The organic shift

I was always going to be a farmer and developed a deep love of the Australian landscape and its ecosystems.

We all eat. But we're still mostly disconnected from where our food comes from. Despite an increasing awareness of some pretty unpleasant aspects of our modern food production chain that have been invisible for a long time.

Your social media feed is likely sprinkled with information about cruel practices in the live animal export industry, the unsustainability of industrial farming and the environmental concerns that comes with large scale food production. Awareness of issues has added to a growing shift towards organic, sustainable farming.

Wildlife ecologist and TAFE NSW teacher Rob Fenton is someone who's at the forefront of spearheading that change. For 20 years, Rob has been involved with the National Environment Centre (NEC), a TAFE-owned and operated teaching farm near Albury that emphasizes organic, rather than industrial, farming practices. As head teacher of Production at the NEC, Rob is TAFE's "go to" person for all things organic and agricultural. We chatted with him about the journey that has led him to this point.

How and why did you first get into organic farming?

I've been involved in agriculture all my life and I've always had an interest in ecosystems and the amazing ecology of Australia. As I learn more about food production and ecology and the effects of food production on the world, its ecosystems and people, organic farming and agroecology just seemed a natural way to go.

Why are you passionate about organic farming? What is your specific interest?

A significant proportion of our impact on the world is through the food we eat. I'm passionate about food production systems that take into account not only the economic efficiencies but the impacts on the whole environment, on communities, individuals and animals. Complex agroecology systems have the ability to have a positive impact on all of these.

Tell us a bit about your career background and why you became a teacher

I grew up in paradise. It was a small family mixed farm on the southern coast of Phillip Island, butted up against the great wilderness of Bass Strait. I grew up amongst the koalas, penguins, mutton birds, seals and sharks. I was always going to be a farmer and developed a deep love of the Australian landscape and its ecosystems.

It always seemed to me that food production for humans and natural Australia were not mutually exclusive. I studied agricultural science and worked for Government departments and private companies while simultaneously working in the family farming partnership. One day I met a TAFE primary industry teacher who suggested I should apply for a teaching position coming up at the local TAFE, which I did. I could practically hear all my high school teachers roaring in disbelief, as I'd never been good at sitting still in a classroom and diligently working. I've been teaching now for 30 years – mostly organics, permaculture and conservation and land management. And I still love it.

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

Two things. The first is the amazing things our students are doing. The second is the development and growth of Green Gate Organic Farm (at the NEC). Green Gate is now one of the "lighthouse farms" of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

[caption id="attachment_5751" align="alignnone" width="316"] 02/11/2005 NEWS: Head teacher Rob Fenton with the flock of Damara cross sheep at the National Environment Centre.[/caption]

What do you see in the future of organic farming?

The future of organic farming and agroecology is huge. Nationally it's the fastest-growing primary industry. At a local level there are a multitude of small local growers who may not be certified organic but are using the science behind organic farming as the basis to their farming system.

Internationally organic farming is growing rapidly. The United Nations is throwing its weight behind agroecology as the farming system that can help deal with climate change from both sides. On the one side by reducing carbon emissions from food production. And on the other side by developing robust food production systems that are resilient in the face of change.

What content can we expect from you as a TAFE NSW Expert?

A number of areas:

  • The latest developments in agroecology and the organic farming industry in Australia
  • Developments in agroecology around the world – in particular the work that the UN is doing in Asia Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Nations in helping them develop resilient farming systems and subsequent food security through agroecology
  • Stories of what is happening on green gate organic farm
  • Stories of the development of local food economies around Australia and how different communities are approaching this issue
  • Stories about opportunities for people to get involved in the growing industry
  • Image credit: Rural Weekly

    Do you love organic produce and farming?

    Consider studying one of our many courses such as a Certificate IV in Agriculture.