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Organic Agriculture Association History 1984-2014

The Association was formed in 1984 at a public meeting held at Wally and Audrey Porter’s at Wiseleigh. Wally and Audrey had been working with Bill Mollison in Tasmania and recently moved to East Gippsland, and wanted to start an organic group to promote organic gardening and farming in the community. About 20 adults and a lot of children came to the first meeting. A field day was held at Porter’s in April that year, attracting over 100 people, which amazed the new committee.


The first newsletter was produced in March 1985, named East Gippsland Association of Organic Agriculture Newsletter (subsequently Newsletter became News). The following year it was renamed Seedbed, after one issue called Stinking Roger, and continues strongly.


Early activities centred around field days, which were held for the first few years at least 6 times a year as members developed their knowledge and passed it on to the community. A Pat Coleby field day in 1986 at Orbost attracted 120 people. EGOAA started selling books in 1985, at first only two titles, and collecting information that eventually became part of the library. By 2004 there were over 200 titles on sale.


Some members attended the Kiewa Organic Farming School in 1986, an organic conference featuring speakers and discussion on organic topics, and the Association decided to run a similar event in East Gippsland. This was initially called the Summer Organic Farming School, and held at Banksia Peninsula near Paynesville on the Australia Day long weekend in January 1987, attracting 200 people. This became an annual event for many years, called Grow Organic, then every second year before becoming spasmodic. In 1989 260 people attended. Since then numbers have been fairly consistently about 120.


Other organic groups were set up in South Gippsland and Central Gippsland, but these did not last and became absorbed into EGOAA. A Sale branch of EGOAA was formed at a meeting at Peter and Nola Mowbray’s at Sale in July 1988, and was very active for many years.


In 1988 Wally Porter started an organic gardening and farming course at Bairnsdale Adult Community Education. This was a seven week course, two hours a week, and very successful. Alan Broughton ran some similar courses in the mid 1990’s.


Members Wally Porter and Lionel Pollard were instrumental in setting up the first organic standards for Australia in about 1987. Wally became co-ordinator of organic inspections for eastern Victoria for the Victorian Council for Sustainable Agriculture which carried out NASAA inspections. Wally and Don Francis of Geelong did the first organic inspection in Victoria, at Wandin East.


In 1989 the structure of EGOAA changed – up to this time there was no chairman or secretary. The philosophy of EGOAA had been that decisions were made by consensus, and the only positions necessary were Treasurer and Publicity Officer. However this meant that decisions would take a long time to be made and some members wanted a more efficient system.


A proposal was developed by EGOAA in 1996 to set up and run an organic demonstration farm at Nyerimilang Park, near Lakes Entrance. Meetings were held with the management committee of Nyerimilang and support gained. A submission for funding was put to the Special Rural Research Fund to employ a person for three days a week to convert 16 hectares into an organic grazing property, with the possibility of setting up an organic heritage fruit orchard on part of this land. Unfortunately the submission was unsuccessful and the proposal was dropped.


From 1990 interest in heritage fruits and vegetables increased, and this activity was pursued by EGOAA members. Fruit tree grafting days were held for many years where people could buy scions of over 200 different apples, plus plums and pears that members had collected. These were very popular among members and the general public, with older people passing on scions of their favourite fruits for preservation. In 1993 a total of 180 people attended the two grafting days at Bairnsdale and Briagolong. EGOAA became the state leader in preserving heritage fruits. In 1996 heritage fruits project work passed on to Permaculture Melbourne. A seedbank was also started in 1990 and continues.


In 1991 $500 worth of organic books were donated to the East Gippsland Regional Library by the Association. A further donation of organic books was made in 1995 to the Bairnsdale and Sale libraries to the value of $300 each.


In 1992 EGOAA started a regular half hour organic segment on East Gippsland Community Radio, and a monthly organic talkback program commenced on ABC Radio 3GI at Sale, run at various times by Neil Barraclough, Alan Broughton, Wally Porter and Robyn Grant. The ABC program lasted from 1991 to 1998, until the ABC decided to terminate it.


EGOAA decided to offer a scholarship for a local person to study organic agriculture at tertiary level. Investigations found that there were no such courses, however the Graduate Diploma in Sustainable Agriculture at Orange Agricultural College was decided upon as the most suitable. Alan Broughton was the first recipient in 1997, followed by Kathy Cogo in 1999.


A plan to establish an organic farming course in Bairnsdale started in 1998. Talks were held with East Gippsland TAFE to run the course, but these were not successful; fortunately Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE decided to run with it instead. It started in Bairnsdale in 2001 as Certificate 3 with 40 students and upgraded to Diploma in 2003. This organic course became a priority for the Association; however other activities such as field days continued, though less frequently. The course won the Organic Federation of Australia Best Organic Education Project Award in 2003. Classes also commenced in Drouin and at the Epping campus of NMIT.


In February 2001 the Organic Information and Resource Centre was launched at 25 Princes Highway, Bairnsdale, by Peter McGauran, MHR. Willing Workers on Organic Farms donated $2000 to purchase books for the library which soon became by far the largest organic resource facility in Australia. The organic course operated from this venue.


