The couple who ran away from the circus to grow avocados in the Byron hinterland – ABC Rural
Christy Shelper and DJ Garner knew nothing about avocados — or farming — when they landed on an orchard in the Byron hinterland in northern New South Wales.
“We just didn’t know anything about avocados, we didn’t know anything about anything,” Ms Shelper said.
The couple were circus performers who had spent their careers delighting audiences around the world touring for several companies, most notably Cirque du Soleil.
“I was a trapeze artist and DJ was an all-rounder, acrobat, clowny kinda guy,” she said.
Ms Shelper joined The Flying Fruit Fly Circus when she was seven before leaving the country to train with Cirque du Soleil in Canada and joining their touring show Quidam as a soloist performing across the world.
Mr Garner’s introduction to circus life came much later.
At 21, with years of gymnastics training under his belt, he won a scholarship to the National Institute of Circus Arts in Melbourne before touring the world.
“We came to this area because we wanted to help out Spaghetti Circus, which operates out of Mullumbimby Showground, and then we stumbled into farming — some might say we fell into it,” Ms Shelper said.
Spaghetti Circus is a circus school and performing arts company, run as a not-for profit organisation, and it was here where the new farmers kept their circus skills polished, teaching once or twice a week.
“We’re both heavily involved in how the circus moves forward in the way the classes are structured,” Ms Shelper said.
“We’ve lots of input but we don’t have a lot of time to spare because we’re farmers and parents and circus performers and all of those hats that you wear along the way.
“So I’m rewarded learning this new path while at the same time having my foot firmly planted in our old life,” Mr Garner said.
Not to forget their circus roots entirely, the solo aerialist and acrobat named the farm Big Swing Organics.
It has been a steep learning curve for the tree changers since they bought the property at Goonengerry, a 20-minute drive from the circus school, nearly two years ago.
“I’d never driven a tractor before, I didn’t know what a PTO was or a three-point linkage, I’d never operated any of that stuff,” Mr Garner said.
“I’ve got a great teacher, Al, who lives on the farm — he’s an amazing teacher, very patient, we’ve managed not to break anything too much.
“When I first started performing in circus and theatre I didn’t know what a par can was or a fresnel lantern or anything like that — it’s just life, life is learning.”
They also credit a local young farmer, Joel Orchard, who continued his stay on the property for six months to assist them with the transition into farming.
“If it weren’t for him we wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” Ms Shelper said.
“He has so much information himself but beyond that he connects us to people who have even more to share. He’s connected us with an awesome mentor.
The decision to run away from the circus for a more settled life was not a quick one.
“We were staring at 40 I think for about five years, we must’ve been about 35, 36, 37, wondering what we were going to do next, it seemed a little unsustainable, and also dragging our kids around from gig to gig didn’t appeal to us,” Mr Garner said.
“So, I’d say for the longest time we’ve had our eyes opened for the broad scope of what could happen next and to be honest I think farming picked us more than we picked it, which is kind of how I ended up as an acrobat too; it picked me, I didn’t pick it.”
For Mr Garner, his real passion was street performing, his show climaxes with a death-defying handstand stunt, which he said had similarities with taking on farming.
“Being that you’re your own boss, you have to solve a lot of problems, like in the circus you say ‘the show must go on’ and that’s certainly a part of farming,” he said.
“You don’t really take days off, you sort of just take a day of sitting down and looking at it I think.”
“And all on a shoestring budget,” Ms Shelper added.
The ‘show must go on’ approach applied to this year’s avocado harvest, only their second to date, which was described by Mr Garner as “not good”.
“I think really we may have spent that first year saying ‘what are we doing, what are we doing, what are we doing’ and then this last year we really have been actually doing stuff,” he said.
“So this year’s harvest wasn’t great, but with the things we’ve done I can really see things improving, so I’m quite hopeful for the next one.”
The changes made on farm this year, resulting in a noticeable difference in the current crop, include putting a lot more carbon and humus into the soil by mulching and composting.
“We have fertilised this year, it’s our goal to not be dependent on that but this orchard had been neglected for quite a few years before we took it on and it really needed something in there, and really good pruning,” Ms Shelper said.
“Really in the end it’s just about putting goodness into the soil, which is humus and carbon and that’s really the difference — and water.