By Ash Robertson (Museums Victoria) and Catherine Forge (Curator, Invisible Farmer Project)
Industry: Organic poultry farming
Name of enterprise: Ruby Hills Organics
Location: Walkerville, South Gippsland, Victoria
On a beautiful 85-acre piece of organic farmland in Walkerville, South Gippsland, Amy Paul and her husband Nicholas Paul work in partnership to channel a burgeoning passion for organic farming and environmental sustainability into their family business, Ruby Hills Organics. Together they care for nearly 4000 contented laying hens that are free to roam the land and ‘graze and laze’ as they please.
Previously based in Queensland’s beef production and genetics industry, Amy describes the journey to organics as a natural progression in both her professional career and personal life. For Amy and her husband Nic, their passion for clean and accessible food was ignited by a transition to parenthood, leading to an ever-growing mindfulness of wellness and nutrition, and a desire to ‘be part of the wheel of change’:
When we had children, my husband and I realised the importance of what we were putting in our bodies. We just developed an awareness of our health and illness, prevention of illness, and really came to the conclusion that it was stemming from the food that we were producing. In Queensland we were producing beef, but we weren’t directly involved with the food that was going down the chain, and we were living in a place that had a lot of cotton crops and a lot of sprays going over our house. We just knew that we had to get out of there. Now we’re farming to produce food that we would feel proud to feed our family and feed the world.
As an advocate for the organics movement, Amy recognises the benefits of clean, unmodified food production and serves as a voice of encouragement for those farmers who may be considering the transition. While organics can often be perceived as synonymous with difficult farming practices, Amy believes that conventional farmers may find the transition easier and far more worthwhile than expected. She readily admits that ‘organics is a whole different ballgame,’ but understands that the benefits are too abundant to be ignored. Sharing her feelings on achieving and maintaining certification, and how organics resonates with her, Amy states:
It’s about care for the animals, the welfare for the animals, and what we’re doing for the future. With organics, we follow a standard and that standard is written for us. We follow a certain way of farming that is great for the animals, great for the environment, and great for nutrition. It’s a highly regulated system and we get audited annually, and we fill out all sorts of forms and paperwork in order to have that certification. It does mean a lot to us because it’s actually food that we eat ourselves and that we want to give our children – we’re producing clean and healthy food that is doing good by the world, both in an environmental way and by our health.
Sustainability and Indigenous land use:
As well as running her farm and raising her four children, Amy has devoted considerable time and energy to raising awareness around issues of sustainable land use and alternative farming methods. As a local activist, Amy has been long involved in campaigning against coal-seam gas in Gippsland, and was thrilled to celebrate Victoria’s recent ban on coal-seam fracking. Moreover, Amy is also invested in raising awareness of Indigenous Australian farming methods. Feeling a deep connection to Indigenous communities through her Native American ancestry (Amy grew up in the United States and her grandfather was half Native American), Amy believes that it’s of vital importance that farmers take more interest in the lessons that they could learn from Indigenous history, culture and land use:
I feel connected to the Indigenous story. Now that we’ve put our roots down on this farm, I want to know more about its history, and I want to know what’s happened here on this land. I want to know what we can do to nurture the relationships with our Aboriginal community – locally, but also on a National scale. It’s vital to our success in the future for our children to be able to learn what’s happened on this land prior to them being here, and what’s good for it, and how they can embrace the community. It has been tragically and intentionally forgotten. I would like to see them inherit something that’s connected to the people that have been on this land for a long, long time before us. We really need to look in agriculture to what the Indigenous people have been doing on this land, and learn from that.
For Amy, her family’s connection to the local landscape is motivated by a desire to have minimal impact on the land. ‘I’m really passionate about farmers looking after the land’, states Amy. To this end the family farm not only runs to organic principles, but Amy and her husband Nic have also built their own off-grid home using recycled and salvaged building materials, and they are increasingly growing a large bulk of their fruit and vegetables on-site so that the family can remain as self-sufficient as possible.
Importance of community and the role of women:
Throughout her journey, Amy has maintained a deep sense of appreciation for community and the value it holds. When they moved from Queensland to Victoria, Amy and Nic were welcomed by the local South Gippsland community, and Amy believes that this was an incredibly important step in enabling their farm to be successful: ‘When we got down here the community was beautiful, they welcomed us’, she recalls, ‘without the local community it wouldn’t be the same journey for us.’
Speaking to her personal experience, Amy pays special tribute to the women of her community, recognising the vital role that they have played in both her personal life and the success of their company through an endless provision of support:
I have a tribe of amazing women that I surround myself with and they’re the people that buoy me at the right times. When you have a family and you’re on the farm, it’s a multifaceted business that women have to juggle. You have to put on so many hats; it’s incredible. That tribe of women are crucial to running any kind of business, and there's a beautiful rise up of women that are supporting each other. In this particular community, there are a lot of women that reached out to us and wanted to get to know us better, and the feeling was mutual.
When asked if gender issues have ever limited her work potential – or led to difficulties or challenges when balancing so many hats– Amy responds: ‘yes, there’s gender issues that happen, and they have happened to me as well… but you’re a product of what you let sink in, and I know that I’m perfectly capable.’ For Amy, gender is not a limitation; she views her family business as a team effort that involves different but complimentary, and equal, roles:
There’s a lot that happens on a farm behind the scenes that women are responsible for, and I think that just managing the family is great. I’m Mum first because I’ve got four small children and they take up a fair bit of energy, but it’s a group effort really – the six of us on this farm. For me, I do the marketing, the social media and the books. I also mark lambs and deliver our produce. I also keep the social strings happening, and the community strings.
Connecting the social strings between producer and consumer
Since relocating to Victoria in pursuit of the organic dream, Amy and her husband have successfully amassed a community of loyal followers who have not only become invested in their organic products but also their organic farming story:
We get these beautiful messages and they mean so much to us, from people that buy our produce or come to the farm. Just knowing that we’re helping people to find that nutritional need for them is really lovely. And I think that people like to connect to the farmer, to the farm, and to know what’s happening. So we occasionally send out little messages in our egg cartons and that sort of thing, just to keep connected to everybody on a more personal-sized scale.
Ruby Hills Organics supply their eggs locally through small stores and grocers, and they also deliver a bulk of their eggs through to Melbourne markets and niche organic stockists. Amy enjoys being able to stay connected with her Melbourne customers, and believes that the connection between farmer/consumer and city/country is of vital importance. Her message to the general public is to stay informed about where your food comes from, and to support your farmers: ‘I think it’s about supporting what’s happening locally in your area and supporting your individual shops that are selling beautiful from-the-farmer food.’ This support can be face-to-face, in-person support, but it can also happen across digital platforms and social media. For Amy, Instagram and Facebook have provided great vehicles for spreading stories relating to her family’s business, and for connecting with her city-based consumers.
When reflecting on her own journey as a farmer and egg producer, Amy Paul points to a small egg and then holds it in her hand as she reflects on her family’s journey. ‘It all comes back down to that beautiful egg’, she comments:
That egg enables me to be in a beautiful place in the world, raising my family. [That] egg enables us to incorporate our children into the land. It enables us to be a part of our community. It enables us to be stewards of the land, to look after our wildlife and our chooks. It’s a tiny little egg, but it actually has a great big picture surrounding it.