Phil Lavers is somewhat of an iconoclast: a finance professional turned organic farmer, an outspoken environmentalist with a knack for blending science, economics and philosophy into his compelling observations about our food industry.
Phil Lavers is somewhat of an iconoclast: a finance professional turned organic farmer, an outspoken environmentalist with a knack for blending science, economics and philosophy into his compelling observations about our food industry.On any given week, you have might spotted him energetically chatting to a group of shoppers at the Northside Produce Markets, sharing farm updates with chefs at his restaurants or getting involved with students at his cooking school in Robertson.Most of the time though, Phil can be found out on the rich red soil of Moonacres – the name he gave to a 140-acre regenerative farm nestled in a quiet pocket of Fitzroy Falls.
Here among the rows of pristine and healthy cabbages, apples, potatoes and kohlrabi there are also a never ending string of experiments under way: trialling ways to minimise soil inputs, managing hungry pests, exploring soil microbes, nailing the perfect compost recipe, planting new types of cover crops and heirloom varieties.
Yes, they're already 'Certified Organic', but that seems to just be the first step of many. One day, Phil hopes to make the farm and cafes completely self-sufficient: a closed-loop ecosystem unto itself that sustains life through a harmonious combination of human, plant and animal working as one.
There’s a sense of urgency to Phil’s work that goes far beyond a business hustle. He describes having an epiphany one day in the mid-1990’s while working as a banker: mother nature was in trouble. Our planet’s dwindling natural resources were being rapidly depleted for the sake of sustaining a food industry that was stuck on a short-term focus. We’d lost touch with nature, the feeling of bare feet on soil, the concept of seasonality and the taste of a real, happy piece of fruit.
The realisation affected Phil so much it led him to almost instantly walk away from his career, uprooting his life in Japan and heading back to Australia to start a farm built on the idea of nurturing the planet rather than exploiting it.
It ain’t easy to start a farm when you have no experience; even harder without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. Thankfully, Phil held on tight and before long Moonacres’ fruit and vegetables started winning produce awards, gaining the attention of big-ticket restaurants in Sydney and attracting visitors and volunteers from all over town. Clearly, other people were resonating with Phil’s motivations: or even if they weren’t, they couldn’t deny that the produce tasted so good.
As you may imagine, we were honoured when Phil approached Mecca to be coffee partner for Moonacres Kitchen in 2018. Our relationship with Moonacres has provided a hands-on, local insight into all the things we value about coffee farming, offering context into the challenges and opportunities that farmers are faced with when looking to the future of their livelihoods and the planet.
Mecca: How did Moonacres begin, and how has it evolved lately?
Phil: Moonacres began in 1998 when we bought the property. We moved here in 2006 and have been farming ever since. We were organic from the get-go, it was a matter of food quality and the desire to leave the land better than we found it. It just didn't make sense to be spraying poison on ourselves.
Mecca: What fruit / vegetables do you think we should be eating more?
Phil: Eat more of whatever is in season. Right now, get some frosted broccoli into your diet. Taste how sweet those leaves are!! Food grown in season will always be at its best because the plants are having a wow of a time.
Mecca: What's your take on the coffee industry, compared to the rest of the agricultural market? What led you to choose Mecca as a coffee partner?
Phil: I know very little about the coffee industry except that it seems to be pretty exploitative all the way down the line. A lot of production horticulture is about exploitation, exploit the soil, exploit the worker, and in turn the supply chain exploits the farmer and on it goes. This whole 'scarcity' mindset is just sick.
What ever happened to honouring what we do and what we eat?
Mecca has always had a celebratory vibe, rejoicing in the bean and all that is involved. I love the ground up attitude and the 'who grew this' approach. We know who grows our food. We love knowing that Mecca knows who grows the beans.
Mecca: When it comes to ethical purchasing and lifestyle choices, what do you think are the most impactful choices consumers can make for the planet?
Phil: Get to know your farmer. Think about it this way, you know your doctor and you trust what they suggest you put into your body.
But bizarrely, you probably don't know your farmer, and yet you put their food into your body 3 times a day. Once you start taking notice of where your food comes from you will have a deeper connection with the web-of-life. You are a part of it, not apart from it.
Our sense of self fools us into thinking that we can somehow keep 'non-self' apart from 'ourself'. But this is delusional, because the food you eat will soon become 'a part' of you, in a way, it already is. So actively choosing to be 'a part' of the web of life is a good start.
Mecca: From the consumer's point of view, it seems like most governments and businesses are now implementing policies of carbon-neutral, waste minimisation, sustainable materials and the like. However with that seems to come an increase in 'greenwashing' marketing communications too. Do you think overall we can trust that enough work is being done?
Phil: Never trust the government, big business or anyone other than your Mum.
Most people, most of the time, mostly do nice things. But there are always 'snakes in the grass', people who want to make a quick buck or cut a corner.
Do your best to be fair, and find out what you can, but don't go crazy. Find good suppliers, keep them honest and enjoy the amazing fact that you are, right here, right now, actually breathing!!
The consumer is in control, they just don't realise it.So your power to choose what you buy is REALLY TRULY important.
The whole world of social media has made many people slaves to the compulsion to sculpt their profile.
Don't sweat it baby. Enjoy your life as it is, not as you want others to see it. You can't get away from who you are so you might as well enjoy it.
Be genuine, and buy genuine.
Mecca: Do you think it's possible for your type of regenerative farming to become the norm in Australia's food industry? What would need to change for that to happen?
Phil: Absolutely. It is an 'enough people' story.
When (not 'if') enough people buy wisely based on a decision to be 'productive participants in the web of life' rather than trying (and inevitably failing) to 'master nature', then supporting the planet will be the norm.
The change is already happening, people are starting to look for good food and are wanting to eat well.
They want to feel good about what they eat, and are hungry for a connection back to the soil.
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