Also in 2001 the Association received a grant of $60,000 from the Federal Government for “Gippsland’s Organically Grown Future”, a project to facilitate the organic movement in Gippsland. Robyn Grant and Gayle Timms carried out the project. As part of the project, Huck Shepherd, organic farmer from South Australia, came to run a series of field days on soil fertility at Bengworden, Ensay and Orbost. A field day at Fish Creek brought out 120 people.


The Association formally changed its name from East Gippsland Organic Agriculture Association to Organic Agriculture Association to reflect the fact that members and activities are no longer confined to East Gippsland. It was also hoped that the name change would assist in grant applications, but this did not happen.


The Organic Information and Resource Centre moved to 307 Main Street Bairnsdale in August 2003, then in December to the Fuchsia Wing, 14 McKean St (in the former East Gippsland Centre for Extended Care).


The Association obtained accreditation as a Registered Training Organisation in 2004 and commenced running units of the organic diploma course in various locations: Shepparton, Smeaton, Ballarat, Castlemaine, Merimbula, Sale, Buchan, Orbost, Benambra, Bonang and Melbourne through Farmbis, a government scheme to subsidise education for farmers. The most popular were in Shepparton where most of the course units were run over several years. Farmbis ceased operation in 2007 and the RTO registration was dropped, as unsubsidised courses became too expensive for people.


The NMIT courses also ceased operation in 2008, but were reactivated a few years later by East Gippsland TAFE (subsequently called Advance TAFE and then Federation Training). Weekly classes started at Sale in 2011 and the course was set up for online delivery, a long time OAA goal. OAA had applied over several years for funding to ready the course for distance education but met with continual rejection.


Conferences were run in 2004, 2006 and 2010, all very successful but much work. Field days occur once or twice a year and have always been well attended.


Several OAA members attended the IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) conference in Adelaide in 2005. Alan Broughton gave a presentation on organic education; he also did a talk at the 2011 IFOAM conference in Seoul, on the organic dairy conversion project carried out by the Organic Dairy Farmers of Australia. John Liddicoat served on the board of the Organic Federation of Australia in 2005 and 2006 while he was OAA President.


Several international speakers have been hosted by OAA to bring a different perspective to members and the community. They include Gavin Fisher (NZ organic dairy farmer) in 2005, Percy Schmeiser (Canadian anti-GM campaigner) in 2008, and Roberto Pérez (Cuban permaculturalist) in 2012. Each created a large amount of interest. The films Power of Community on Cuba’s adoption of organic agriculture and Growing Change on agroecology in Venezuela were shown several times in Bairnsdale and Orbost to appreciative audiences.


OAA members have been involved in the GM debate, speaking at forums in various parts of Gippsland and writing submissions. OAA played an important role in the East Gippsland Shire’s vote to declare the region GM free in 2008.


Submissions were also made to the Federal Government’s National Food Plan in 2011, and the Victorian Parliamentary inquiries into Sustainable Development of Agribusiness in Outer Suburban Melbourne in 2009 and Agricultural Education in 2012. In both of the Victorian inquiries OAA was invited to present in person – Stephen Cross in Melbourne for the first and Alan Broughton in Warragul for the second. The Association assisted with the establishment of the Bairnsdale farmer’s market in about 2003.


Work on the garden at the organic centre started in 2011, converting an overgrown weedy wasteland into an attractive showpiece, including a wicking bed. A permaculture discussion group was set up in 2011 and remained active for a couple of years.


Tenancy at the Organic Centre has been precarious for several years but fortunately has been maintained. The Centre is open each Thursday for library use, book sales, the weekly Street Harvest food swap and voluntary work maintaining the garden, library and seedbank. Security has been improved after several burglaries, which fortunately have resulted in only small losses.


A very successful heritage fruits grafting day took place at the organic centre in winter 2013 to raise funds to set up a garden and poultry facility at Farkwa Secondary School in Tanzania, improving the nutrition of students. A total of $3,700 resulted, which also contributed to the construction of rainwater tanks for the Farkwa school.


OAA has developed partnerships of cooperation with many organisations: Australian Landscape Trust, East Gippsland and Far Eastern Victoria Landcare Networks, (f)ruit, Bairnsdale Street Harvest, Maker Space, Fostering Futures for Kids in Farkwa, Kigwe Farmers’ Association in Uganda, Ecological Agriculture Association of Australia, Organic Federation of Australia, Federation Training, East Gippsland Food Cluster, Snowy Growers Community Garden (and other community garden organisations in Bairnsdale and Lake Tyers Beach), Food Sovereignty Australia, East Gippsland Environment Group and more.


While the membership of OAA is spread through south-eastern Australia, activities are still focused primarily in East Gippsland where the headquarters are and where the committee members reside. This is unfortunate, but voluntary time commitment is limited. Assistance to people in other regions in planning events is possible if plans are initiated by local people.


The Association is run by a small group of dedicated people. It has a reputation nationally for its dynamic and sustained activities and has been a leader in several fields: organic seminars and field days, developing the organic standards, heritage fruits preservation, the library unique in Australia, and organic education. Few other organic organisations have maintained their activities over such a long period.