Marguerite and Tom Hackett have owned and operated Kiwi Down Under Farm in Bonville since the 1980s, one of Australia’s most successful and longest running biodynamic farms! As they get close to retiring from the farm, we asked Marguerite about what it has meant to them, the process behind their choices and the various ways they have diversified the farm over the years to make it one of the Coffs Coast’s most long-standing and versatile businesses.
Hi Marguerite. Can you tell us how you came to be on the Coffs Coast?
It was 1982 and newly married, Tom and I set off to look for a new town and community to call home and to raise our children. We travelled all over, but the Coffs Harbour area won our hearts.
During our trip, we happened upon a beautiful valley, and we just stopped and looked at this amazing property.
It wasn’t until six months later that we returned and walked into a real estate agent to describe this stunning property we had seen. To our amazement, this property had just been listed, and this agent we walked into randomly was the sole agent!
You and your husband, Tom, own and run Kiwi Down Under Farm, which is one of the longest running certified organic and biodynamic farms in Australia. What led you into biodynamic farming? Why did you choose this method over others?
Tom had some experience with farming, but he asked the Ag Department for advice, and they recommended we plant kiwifruit. So we did – but to our horror, we were then advised to use over 26 chemical sprays on our crop. When we questioned this practice, the answers were not clear. The Ag Department advised that our crops would fail if we didn’t use chemicals.
We were uncomfortable with what we were hearing, yet we had planted a very expensive crop and if it failed, we were looking at losing our farm. Some of the chemicals we were advised to use had safety holding periods of two weeks, yet fruit covered in them could be in kids’ lunch boxes within days! We had the philosophy that we would only grow and sell food that we would want to eat, so our search on how to grow quality commercial food without chemicals began.
Can you explain what biodynamic farming is to our readers?
Biodynamics is an extension of organic farming. Both practices are organic, but biodynamic has a much deeper philosophy behind it. Initially developed in 1924 by Rudolf Steiner, it was the first of the organic agriculture movements. It excludes the use of artificial chemicals on soil and plants. It also brings in an awareness of the whole farm and the environment around you, not just focusing on a single crop.
This made sense to us. The birds, bees, insects, trees, bushes, water; all have a purpose, and we had to work out how to fit into this environment and make it even better – being sustainable and improving our land with respect for the environment and showing appreciation for all life on this planet.
Going biodynamic was not common in the farming industry when you began. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
The biggest challenge was lack of information on how to do what we wanted to do. We were trailblazers, so we had to apply the principles of sustainability we had learned from biodynamics and then get creative.
What types of fruit and vegetables do you grow on the farm? And do you also keep animals on the farm?
Our farm not only grows kiwifruit; we expanded into many crops of different fruits, nuts, garlic and some vegetable crops.
We introduced a flock of sheep, who helped manage the grass under the macadamia trees. We have also had goats, chickens, geese and ducks, and there has been a succession of beautiful farm dogs who have helped us over the years.
Over the years you have also run farm tours and education programs; why was this important to you?
Once they realised we had done what was thought to be impossible, the Ag Department started conducting workshops on our farm as an example of good organic practices and used KDU as a case study in at least eight of their books. Universities started to run events here too, and several papers were published about the farm.
School groups, social clubs and groups wanted farm tours too, so our farm diversified into agri-tourism. We thought it was important to teach people about where their food came from and that their decisions on what they purchased and ate had impacts on their health and the environment.
You also opened a certified organic teahouse, which was probably one of the first “paddock to plate” establishments in the region. How did that idea come about? And why did you decide to close the teahouse?
Our crops flourished, and soon people were hearing about our farming methods and coming to our farm to buy our organic produce. (Organic produce was so hard to find in those days). Doctors were starting to send patients who wanted chemical free food, and we realised that there was a need for people to have somewhere healthy to eat. We ran the “Teahouse”, our restaurant, for 14 years. We also offered a home delivery service of certified organic produce and groceries.
We decided to close the Teahouse in 2007. It was so successful, it took up a lot of our time, and we decided to refocus on farm and family.
Kiwi Down Under, and yourself Marguerite, have been recognised with many different awards over the years, and KDU is a wonderful example of turning a small farm into a thriving local business. What advice would you give to others looking in to starting something like it?
Our farm has been a wonderful life experience for not only our family, but to extended family and relatives. It took this city girl and turned her into one of the “North Coast Rural Women of the Year”; how unexpected is that? Our farm has touched many lives in a positive way, where visitors have taken a little bit of KDU philosophy home with them with thoughts on how they too can change their world for the better. The time has now come for us to say goodbye to KDU, and we are hoping for new energy, new owners, to come and buy our farm and make it their own.
My advice: follow your heart and your passions!