When I was a kid, I used to spend many of my school holidays on my Oma and Opa's farm in Goulburn. They were kind of self-sufficient, killing their own pigs and cows for meat, home-brewing, growing fruit, vegetables, chickens and eggs, and growing and selling a few beef-cattle on the side. I loved spending time at their place, though my experience was fairly limited to kid-friendly activities like riding in the back of the ute distributing hay and chopping thistles for hours on end. But the experience affected me in a pretty formative way, and in the back of my mind somewhere has always been the notion that I'd be pretty keen on giving it a go myself someday.
So here we are in Bega with 7 hilly acres up our sleeves, embarking upon a journey of home-building and earth-tending and food-growing. It's the realisation of a pretty long-term dream, and we're pretty bloody excited and happy about the whole caper, but things are evolving and our dreams seem to be moving well beyond our tree-hugging back-to-the-lander aspirations.
I am, at present, reeling a little from a mind-blowing couple of days this week, courtesy of the Meeting the Challenge for Change conference, held right here in Bega at the showground. It was pretty out of control, filled with people doing some incredible, ground-breaking (no pun intended) work on their broadacre farms. Pearl and I have both been on a bit of a whirlwind ride since arriving here in Bega, meeting people and learning from them, engaging with the incredibly vital community of land-management, farming and local-foodie activists. I'm now on the executive committee of the Sapphire Coast Producers' Association, closely involved with the forward movement of the South East Food Project, and Pearlie's just started her TAFE course in Holistic Land Management. So let's just say that our worlds are swimming with the possibilities for our little chunk of land, and the sense of responsibility to do our very best by it, and the future of food in our community.
At the last SCPA meeting we had a couple of dudes from Bega Valley Gourmet Meats come to talk to us about their small species abattoir, which can be used by anyone needing help with the slaughter and processing of their smaller species. Having killed and plucked and prepared a chook for eating, I'm pretty much in favour of the service they provide, and am also keen on the fact that one of them was exactly like Pearl's boyfriend Matthew Evans. After this talk, (and some ruminations on the fact that in Sydney we bought Bega Valley organic chickens but here in Bega they're nowhere to be found on account of them all being shipped to Sydney and Melbourne) we were all a-flurry with plans for raising some ducks and chickens to sell to the abattoir. But what about the feed? Buying in feed for poultry is a distinct no no when you're trying to create a closed loop farm, but the thought of growing grain was for some reason overwhelming me. That was until I heard Colin Seis' talk at the Challenge for Change conference, which he titled 'How we Totally Stuffed our Land and then Fixed it'. Colin's practice of pasture cropping - the practice of growing annual grain crops right in your perennial native grassland - has totally revegetated his land, which had been devastated by generations of chemical wheat-growing and intense over-grazing, to the point where he now has about 50cm of topsoil. Unbelieveable. And so inspiring I almost started crying. Suddenly I felt like we could grow ducks and chickens for Matthew Evans' doppelganger at the Bega abattoir and we could grow our own feed, at the same time as we are cultivating our native grasses, like this super-attractive Kangaroo Grass
and sequestering carbon in the soil. Holy moly. When this realisation hit me, I was set to explode.
These ideas had kind of been in the periphery of our minds, having followed Milkwood Farm's, Joel Salatin's and Taranaki Farm's amazingness for some time, but to hear Colin speak, to see photos of his land, and to think about all this in the context of our place, was something else.
I was also pretty excited to hear more about the benefits of controlled grazing, which Pearl had already touched on in her course.
We've got a few steers up on the land right now, grazing and trampling and pooing (yay!), and while there are a fair few less of them for a fair while longer than in a normal process of regenerative grazing, it has still be excellent for us to be able to see the difference they make to the vegetation as they go about their daily business of grazing and trampling and pooing (yay!).
But, if you can believe it, the conference's revelations about the possibilities for our land weren't even the most profound thing for me. No siree. It was this quote from Wendell Berry:
"Eating is an agricultural act"
Yes folks, it's true, you don't actually need to grow anything to be able to influence and support sustainable and regenerative farming practices, because it's the money you spend on food that can influence the way someone grows. Every single person who eats something that has grown in the earth is participating in agriculture. Most of us are participating in and supporting agricultural practices that literally kill the soil and exploit farmers to the point where they have no choice but to continue with a practice that most of them know is not the way to go. But if you start asking questions about the provenance of your food, start thinking about where it came from, who grew it and how, and then start putting your money where your heart and your head tell you is the right place, you can cook your veg knowing that no microorganisms/insects/plants/animals/humans or planets were harmed in the making of your dinner. Get to it.