The mind of a regenerative farmer is in some ways, akin to a complex ecosystem. Like the tendency of communities of life to constantly be moving towards a more elaborate and diverse state, the ecosystem of the regenerative mind becomes more complex with increasing connections and relationships with the land and the experiences of life.
This type of farming mind is a whole, and part of the whole of the farm, which is a part of the catchment in which it resides. It is part of the region, part of Australia, this country that is part of the Earth. Like the connections of the wholes within wholes, the Earth is ultimately part of the whole of a galaxy, part of the Universe.
A mind begins its journey of life with some innate knowledge gained from the genes of the parents of a new life. As the body in which the brain resides grows, the mind is stimulatedby experiences of light, movement and the love shown by parents, and then interacting with the physical world.
My mind began its journey as part of a child of two doctors living on the side of Mt Gibraltar in Bowral. When I was old enough, I used to go with my father Bill to feed the chooks each morning and collect the eggs. The food scraps from our family were mixed with boiling water and some bran and pollard.
Bill Marsh was a wizard at growing things, his large garden at Mardah Mia, was something to behold. There was a lot of diversity, Rhododendrons, Camellias, Fuchsias, Polyanthus, Azaleas, Roses, Silver Birches, Crab Apples, Laurel hedges, Liquidambars, Oaks, Hydrangeas, Plums, Apples, Gooseberries, Cherry Plums, Loganberries, Boysenberries, Raspberries, Red and Black Currants, and a vegetable garden. He made huge bins of compost and leaf-mould, used to collect his own urine and water it down and sprinkle it on the compost to give it added nitrogen. He was a recycler before it was mainstream. He and my mother Joan had lived through the depression and everything was saved, brown paper bags, tissue paper, string, even two different bags for different types of string.
My father was a conservationist when that word was seldom used, I observed his behaviour and perhaps some of what I saw seeped into my subconscious, to come to fruition many years hence. There’s no doubt in my mind that my current philosophy of farming practice has its roots in those early years. I loved lizards and frogs, we often had jars of frogs eggs hatching and watched them turn into tadpoles and then frogs. We found a magnificent Emperor Gum moth caterpillar and fed her until she pupated and ultimately hatched. This caterpillar was unbelievably beautiful, greenish blue with little tufts of bristles on its head and near its tail.
Dad had read Farmer’s of Forty Centuries by F.H.King, a book written after a US Department of Agriculture study tour of agricultural practices in Korea, Japan and China after the disastrous U.S. Dust Bowl period of the 1930s. It was undertaken to see how these Asian cultures could practice such intensive agriculture without ‘wearing out the land’.
As so often happens, when circumstances drive behaviour, the price of wheat in the UK and Europe had increased hugely after the end of WWI and tractors had been invented that had sufficient power to break the heavy sod of the prairie states in the mid-west of the US. Farmers were trying to cash in on the lucrative European wheat market. This coincided with several dry seasons and there were huge soil losses from ‘dusters’, where the soil, having lost the protective cover of the prairie ecosystem, was stripped away by the wind, causing immense and permanent environmental damage, human hardship, and leading to the establishment of the US Soil Conservation Service. This period of history is vividly described in the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It was a classic demonstration of what happens when we reverse the trend of the diversity of life, and the circumstances of our behaviour lead to simplified ecosystems on farms.
Despite what F.H.King found in Asian agriculture, the resource-rich culture of the US, swimming in energy and timber wealth, developed an exploitative version of agriculture based on huge areas of glaciated soils whose fertility was thought to be inexhaustible. The subsequent exploitation of the soils in the mid west was described by Aldo Leopold as ‘wheating land to death’.
Farmers of Forty Centuries was one book in a series I was aware of but never read until I was in my forties, and fifties. It included, An Agricultural Testament, Humus and the Farmer, The Clifton Park System of Farming, The Rape of the Earth, The Earth’s Green Carpet.
When I was nine years old I went off to a small boarding school at Moss Vale. Here were 130 boys from diverse backgrounds, many of them from farms. There were lots of activities as the school was situated on a farm of about 300 acres. Scouts and Cubs were a great introduction to understanding bushcraft and social responsibility. I loved it and it felt like a bigger version of home. I developed many friendships and was fortunate to be asked to stay with several families during term holidays. This was the catalyst that launched my interest in agriculture, and which has been my passion for all my working life.
