Gaining Ground

People have a few standard responses when I mention my tiny farm. Their surprise, since they think of me as a lover of cities, ranges in its expression from, ‘Did you grow up on a farm?’ and ‘Oh that’s nice, are you rewilding?” to the more portentous, ‘Do you have any idea how much work it will be?’ To which the answers are, no, no and well, yes (through gritted teeth), I do now.

I’d grown up in NZ Aotearoa; close to nature, in other words, but not farming it. Indeed, I’d set foot on farmland only a few times in my life. A few years ago, having lived twenty years or so in Sydney, I began to crave what I thought of as ‘big Australia’. We made a few desert trips – the Flinders, the Painted Desert, Lake Mungo, Widgiemooltha. But doing those trips only made it increasingly obvious just how inaccessible the Australian countryside is.

You can drive through it – indeed, to get from Sydney to the great interior you pretty much have to. But you can’t experience it. Unlike the UK, there are no walking rights or camping rights or even picnic rights, to speak of. So you pass through the pastoral belt with no greater understanding than you had before. I was vaguely conscious of this lacuna when, at some ungodly hour of the morning in the ghost-like transit lounge of Hong Kong airport, I received an email. It began like this. ‘I’m a simple sheep-farmer with an interest in AWN Pugin …’

I get a lot of emails, so I’m handy with the delete button. But this one stopped me. I’d long been warned about redneck attitudes supposedly prevalent in the bush. They’ll eat someone like you for breakfast, people said. By people like me they meant lefty, feminist, city-based intellectuals. This was the accepted view which, for some reason, I had also accepted. But Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin was the Victorian neo-Gothic architect who assisted in the design of the Palace of Westminster and is credited with designing Big Ben, as well as a number of churches and many stained-glass windows in New South Wales. So someone whose self-description put ‘sheep-farmer’ and Pugin in the same sentence immediately had my attention. I replied and, gradually, we became friends.

We visited that Easter. From a house that I revere even now as a Palladian tin shed, our new friends emerged to greet us – my daughter and me – in a flurry of dogs, horses and assorted vehicles. The house was surrounded by sheds, cottages, kitchen gardens, birdbaths and orchard trees. Within, it was a charming profusion of books, paintings, busts, hats, preserves and pianos. We joined the long table for a full-on country-style extended family Good Friday dinner – extended family, extended table, extended dinner. All those scary stories fell away, to be replaced by a sense of warmth and generosity. My daughter and I fell in love. This was our new spiritual home.

I loved the idea of investing the land with ideas, not chemicals and brute force.

So that was how it began. I now felt comfortable in the country, both accepted and charmed. But I didn’t yearn to engage in farming myself. That emerged a month or two later, when I met anther friend-to-be, a true pioneer in the world of regenerative agriculture, Colin Seis.

Col is a fourth-generation sheep-farmer, a breeder of merinos, native grass seed and kelpies, on a 2000-acre property near Gulgong, in the NSW Central Tablelands. ‘If you’re going to Mudgee,’ an eco-nut friend said, ‘You’ve got to meet Col Seis.’ His story is astonishing. In 1979, some 120 years after his great-grandparents had settled there, the property suffered a catastrophic grass fire. It destroyed the house, outbuildings, all pastures, sixty kilometres of fencing and 3000 sheep, as well as killing a child. He himself was badly burnt and spent months in hospital. He was also uninsured.

He had to start again, from scratch, with barely enough for restocking, never mind for seed, glyphosate and superphosphate. But in the new absence of ploughing and topdressing, he’d noticed native grasses springing up. He noticed, too, that these grasses, which popular wisdom derides as poor animal fodder, were perennials with different growing seasons; some summer, some winter. These, he later discovered, are the so-called C3 winter-growing grasses like ringed wallaby grass and the speargrasses and C4 summer-growers like kangaroo grass and Curly Mitchell.

Back then it was universally accepted that native soils were rubbish and native grasses made poor feed. The way Col tells it, it was more than a decade after the fire that he and a mate Daryl Cluff – Cluffy – were sitting around one evening having a beer, contemplating the disastrous situation. By the second or third round, the conversation turned speculative. The ploughing-and-poisoning mindset of their hereditary farming practices, they mused, meant killing whatever wanted to grow in order to plant what did not want to grow, and artificially fertilise it into compliance. Superphosphate, which had been subsidised by government, was now expensive.

They were spiralling into debt, buying fertiliser, glyphosate and diesel in order to buy seed in order to buy more super, glypho and diesel. What if they simply encouraged what grew naturally? It sounded a lot cheaper and a lot easier. It was worth a try.

