Who is Erin?

Erin is a 32-year-old market gardener and owner of RAD Growers based outside of Albury in Southern NSW. This dynamic young woman runs a mixed crop market garden system integrating permaculture and organic farming principles for supply into local and regional direct distribution markets.

Erin is also a physiotherapist and her past experiences working in hospitals and the health system greatly influenced her farming and business decisions. In this work, she directly observed the poor quality of food being served to patients and also how food quality impacted on human health, and she wanted to be part of the solution to improving these problems.

To advance her learning and interest in food and farming principles, Erin completed a Permaculture Certificate with Milkwood Permaculture, which provided an introduction to small-scale sustainable food systems. She then explored a soil management course through the local National Environment Centre at Riverina TAFE.

Before establishing her own business back on the Border, Erin completed on-farm internship programs with Fraser Bayley at Old Mill Farm (Moruya) and at Buena Vista Farm (Gerringong).

What does she farm?

On 50 acres at Bungowannah, Erin farms:

  • Mixed polyculture one acre market garden
  • 300 flock of pastured free-range egg layers
  • 22 head of Angus cattle.

Erin balances her production system with strong values on soil health and integrates the practical use of permaculture principles, including a wide range of plant diversity into the production system to support soil development and the farms ecology to reduce the need for inputs and pest control.

“I grow food the way I want to eat, looking after the soil and the environment in which it grows”

How did she get into farming?

After studying and gaining work experience in permaculture, Erin set out with a five year business development plan with a view to buying her own land. 

She currently has access to family land through a long-term use agreement that is built on a 5% profit share arrangement with her parents.

“We are a 1st generation farm in Bungowannah, growing real and delicious produce for our local community using organic & ecological growing practices.”

What is her business model?

Albury and surrounds had limited options for local organic food, so Erin observed a clear market opportunity to explore her interests in chemical-free and nutrient dense food to supply the local community and surrounds.

As well as a mixed market garden, the farm model includes a small flock of pasture managed chickens for egg production. These follow a small herd of cattle managed through cell grazing to improve pasture under a holistic management technique.

“It’s a puzzle, I enjoy the challenge of day to day farming.”

The typical breakdown of business sales is:

  • 40% eggs
  • 30% vegetable retail though Community Supported Agriculture
  • 30% vegetable wholesale
  • Question for Joel: cattle revenue?

How does she market her product?

Erin has formed a reliable and consistent customer base through her ‘veggie box’ program. This involves a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription program, where members typically commit an upfront payment for a 13 week period.

“Subscribers create a relationship of mutual support and commitment between us as growers and you as members of our farm-ily.” 

This model supports consumers to learn to adapt to local and seasonal eating habits and brings them into a deeper relationship with the farm and farmer.

The cattle are sent through local abattoir for sale through central markets.

Question for Joel: marketing of eggs? marketing through Farmer’s Markets?

What are her passions?

Erin is deeply passionate about small-scale and local farming.

She wants to normalise the uniqueness of local food and demonstrate the value of food systems change and its environmental impact. “The more that people understand about local food the more the culture shifts,” explains Erin. 

“Small scale farming has to be the future – we need more people doing it. I hope it’s the future – I want to show people its financially viable.”

Erin is committed to forming strong connections with customers and encourages them to engage directly with the farm as a holistic food system. She offers a “Friday farm experience” which provides an opportunity for community engagement, volunteering, training and education in small scale farming. She runs a half-day session for participants, which includes voluntary labour support and farm exposure and includes an on-farm harvest lunch for participants.

Erin supports learning and industry development opportunities for other aspiring young farmers through engaging a part-time farm hand and is supporting the skills development of Milla, who helps on-farm two days per week on a casual employment basis.

What are her challenges?

Erin has faced a number of challenges entering the marketplace. 

She recognises that in her community she is prone to professional and social isolation due to a lack of an established small-scale farming industry and a significant lack of other young farmers in her region. There is also evidence of a culture of ageism and sexism in the industry; typically she has found the conservative and conventional local farming community aren’t open or able to adjust to new food cultures and markets.

Along with many other young farmers, she also faces protectionism and anti-competitive behaviour from the existing stall holders and committee at her local farmers markets.

The high cost of labour and other challenges restrict her capacity to scale She recognises that while significant efficiencies can be made with scaling up, the high operational costs of small scale farming prohibit her from expanding without significant investment.

Being a sole operator of a consumer-focused business, Erin also needs to invest in marketing and branding, which brings additional costs and added complexity.  Also, balancing operations on the farm with generating off-farm income brought immense pressure, so burnout and fatigue for small farm start-ups is also a big issue on Erin’s mind.

“I am in this profession because I am an eternal optimist.”

How does she use digital platforms in her business?

Erin keeps in contact with her consumer base and local community through a weekly farm newsletter to her members. 

She uses Instagram and Facebook to support communications with her customers and to promote the values of small scale farming and local food to her community.  Social media also helps tell tell her story and provides a platform for online shopping.

Erin also uses social media to communicate directly with peers and to help overcome distance to like minded growers.  She has found support online through forums and through other mentor farmers, notably Fraser Bayley and Justin Russell. She also accesses information and ideas through podcasts, books and by visiting other farms.

How does she innovate in her business?

Erin has been market gardening as RAD Growers for the past three years and has made significant investments in infrastructure, equipment and other assets to ensure the success of her small farm business. These include the purchase of a van, tractor, packing shed, irrigation system, coolroom, poly-tunnel tools and equipment. 

What is her advice for new starters?

“Get experience, it is a steep learning curve.” 

What’s next for RAD Growers?

Erin is currently assessing options to integrate school field trips, work experience and traineeships for local schools in the hope that education platforms and exposing young people will feed back into the food system and agricultural economy.

Summary Snapshot

  • Erin O’Callaghan (32) 
  • Small Scale Farming | Local Food
  • Bungowannah 2640 approx 20km from Albury – Southern NSW
  • 50 Acres
  • 1 Acre market garden | Mixed crop polyculture
  • 300 flock pastured free range egg layers | 22 head of Angus

References: The Weekly Times

This case study is part of the Young Farmer Business Program’s series on Small Scale Scale Farming. Be sure to check out the other case studies!