One event I remember that shocked me was the effort to control rabbits on the school farm. A new poison had been developed called 1080, colourless, tasteless and odourless and with no antidote. The rabbits were given a few ‘free feeds’ of carrots and then the poisoned carrots were laid on a bait trail. This killed a few rabbits and many times more possums, an environmental disaster, and a demonstration of what happens when chemicals are applied without knowing the effect on non-target species. Even to a young boy of about eleven years this seemed wrong. It happened on the eve of the publication of Rachel Carson’s electrifying book Silent Spring, in 1962.
We always had a family holiday at a village called Bonny Hills, just south of Port Macquarie. There was a store and about ten wooden houses and a beach that stretched for miles. No one was on it and we had a few carefree weeks there. My mother’s brother, Stephen, another doctor, had a house there and as they had four sons and a daughter, and we were four daughters and a son it was a great opportunity to play with our cousins.
There were lots of mind-expanding natural world experiences too. We made our own fishing rods out of Rangoon cane, whipped the guides for the line with silk thread and varnished it to keep out the water. Dad and my uncle used to try for something ‘big off the beach’. They were always hoping for a big jewfish or a school of tailor. My cousins and I were the bait catchers. We found pippies, which we found by doing the ‘twist’ as the tide came in and you’d feel them under your feet. They were khaki, orange, dark purple, and off- white. We learnt how to catch the giant beach worms which were good bait for whiting, flathead and bream. The Jewies liked school or ‘poddy’ mullet and there was a creek that sometimes had a gutter to the sea but mostly it was landlocked by a sand bank. It was called Vinegar Creek because the water was stained the colour of brown vinegar from the tannin in the paperbarks that grew along its banks. We’d set oyster bottles, long thin bottles into which we put some bread that we mixed up and then sank them in the creek with a float attached to the bottle with string. We’d set the bottles in the evening and check them in the morning. There would always be six or so mullet in every bottle, they’d go in head first and could’nt get out! Once, when the sand bank was open to the sea we filled it with sand and after a couple of hours put another sand bank across about fifty metres further down the gutter and caught a couple of good flathead that were heading back to the ocean from the creek.
Then we’d go fishing round the rocks when the tide was coming in. We learnt all about the many life forms that inhabit the tide pools and create an extraordinary web of life, and further infused and added to the complexity of the experiences that ultimately grew into the regenerative farming mind between my ears. There were many sorts of seaweed, a type of algae, chitons, periwinkles, anemones, little darting gudgeons, rarely, a beautiful bright blue fish that we tried and failed to catch. There were eels, octopus, and many different types of crabs, their habitat dictated by their colour and feeding habits. We broke off pieces of cunjevoi which was good bait for drummer and blue groper; we found lots of red rock crabs in the red weed on the big boulders that were a bit further out. You had to watch for the next wave or you’d get knocked over, we loved all this activity. Of course we did not compare our lot with how anyone else lived, we had not yet reached the age of reflecting.
My family have always been keen on birds and there was an avian feast at Bonny Hills. We particularly liked to watch the White-Backed Sea Eagles hunting over the sea and over Vinegar Creek. Sometimes we saw Brahminy Kites and occasionally an Osprey. The sand dunes were kept in place by the coastal heath that was full of birds, wrens, honeyeaters, and the usual Butcherbirds, Peewits, Currawongs and Magpies, and a host of parrots. Holiday houses in those days were not at all pretentious, timber walls with outside toilet, washing machine with a mangle wringer, bring your own sheets and blankets, kerosene fridge. There were five children and we often had a friend staying, so it was not really a holiday for Mum. She just seemed to plough on getting meals and enjoying us having a good time. In the evening we played Scrabble, Squatter and Monopoly, snap, and fish. My sisters and I now look back on those times as highlights in our lives.
One useful skill I picked up was how to relate to other people. There was a lovely old fellow just down the road who had a banana farm and he had a lot of chooks fossicking under the trees. His name was Mr Prout, affectionately known as Prouty. His wife was a very friendly lady who was keen to talk to us all when we went down to buy some eggs. Dad loved meeting people and always found it easy to strike up a conversation, something that seeped into me by osmosis. These social skills became an important part of the regenerative mind as relationship and the social dimension of life is critical in gaining information and knowledge.
