Hitting pay dirt with garlic

Ian Willis at home on his organic farm. Photo: John Gass / Tweed Daily News
Ian Willis at home on his organic farm. Photo: John Gass / Tweed Daily News John Gass

HOW does a successful IT software developer and business owner end up a garlic farmer?

From a 12 hectare property at Eungella near Murwillumbah, Ian Willis and his partner, Sylva Oblerholster, are one of those increasingly rare species in the Tweed Shire - farmers who make a good living.

The pair launched Sylva Lining Organics in 2008.

It came after Ian sold his Gold Coast-based strata-property services company, which boasted an annual turnover of $2.3million.

The couple specialise in Russian and Spanish garlic but also produce certified organic free-range eggs and other produce on their picturesque property on the banks of the Oxley River.

As ex-backpackers they welcome travellers looking for work in exchange for food and accommodation via the Wwoofer (Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms) network.

It seems like an unlikely career move for the former high-flying businessman.

But Ian reveals that everywhere he's lived he's kept a garden and he has also been heavy influenced by his family.

"Even in my third-floor apartment in London, I had styrofoam boxes growing things," he says.

His farmer father, who spent a lifetime practising traditional monoculture techniques, switched to permaculture upon retirement.

Ian would accompany him to growing workshops, soaking up the information on how to work with Mother Nature.

"I just couldn't see the necessity of having such toxicity in our food supply," says Ian of the impact this had on him.

He was also over the corporate lifestyle, declaring "I've got enough money".

Growing garlic is labour-intensive, which is why a lot of farmers shy away from it, but Ian says it was one of the best decisions they've made.

"Within two years we were making more than farmers who produce 20 different kinds of produce," he says.

After starting out home delivering their produce, Sylva, the public face of the business, now sells exclusively at produce markets such as Murwillumbah.

They expect to produce 4tonnes of garlic this year, up from the 3.2tonnes last year.

Big business

The Australian Organic Market Report 2012 reports that 65% of Australians had bought organic in the year leading up to 2012 and more than one million Australians do so on a regular basis.

The report says more than one in 20 are regular shoppers of organics and almost two in three had bought organic over the year.

Three in four purchases of organic products were made at a major retailer in 2011, representing a market shift as more mainstream consumers purchase organic products.

The value of imported organic products is estimated to be in excess of $220million.

The overall value of the organic farm-gate market is around $0.4billion.

The total value of the organic marketplace internationally was estimated at US$59billion in 2010.

Topics:  organic farming tweed heads

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