The Dirt: Borja Valls

Borja Valls is a very handsome farmer. Most stories about him focus on the organic market garden he owns and runs with his partner Soraya and a lovely bunch of young farmers called Common 2 Us, and this one will too, but first lets just look at Borja for a little bit. Ok. Good. Now that’s out of the way lets talk farming, revolution, and a bit of chemical free controversy.

Common 2 Us is a small, organic market garden in Dural, in Sydney’s northern suburbs. Borja and his partner Soraya started the farm around two and a half years ago. Together with a bunch of talented young farmers including Michael Hewins (Milkwood Permaculture teacher) and Michael Zagoridis (Green Up Top) they focus on producing good quality food in a transparent, open and educative manner. They have recently started a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) system to build relationships between themselves and their customers.

Borja and the Common 2 Us gang are food revolutionaries. In the agricultural industry, where conventional farmers are continuously squeezed to produce more outputs for less money in the name of cheap food, something has to shift. The true value of food needs to be recognised, and paid for directly by consumers (we’re already paying for it in increasingly unhealthy ways such as land degradation, and increasing chemical and resource use). This is what is so inspiring about what Common 2 Us is doing – They’re providing an alternative perspective on food production and consumption based on connection, value, and transparency.

One of the main focuses of the Common 2 Us business is building strong relationships between the consumer and producer. Rather than producing just one or two types of vegetables and selling them wholesale (which Borja suggests would be much more efficient!), Common 2 Us grow a range of fruit and vegetables and aim to sell their produce directly to consumers, not through a middle-man or supermarket. This means they can charge the appropriate price for the produce, reflecting its true value, not one assigned by a retailer.

Another really exciting aspect of the farm is the way it’s structured to encourage young farmers to get involved. As Borja suggests, the average age of Australian farmers is around 60 years old, and many young people are not entering the occupation. One of Borja’s passions is to encourage young farmers into agriculture.

One of my main personal goals is to find farming models where we can motivate young farmers to farm…For us this means having the farm as close to the market as possible, valuing the work of our farmers by providing a reasonable salary, and supporting their social lives.  Nothing would make me happier than finding a model that would work in this way.

Much of what the Common 2 Us crew does, whether it’s building relationships with consumers, or encouraging young farmers onto the land, comes back to the word value. Borja suggests value has always been a problem in agriculture, with governments around the world subsidising it in order to support inefficient farmers and keep prices down for consumers. The focus at Common 2 Us seems to be on building strong relationships with their customers in order to communicate and obtain payment for the true value of their produce. Sounds sensible, right? However, an issue that Borja suggests has the potential to jeopardise the real value of organic produce is one of retailers selling chemical free produce.

Borja suggests that the selling of chemical free produce in a retail environment is flawed. The reason, he asserts, is that there is no clear certification process or obvious way for the consumer to know what they’re actually getting. With organic certification, there are rigorous standards a farm has to adhere to to become certified. Whilst the consumer may not understand how this works on the farm, they know that if food is being sold as certified organic, it has met certain standards of production.

Chemical free, on the other hand, is completely unregulated. Borja suggests that in theory chemical free and certified organic should be pretty much the same thing, but as there is no regulation, its impossible for the consumer to have a clear idea of what they’re buying.

After hearing this from Borja, I assumed Common 2 Us is certified organic. But it’s not. Borja’s issue is not necessarily about certification but more about the re-selling of chemical free produce without providing consumers with a clear understanding of where its come from and how its been grown. There are many small chemical free farms, and most of them are doing the right thing, but how do we as consumers know this?

Borja’s solution is transparency. Common 2 Us is an open farm. Anyone can visit and get a real understanding of how they work. Whilst this takes a lot of time and money, he suggests it’s one of the most important aspects of their farm model.

People can come here, they can walk around, ask what we do, and look anywhere they want. We allow everyone to go everywhere. To be chemical free you at least have to be absolutely transparent and direct to your customer. Otherwise it’s a situation that is ultimately not good for farmers. It’s not good for consumers but it’s especially not good for farmers. That’s my main issue.

If a consumer buys directly, they are engaging with the farmer, they can see for themselves the processes and methods used to produce the food. They can make a judgment for themselves as to whether they are happy with the way the food is produced, whether it’s chemical free or certified organic. Borja suggests that many (but not all) retailers don’t have the capacity, knowledge, or time to make a judgment call on whether a farm is producing food honestly and ethically.

How can those people serve a product they haven’t really audited, and they don’t really know if it’s organic or not? They are selling to a customer who has even less idea about what it is, but the customer still goes home thinking they’ve bought organic fruit and veggies. Maybe on the label it says chemical free, but what does it actually mean?

It seems Borja’s main problem with chemical free produce is that it de-values the end product. Perhaps it is organic, but if it’s not regulated, then how can we as consumers really know what has gone on from seed to supermarket shelf? He suggests that the solutions are either to buy chemical free produce directly from the farmer, or buy certified organic produce from a retailer. The middle ground, it seems, can get a little murky.

I must admit I had never thought about this issue before. It’s certainly an interesting one. It reminds me of a conversation I had with Nick Ritar from Milkwood Permaculture. He suggested that eating ethically is a minefield. I agree. We as consumers don’t necessarily have the knowledge or time to investigate the food chain from seed to shop, so we have to outsource it. Outsourcing means placing trust in others to make tricky ethical decisions for us like – how is this farm operating? Is it truly organic? How are they paying their staff? Are they looking after the soil? And more, more, more…

Buying directly from a farmer means we can ask these questions for ourselves. Buying from a retailer is certainly a more convenient option, and the questions then becomes; what questions are they asking of their producers? Do their ethics align with mine? Have they visited the farm? Do they know exactly how the food is being produced?

We need to think and talk about this stuff. Whilst it can be uncomfortable and confronting, it’s necessary if we truly want to change the way we eat and produce food. As always, there’s no black and white, just various shades of grey. What Borja and the Common 2 Us gang are doing are providing us with alternative ways of looking at food and food production, helping navigate the greyscale. That’s a pretty big deal, if you ask me.

Common 2 Us is located at 3 Wyoming Road Dural.

Their farm-gate shop is open 9-5 Monday to Friday, and 9:30-4 on Saturdays.  They also offer weekly veggie boxes, CSA memberships, farm tours and workshops.

 

Borja, Soraya, and Michael Hewins