Mitchell East and Jennifer Riseley are keen to be noticed and making waves in the agricultural world. Mitchell has been twice nominated for HortInnovation Young Grower of the Year which is a credit to his hard work and dedication to regenerative practices on the farm.
Together with parents Garry and Tracey, and sister Lauren, Mitchell works the family farm in an area called Palgarup, 10km north of Manjimup. You may be familiar with the farm’s brand Willarra Gold, which was originally used as their onion brand a few decades ago.
As the saying goes - distance makes the heart grow fonder - this principal applies to lots of young farmers and their relationship with the family farm. Like many farm kids, Mitchell worked on the farm after school, on weekends and on school holidays and couldn’t wait to move to the city after graduation. Mitchell and Jen both spent several years after school in Perth in non-agricultural settings before returning to Manjimup in 2014 and 2016, respectively. It’s these life experiences that help young farmers bring new perspectives to the family farm and an appreciation for the farming lifestyle.
Mitchell and his sister Lauren are third generation farmers, following in the footsteps of their father Garry, who has been farming since age 14, and their grandparents, who paved the way with developing the land, and building solid foundations in animal husbandry, growing fresh produce and food preservation.
Across the family’s 950 acres of land, they are kept busy growing Hass avocados, passionfruit and managing livestock for production of White Suffolk lambs. You can see the influence of Mitch’s grandmother Dot, who is an avid preserver, coming through in the new business direction of value-added passionfruit products including passionfruit pulp, soda and cordial.
The family take pride that their products are high quality, nutrient dense and grown regeneratively in a matter that utilises natural biodiversity and improves the land on which they farm. “For over 30 years Willarra Gold has had a biological emphasis to growing food, this means we start by building healthy soils to produce healthy food. It also meant that growing up on the farm we all took a keen interest in the way nature behaves and how native flora and fauna can help aid in farming sustainably and now regeneratively” commented Mitchell East.
5 QUESTIONS WITH MITCHELL EAST, WILLARRA GOLD:
What do you think makes the Southern Forests such a great growing area?
We have fantastic deep rich soils that are surrounded by native bushlands making our region a uniquely biodiverse growing area as the climate and soil type allows for many varieties of food to be produced. Our rich forests support wild bees and other pollinators in large numbers.
The Southern Forests has a unique climatic advantage in that as the sun rises the day time temperatures rise slowly. This means the plants we grow have time to absorb sunlight, water and nutrient before it gets too hot and the plants are less stressed which makes for healthier and tastier food. All produce from this area takes that little bit longer to ripen and mature, we think that’s what makes everything taste so good.
What does living and working in the Southern Forests community mean to you?
We are so fortunate to live in one of the world’s diversity hotspots, which has million dollar views and rich diverse bushlands. The region produces such a range of fresh food and other products and we are fortunate to know the people who produce them. The community is so strong and supportive, it’s seen many industry shifts and continues to prosper and without its resilient locals the town would not have its product diversity and strong agricultural industry.
People in this region are not to be underestimated and never waste opportunities. When travelling to other growing regions interstate, we realise how innovative the people in the Southern Forests are in communicating through the industry and sharing successes with each other. It helps that neighbours are always willing to lend a piece of equipment and help each other out.
Have there been any major changes or pivotal moments in your farming career?
When we started growing passionfruit there were many lessons to learn. We very quickly flooded our market for seconds grade product when selling fruit with minor blemishes and a short shelf life, so we developed a premium quality, shelf stable passionfruit pulp using the otherwise unsaleable fruit. This has given the opportunity to brand and market directly to consumers with our brand Willarra Gold, bringing back the brand name Mitchell’s parents developed a few decades ago for their onions. This development was a big learning curve to find machinery, expertise and understand where we fit within the larger grocery market. We are now proud to say we use 100% of our passionfruit and purchase seconds grade fruit from other local passionfruit growers, giving everyone an outlet for a product otherwise fed to livestock.
What innovations have you introduced on the farm?
Transitioning to regenerative methods and upgrading our in field monitoring equipment has brought an extra level of science and observation to the enterprise. We are always looking to improve our efficiency for water and use of expensive inputs like fertiliser or treatments for fungal or pest pressure.
Through systematic trials we have found foliar (leaf) applications for nutrients or fertiliser are efficient and responsive, with the plants able to absorb everything we apply. We have reduced our water use by 40% through using in-field moisture monitoring and changing our drip irrigation set up. This has also saved on power use.
Through trial and monitoring we have also developed a four-year plant rotation incorporating cover crops, livestock management, compost, mulching and biochar to reduce reliance on fungicides and herbicides that had otherwise been unavoidable. This has been a bit of a return to traditional methods like composting, but with a modern application to make it commercially viable.
What’s your favourite recipe using Passionfruit products?
A rum cocktail made with our own passionfruit cordial with lime and mint we grow in our garden.
Passionfruit Rum Cocktail
· 60ml Passionfruit Cordial
· 30ml White Rum
· 200ml Sparkling Water
· Quarter of Squeezed Lime
· Ice Cubes
· Mint Leaves
Mix cordial to taste and add extra lime or mint for a refreshing flavour. Best served on a warm day with friends.
Mitch remarks, “It’s a great privilege to work with other producers in this area to add value to a fruit everyone remembers fondly from childhood. It has been great to see our products being sought out by other WA businesses or consumers because they recognise and value the way we grow food”.
Without being too biased, Mitchell has served as Vice Chair of the Southern Forests Food Council from 2019 – 2021 and Jennifer is currently employed as Marketing and Project Coordinator with the Food Council. As with any small country town, we all wear many hats and find ourselves involved with an array of community organisations, groups and events. Mitchell and Jennifer are an asset to the Southern Forests community.
Keen to learn more about Willarra Gold and the genuine down to earth producers behind the brand? Follow the team’s journey along on Facebook and Instagram. Mitchell and Jennifer maintain the brand’s social media presence to show both innovative and everyday activities on the farm with their interested following. Visit their website to learn more and shop via their online store.
Photography by Genuinely Southern Forests, and by Craig Kinder Photography for Genuinely Southern Forests.