Col also wondered what would happen, given the different growing seasons of these grasses, if he sowed other food crops into the existing perennial pasture without ploughing. This would provide growing cover and mulch for the small cropping plants, while the grasses’ fallow periods meant he could, in theory, harvest the crops (oats, barley, turnips or legumes) between growing seasons and even let the sheep graze the stubble, without a lot of expensive killing.

The results astounded him. Within a few years he had lower expenditure, higher yields, bigger profits and, for the first time ever, leisure. Further, when he engaged some interested soil scientists to compare each side of the fence line between his farm and his traditional-farming neighbour, they revealed his soil and root depth to be now four or five times as great. Because this dramatic increase in soil carbon also increased water-holding capacity by a factor of up to eight, his property was far more resistant to drought.

It was also beautiful. When I visited, some fifteen years on, his neighbour’s paddocks remained hard and dry as bitten fingernails. On Col’s side of the fence, fleecy merinos grazed happily in soft, knee-high pastures, which a variety of flowering plants embroidered with bees, butterflies and tiny birds. He was clearly doing something right.

Imagine a pastoral time-lapse; the charming seasonal choreography of growth, harvest, grazing, pollinating and dieback. That’s above-ground. The biology below is, if anything, even more appealing.

It’s all about soil microbes, including the tiny threadlike mycorrhizal fungi that, in surrounding the roots of the grasses and other paddock plants, form strengthening networks across great areas of soil. These microbes establish a symbiotic relationship with the roots, deploying special enzymes to break down and dissolve minerals (such as phosphates and sulphates) and make them available to the plants. The plants, in return, manufacture sugars, which they feed to the microbes as ‘payment’. This critical relationship not only nourishes the plants (that stop the soil blowing away), but also structures the soil, keeping it aerated and sustaining a matrix of tiny subterranean aqueducts.

The ‘killing’ of traditional farming practice involves insecticide to kill bugs, herbicide to kill ‘weeds’ and ploughing, which, in exposing these critical soil microbes to sun and air, kills them and destroys the soil. Thus depleted, and sown with exotic annuals, the soil needs superphosphate, which easily outcompetes the microbes. The plant roots, being supplied with easy minerals, no longer produce their compensatory sugars. The microbes die and the soil structure collapses. With dead soil, more ploughing must be carried out and fertiliser applied in ever greater amounts, forming a dependency very like heroin addiction, and every bit as destructive. Gradually, over generations, the soil compacts, resulting in the hard, dead soils popularly blamed on hard-hoofed animals.

In fact, when properly managed, grazing can build and aerate soil. Allan Savory’s method of holistic grazing management – inspired by fast-moving herds of wildebeest on the African savannah – suggested an overlayer of intermittent, short-term grazing to pasture cropping. This method uses much smaller paddocks to move animals every few days. During that time, they eat just the growing shoots, not the whole grass plant, so the earth is not left bare. They also trample their own nutritious waste into the ground. Then they move on – giving the pasture plants time to recover and ensuring strengthening, permanent ground cover.

All of that charmed me. I loved that it chose to understand biology, not dominate it. I enjoyed the conceptual switch from farming as industry to farming as ecology. I loved the idea of investing the land with ideas, not chemicals and brute force. And I was intrigued by how this required an engagement between the physical and the metaphysical. I love that stuff; how the world of mental events shapes (and is shaped by) things physical. Add to this its planet-saving potential, and the whole thing was irresistible. Having spent most of my life manipulating ideas, I yearned to have a real-world go.

Plus, there’s the bleeping-red question of food. This is why rewilding, fashionable as it is, seems to me beside the point. We know how to protect nature. That just needs us to butt out. What we don’t know is how to feed and house ourselves, sustaining our own alarming numbers, while also protecting the planet on which we depend. So any way to increase food production while also building soil fertility and water-holding has to be compelling.

We are likely, too, to see spin-off benefits for human health. Regenerative farming is not ‘organic’ in the strict sense. But in replacing orthodox 20th-century monocultures with a multi-species cropping that is more like permaculture, it is less vulnerable to disease and attack. Therefore, it relies less on chemical herbicides and pesticides and more on the plants’ natural protective and immune systems. Early studies conducted by The Mulloon Institute and others suggest that this, along with the nutritionally enriched soil culture, is likely also to enhance the nutritional wealth of any resultant food.

All this flooded my mind during that first conversation with Colin Seis. But it was what he said next, near the end of our conversation, that cemented it. Recalling a young female friend who lamented that, although she fed their young family from an organic kitchen garden where everything was holistic and organic, ‘out there’ where her husband farmed commercially, it was a land of death and chemicals. ‘This,’ Col mused, ‘is why we need more women farmers. Traditional farming is more about killing than keeping alive. This is more about understanding and nurturing. It’s more feminine.’

