‘Messy is Good’ with Matthew Evans | Gathered Organics

Cover photo Matthew Evans at Gathered Organics

September 10, 2023 | Wardandi Noongar Country

The next leg of the Matthew Evans tour was a family event called ‘Fun Around the Food’ co-hosted by Certified Organic and Biodynamic Western Australia (COBWA) and Gathered Organics. Over 70 people attended, many with their families to hear from Evans and participate in the associated activities.

The day started with a welcome and Acknowledgement of Country by COBWA Chair, David McFall, followed by a 1-hour tour of the 4-hectare farm west of Margaret River where Gathered Organics is based led by owner/manager Sophie Bishop. The innovative organically certified share-farm comprises several enterprises that includes a biodynamically-managed vineyard and wine-making facility, a commercial market garden and kitchen, a community market garden, farm shop and café.

Sophie shared that Gathered Organics has operated from the farm for the past year and their vision is to grow healthy organic food in their commercial market garden to sell in their farm shop. Additionally, they work with other local growers and producers to supply their shop and fill their weekly vegetable-box orders for local consumers. Their venue-for-hire is also available to host educational workshops and seminars for the region.

Gathered Organics is family friendly and Sophie emphasised that they do a lot of work with young people to introduce them to the idea of growing and eating healthy food at an early age. Their fun activities introduce kids to key concepts around growing food and a popular activity enjoyed on the day involved seed-planting. Kids got their hands dirty in the potting-mix and planted bean seeds into small pots to take home to nurture and watch grow. Another hands-on activity involved a water-catchment model to demonstrate how water is caught by land and prevent contaminants getting into the water supply.

The tour ended in the market garden. One-half of the garden is for commercial horticulture and the other half is for the community garden. Their community model has two parts. The first is for home gardeners that share common space to grow vegetables for their own needs. Any excess vegetables are sold in the farm shop and any profits will help to pay for any outgoing expenses from the garden. The other way gardeners can participate is to rent their own row of garden via a 6 monthly peppercorn lease arrangement. Currently there are 6-7 families renting rows for their own growing use and there is room for more.

Sophie was asked what inputs they use in the garden and she shared their gardener uses a variety of organics including seaweed solutions, chicken manure, rock dust, compost and green manures to suppress weeds.

‘Messy is Good’, Matthew Evans at the Gathered Organics community garden

At this point, Matthew Evans spoke up and shared several of his insights about the garden. “There is lots of potential here. All the soil beds are established and covered so there is no bare earth, which is important. Notice how messy the garden is. Messy is good and it’s positive. Left undisturbed flowers will come and they help to bring in pollinators like bees and hover wasps. Don’t be scared to let plants go to ‘seed’. All plants, even weeds, are good for soil and the greater the diversity of plants the better it is. Reframe your thinking – all plants provide a service to the soil. With this mindset, even Capeweed is positive as it provides something that the soil needs. Cut weeds off at the soil surface and cover with mulch or compost to suppress their regrowth and plant new plants next to them. This way the active soil biology around the old plant is available for the new plant roots.”

The group returned to the café to network and discuss what we’d seen on the tour over a delicious buffet lunch that comprised of tasty, local organic food while enjoying the warm sunshine outside.

“Plants literally create food out of thin air”

Matthew Evans and COBWA Chair, David McFall. at Gathered Organics

After lunch we moved inside to listen to the keynote address. David McFall first thanked COBWA’s sponsors Southern Cross Certified, NxtTech and Soil Dynamic and then introduced Matthew Evans as the guest speaker. Matthew began by sharing that he grew up in Canberra in the 1970s where, as he put it “the food was awful. Everything was grey. Grey lamb, grey beef, grey cabbage, grey potatoes.” He was always hungry and he learnt early on that whoever was in the kitchen got the best food, it did not make it to the table. Consequently, he hung around the kitchen and his mum taught him how to cook. Matthew went on to become a chef.

