Above David Margetson believes that if the soil biology is right the trees will look after themselves.
Landcare often involves partnerships. In the case of Rita Bikins and David Margetson from Pomonal their passion for improving the environment led them to the ultimate partnership – each other.
Rita and David met at a Project Platypus tree planting event. They married in 2013 and purchased Red Rock Olives, a 76-hectare property consisting of pasture, 5000 olive trees and a covenanted Trust for Nature reserve at the foot of the majestic Grampians National Park (part of the Gariwerd Aboriginal cultural landscape).
Red Rock’s first event in the converted farm house café was David and Rita’s wedding reception. Since then they have developed a successful paddock-to-plate enterprise supplying olive oil and other olive products. Farmgate tourism grew quickly and now makes up 90 per cent of their business.
According to Rita, the success of the business is due to the successful combination of skills – her previous business experience, and David’s expertise in farming and natural resource management.
“We are very fortunate how well our skill sets match. My expertise is marketing and branding which complements David’s knowledge of farming and his local knowledge – who to call, where to get help and his problem-solving ability,” Rita said.
The couple responded to a strong demand for table olives from face to face contact with their customers. The farmgate gave them an opportunity to expand into value adding to their produce. This includes a unique range of salt products, olive leaf tea and infused olive oils.
Their holistic approach to the business means caring for the environment and starts with soil health.
Farming practices are based on organic principles. They don’t use sprays and actively encourage beneficial insects.
One-year-old merino wethers are grazed to suppress weeds in the olive grove and the annual prunings are mulched under the trees. This year extra mulching was applied to keep the tree roots cool and save on irrigation requirements. They purchased wheaten straw and duck manure for this purpose.
“We feel that if we can get the soil biology right the trees can then look after themselves. We feel soil health is the main driver of health in the grove,” David said.
Restrictions due to COVID-19 have given them more time to concentrate on farming.
“We’ve had an opportunity to breathe, stop, look and work on the grove. We improved our harvesting practices. It used to take two weeks, but this year we harvested within the day and were able to get the olives to press within 24 hours. This ensured that our product was of extra virgin standard,” Rita said.
Other innovations to the business include environmentally sound packaging. The salt bags are made of biodegradable cornstarch and the olive oil is packaged in cardboard casks with bladders. Rita has been keen to avoid the use of glass which is currently only produced overseas.
“We’ve put a lot of effort into being as sustainable as we can be. So that we have a lighter footprint on the planet,” Rita Bikins
There are several solar panel systems installed to run the café, the insulated cool room storage shed, and to pump irrigation water from the dams and bore. There is also a charger available for customers with electric cars.
Adjoining the olive grove David and Rita manage a 30-hectare block of stringybark, red gum, grass trees, and many varieties of flowering plants and orchids. The block is covered by a Trust for Nature covenant.
In the last 10 years they have also planted more than 18,000 trees on the pasture and sheep farming part of the property. They are part of the Jallukar Landcare Group’s project to build a biodiversity corridor from the Black Range to the Grampians.
David and Rita’s vision of learning, sustainability, and environmental stewardship means they are active in their community. They are also involved in the Perennial Pasture Systems and the local CFA.
Internet sales increased during the COVID-19 period. Rita explains that what looked like an overnight success was really eight years of hard work.
“Our continued sales through the shutdown period come from customer loyalty. Running a business in uncertain times is about keeping at it. Work it, work it, work it,” Rita said.
Andrea Mitchell is the local Landcare Facilitator for Project Platypus. Andrea’s position is funded through the Victorian Landcare Facilitator Program. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org