Of course, you can see this as sexist. I don’t. It’s not universally true and it may be either nature or nurture, or both.

But, it is my experience that women – as mayors, professors and doctors, as much as mothers – tend to be better nurturers than men. True, these skills are undervalued, largely because they’re female. But right now, they’re skills that we – the species and the planet – desperately need.

So, it was with all this in mind that I began my farm hunt. I’m not usually obsessional, but for some reason, although I had little money and less skill, this idea obsessed me. Drawing a four-hour radius around Sydney, I looked everywhere – Mudgee, Bathurst, Oberon, Goulburn, Gunning, Cooma. Our criteria were accessibility, fertility, climbability (I wanted a hill), permanent water and sweetness – aka ‘feel’.

Feel is a concept that turns country estate agents cross-eyed. But we persevered. After several years, dozens of trips and several offers, we ended up buying a tiny square of cattle-farming country on a dirt road high in the Southern Tablelands, south of Braidwood. It had everything except the hill, though there are plenty nearby. And so it began.

Step one, before we could do anything, was to construct a driveway. This ushered in lesson one. Nothing can be done without getting ‘a man’, usually with a machine. And, in part because it always involves significant travel time, everything comes in $10K increments. But we pressed on, in this order: driveway, tiny one-room cabin, composting dunny then, because we needed a roof to collect solar and rain, a large shed. I was reminded here of Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s lovely idea, set out in his book In Praise of Shadows, that when making a Japanese house you first build a roof and then, in its shadow, the dwelling space.

And, throughout it all, tree-planting. When I felt down or disheartened, I’d buy a few more trees, dig a few more holes. We planted around a hundred trees and watered them by hand through the terrible drought, carrying water, by bucket, from the spring.

It’s interesting to discover first hand just what it takes to survive on a piece of land. To collect solar power, and for water, we needed a roof. And, under it, a shed. To undertake any grazing management, we needed fences. But to do any of it – even keep bees or chooks – we also needed to be able to spend significant periods of time there. So we needed to convert the shed to a dwelling. That required council approval, a huge project in itself – especially after the concrete contractor went bust and stopped returning calls. We needed walls and insulation, Wi-Fi and phone service, since Telstra flatly refused to provide a landline and Energy Australia wanted $50K just to connect to the grid. You can get a lot of solar for $50K.

No sooner had we made the place habitable, than the 2019 fires arrived, engulfing us for months in thick orange smoke. It came from three directions, before the fires joined into one. The smoke was so thick you couldn’t see the sheep and your eyes watered inside with the windows shut. The fear was thicker. Then, COVID, with consequent restrictions on both access and income.

Since then, progress has been slow, though the demands, and occasional hiccups, continue. Just the other day, someone broke in and stole our ancient ute, although it was locked and keyless. And, because we occasionally agist my neighbour’s bull, the calves keep being born, so the paddocks become more crowded and grass must be managed.

The herd is tiny. Currently, six. For a while, last winter, there were ten – and so little grass we had to bring in hay. Now there’s so much grass I need a man-with-machine to cut it, or it’ll soon be a fire hazard. So, yes, I’m getting an idea of how much work is required. And how much money.

So, this is our tiny farm. Is it a good idea? I resist the term hobby farm. Rather, it’s an experiment, and experiments, of course, can fail. But it’s not over yet. The hundred trees – which include half a dozen heirloom apples, nectarines, walnuts, pomegranates and olives, as well as flame-retardant species like oaks, ashes and elms – are now established. In fifty years they’ll be huge, shade-giving and climbable. Already, my three-year-old grandson loves the place. He moves differently there. Thinks differently. Perhaps these beautiful trees will be for his grandchildren to climb. Myself, I think the place is more than that, even for us, even now.

In farming – as in climate change, renewable energy and COVID management – Australia persistently drags the chain. Barnaby Joyce, as a rural thought leader, should be pursuing low-carbon regenerative agriculture, rather than demanding to know how much it will cost. But regenerative farming is spreading anyway, across the country, among the young. COVID may even assist this, pushing city people into rural areas, changing the thought mosaic. And all the time, new work emerges on understanding agro-ecosystems and on how small, idea-intensive farms seen up-close and personal – not ultra-mechanised million-hectare big-hat cigar-chewing industrial farms operated from a helicopter viewpoint – can improve food and save the planet. This story is still being written. It’s scary, but it’s exciting. Perhaps we are finding our feet right where they’ve always been. On the ground.