Before finishing his apprenticeship, Matthew had an accident lifting two pig legs out of an oven. He split a vertebrae in his lower back into three. While he recovered, he came up with an idea. If he couldn’t cook, perhaps he could write about food. He recalled he’d read a book on food by restaurant critic, Fanny Cradock, that was filled with delicious quotes like “crepes should be thin enough to read a lover’s letter through them.” He decided to write a letter to an editor at The Australian newspaper about what he’d learned from Cradock and, surprising him, his letter was published and he received $300. At the time, this was more than he earned in a week as an apprentice chef. Matthew decided that this was a good way to earn a living and certainly seemed to be a lot safer than working in a commercial kitchen. He enthusiastically sent another 10 letters to The Australian without any success. He recalled the amusing discovery sometime later, that his first letter had been sent to the obituary section as, unbeknown to him, Cradock had died a week earlier and his contribution was published as a eulogy to her. Despite this experience, Matthew went to work as a restaurant critic and became internationally renowned.

In his new role, in the front of house in restaurants Matthew noticed that some vegetables tasted better than others. Why does one carrot or asparagus taste better than another, was a question he often pondered. He came to discover that the taste of the food is an expression of the ‘soul of the farmer’ and how they treat their soil.

Matthew’s eureka moment came when he discovered that healthy soil is alive and not simply a medium in which to grow plants. He became interested in soil and discovered, that dry soil by weight comprises 95% broken rock (e.g., sand and silt), less than 5% organic matter (decayed plant and animal matter) and up to 1% biological organisms (e.g., archaea, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes). He started to ask questions about what the soil organisms are doing.

“Plants don’t eat rocks”

He discovered the top 30 cm of soil exchanges all its gases every hour and plants get their gases (e.g., nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide) from soil and air. However, as he put it, “plants don’t eat rocks.” The soil biology is used to deliver essential nutrients to plants. Fungal hyphae are 1/60 the width of plant root hairs and travel far and wide. Healthy soil contains many kilometres of hyphae networks extending in all directions and around plant roots. Plants communicate with fungi via chemical signals they release from their roots. For instance, a plant might send out a chemical signal that it needs phosphorous. This signal is communicated along the hyphal network until it reaches bacteria that can breakdown rock to solubilise phosphorous into a digestible form which is transported back to the plant. In return for this service the soil biology gets food from the plant.

Plants literally create food out of thin air. They take in carbon dioxide, water and energy from the sun to make sugar (carbohydrate) via photosynthesis. On average about 70% of this sugar is used by the plant but the remainder, together with amino acids and other plant metabolites are released into soil as food for the biological organisms living there. Over millennia, this beautiful symbiotic, give and take relationship co-evolved between plants and the soil biology.

Matthew finished with “how we treat soil impacts this complex network of relationships in soil which affects food taste, nutrient density and ultimately, our health.” For instance, ploughing and digging destroys the hyphal networks and weakens the living soil system. One consequence of artificial fertilisers is they also disrupt this natural system and put the microbes to sleep.

Matthew was asked, “how do we get people to eat healthier, eat more fresh fruit and vegetables?”

Our body naturally knows what it needs and once we would access the food we require to maintain good health, however, over time we’ve lost this natural wisdom. Education programs are good, however, easy access to healthy, fresh food is better and eating locally and seasonally is best. Fridges aren’t hospitals. Food stored in the fridge doesn’t get better over time, however, it is hard for some people to access fresh food from farmers markets.

The keynote concluded with this insightful comment from the audience. “This is not inventing a new wheel it’s putting the spokes back on the broken wheel. It’s the way we used to grow food, the way our grandparents and great-grandparents did it.”

The 2023 Matthew Evans Regional WA Tour is funded by the Western Australian Government’s Agriculture Climate Resilience Fund, supported by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development in a collaboration between Perth NRM, RegenWA, the Institute of Regenerative Leadership, Certified Organic Biodynamic WA, Gathered Organics, Loose Produce, Merredin & Districts Farm Improvement Group, Wheatbelt NRM, Northern Agricultural Catchments Council, Midwest Food Industries Alliance and Galloway Springs.