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Rich pickings for a grower who refuses to lose the plot

Market gardener Michael Hulse works his property on the Deua River near Moruya.

Market gardener Michael Hulse works his property on the Deua River near Moruya. Photo: Graham Tidy

Coming down an escarpment and wending its way through sheoaks, the Deua River rewards Michael Hulse's dawn-to-dusk toil with a wealth of minerals and nutrients.

West of Moruya, a steep fire trail plunges down to the clear, pebbly bottomed river and up into Mr Hulse's 40-hectare property where rusty old machinery is brought back to life to sow, dig and weed vegetables. The weeds are winning, which doesn't worry this determined farmer who refuses to use chemicals to gain the upper hand, nor let the big supermarkets squeeze him out of business.

''I'm 62 and I'll do this till I fall over,'' he said.

Just some of the produce he produces. Click for more photos

Deua River

Michael Hulse rans a chemical free farm and owns his own shop in Moruya. Photo: Graham Tidy

Farmers like Mr Hulse will have been gladdened by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's announcement last week that it would investigate treatment by Coles and Woolworths of their suppliers.

The ACCC has alleged a long list of misconduct from the big chains, including applying penalties to suppliers outside of negotiated terms of trade, failure to pay agreed prices to suppliers and discriminating in favour of home-brand products.

A former grazier who once rode horses for stunts in movies, including The Man From Snowy River, Mr Hulse also ran a fruit and vegetable shop in Moruya for 16 years, during which he developed a distaste for the supermarket chains.

They had made it difficult for small producers, and reduced the region's dairy farms, which once numbered more than 50, to a handful, after paying them less than what it cost to produce their milk.

''It is a ridiculous situation with Woolworths coming down, we have all this water and country and we are not using it. It is where we live. You should grow food where you live. It is the best form of economics, the rest of it is just people in the middle.

''I have been a farmer all my life and we are getting less and less and less and it has got to stop. I have had a shop as well, so I know the figures. I know what they do.''

He said the chains paid growers 40 cents a kilo for potatoes. He sells his for $4 a kilo.

Wiry with wisps of white hair retreating across his red- freckled forehead, Mr Hulse loves sinking his chunky fingers into the furrowed sandy loam soil from which he plucks new season potatoes.

''I just want to grow food that tastes good, like it used to in the '40s before they bought in soluble fertiliser,'' he said.

''Royal blue [potatoes] seem to like this area.'' When thrips and 28-spotted ladybirds attacked his spuds and threatened to destroy them he sprayed them with a seaweed mixture.

''I'm bloody thrilled. They had looked like the plague had come through them, now they're all green again.'' He grows his produce for 10 months of the year and sells much of it at the Capital Region Farmers Market in Canberra under the Deua River Farm Produce label, which he runs with his wife, Wendy, and a restaurateur at Moruya.

''Canberrans, they really get what we are about,'' he said.

On the river flats he grows six varieties of pumpkin and corn, beans in summer and peas and broccoli in winter.

The rotation includes green manure crops of mustard plants, which are dug back into the soil, and deep-rooted lucerne which brings nutrients to the surface. In a temperate, almost frost-free climate with high rainfall, he produces 38 tonnes of spuds to the hectare, or about 75 tonnes in a year.

Thousands of Californian garlic bulbs hang in corrugated-iron sheds. Passionfruit vines climb in dappled sunlight under silky oak trees.

The trees also shelter 16 bathtubs scrounged from dumps in Canberra which accommodate his worm farm. Tiger and red-wriggler worms churn through compost under big lumps of rotting hay.

Worm wee and castings are spread on all the vegies. He's delighted at how little of the stuff makes such a big difference.

His affection for old machinery is evident in the faded blue Bedford in his shed, a 1950s potato harvester, which takes him no more than half an hour tinkering to fix if anything stalls its snail-paced progress deep in the heavy soil.

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