked, shelled, cleaned and dried, then packaged in branded bags for sale in local shops and the weekly farmers’ markets in Byron Bay, Bangalow and Lismore.
Broken nuts are added to the delicious pecan muesli they make up in their country kitchen. This product is also sold locally.
“The sad reality is that farmers receive very little for selling produce at the farm gate,” Frank said, “so processing is essential to boost your return. I’m a farm boy, I never expected to be sourcing packs, dealing with marketing, graphic artists, or running market stalls…”
His lament was echoed recently by federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce who released a green paper looking at the national food production chain. Mr Joyce said it was “unjust, unfair and unacceptable” that the farmers who produce the food enjoyed by Australians and a 60-million-strong overseas market were paid an average of 10 per cent of the final price.
Moving into rice
While the need to value-add to their pecan crop came as a surprise to the Boyles, an even greater eye opener – for them and many local residents – came with their move into rice growing, an occupation that evokes images of paddy fields shimmering under the tropical sun.
Rice-farming, Goolmangar style is a very different undertaking, not least because the Japanese variety they grow is planted into dry fields, not flooded paddies, and managed as if it were a grain like wheat or barley.
Yet it was water, or the lack of it, that led to the Boyles diversifying into the legendary Asian crop that now has a strong influence on the western diet.
“Around 2006/7 there was a drought down in the Riverina, where much of Australia’s rice is produced,” Frank recalled.
“The Sunrise company was looking to expand into higher rainfall locations, such as the sugarcane areas around the North Coast.
“I went to a field day and got some seed to experiment with, both at Woodlawn, with a trial crop involving the students, and here at home where I put in an acre.”
The results came quicker than the pecans: after de-husking, that first Goolmangar planting weighed in at 2.5 tonnes, not much by industry standards, but a lot for a couple who had to pack it in 1kg bags and handle the marketing and distribution.
Significantly, they decided the product would be sold as unpolished brown rice, rather than the less nutritious white grains, and this move, along with the novelty value of rice being grown locally, resulted in the whole crop quickly selling out.
“People were amazed that we had done it,” says farm-boy-Frank, more surprised by the reaction of others than the fact that rice should grow well here.
“As we know from the popularity of the farmers markets, people are keen on local produce, and a healthy, delicious food like brown rice has a lot of appeal.” They now sell around 12 tonnes each of medium and long grain, which is after losing about 40 per cent of weight from the dehusking.
The rice crop is harvested in March-April, shortly before the pecan nut season, meaning the middle of each year gets busy for a couple that is making a major contribution to healthy eating in the Northern Rivers.