In school holidays, I was fortunate to be asked home with several families who lived on farms. Those holidays had a huge influence on my choice of occupation. These farms were at Mumbil, near Wellington; at Merriwa; at Mandurama and at Coolah. The families I stayed with were all incredibly generous to me and I experienced many things. Shooting hares in the dusk in the lucerne at Merriwa, panning for gold in the gravel beds of the Belubula at Mandurama, going for a shot to see if I could get a ‘roo for the dogs, in the black soil hills of the Talbragar catchment at Coolah. Drafting and marking calves, mustering sheep, fencing and being included in various social outings, all these experiences I was so very fortunate to have, and were instrumental in urging me forward to a career in agriculture.
Later I went Jackarooing on a sheep station at Urana. I spent my small amount of free time collecting bird’s eggs and observing the natural world around me. It was a place called Coonong, and once the head station for Sir Samuel McCaughey’s pastoral empire on the Riverine Plains. It had forty four miles of double frontage to the Columbo creek. In its heyday there were ten single men, six jackaroos and two men at the ram sheds as well as an overseer, stud overseer, a book keeper, a groom, blacksmith, farmer and jackaroo’s cook. But when I went there in February 1968, the single men’s dwelling was unoccupied. The drought was upon the land and 20,000 sheep were being fed in many mobs. Unlike many properties, Coonong had two weirs on the Columbo. There was a system of channels that went to almost every paddock. When dams were running short of water, we’d put boards in the weirs and the creek level would rise. We’d open the channel and the water would flow out to dams many miles from the creek. Whilst this was convenient, it meant that when droughts came, stock were held in paddocks that gradually lost cover.
The owners had an irrigation block at Finley where they grew irrigated lucerne. In dry times a semi-trailer of hay would come once a week and be fed out direct to the paddocks. As the truck approached the paddock you’d see a great pall of red dust rising, indicating that the sheep had begun to move to the gate. As well as the hay, the ewes were fed Riverina Stock Feed sheep nuts which came in bags from the feed mill in Narrandera. One of the jackaroos would get on the back of the ute and feed the nuts out as the vehicle drove in a big circle, the rationale for this was that you could get a good look at the sheep as they were fed and report any concerns.
This was in the days before motorbikes, so all stock work was done with horses. There was also a sulky horse called Mike Todd, named after one of Marilyn Monroe’s husbands! One of the senior blokes left for another job and I became the sulky driver, something I loved. The sulky was used to do a lot of the stock droving when shearing, crutching and jetting were on. It was about eight miles or so from the back paddocks to the shearing shed yards. If you did not get the sheep to the yards before ten o’clock, in the hot weather, they would get ‘doughy’ and want to camp, and could not be driven. The strategy was to get out to the paddock just before dawn, lift the sheep off the camp and let them string out and feed along. I had a good quiet dog called Chiko, often called Fat Chick or Chiko Roll. He’d been bred by Father John Morrison, the Parish Priest at Boorowa who, whilst ministering to his human flock, also bred good sheep dogs. Chiko’s big strength was that he didn’t push the sheep. I would sit out on the wing in the sulky, and if the sheep pulled up, I just let them rest awhile and soon they would lead off and this way they never got overheated. Chiko just kept pace with the slowest sheep. Harnessing Mike into the sulky in the almost-dark was a wonderful feeling, no-one to disturb the peace and you could watch the changing colours as the sky turned from darkness to a milky green and then gradually lightened as the first faint tinge of the approaching sun hinted at the golden margin on the clouds and eventually broke the horizon. Finding the sheep in big paddocks was sometimes a challenge as there was a shrub called cotton bush that from a distance looked just like sheep. Mostly if there was any breeze, they would graze into the wind, making them easier to find. If there had been any substantial rain you’d be likely to see Brolgas nesting in the ephemeral swamps, and sometimes even in smaller depressions called gilgais. Once I was mustering cattle off one of the bends of the creek. There was a big Riverine fog and I was trying to find the gate when I could hear the croaky sound of the Brolga’s call. I sat still on my horse and as the fog began to almost imperceptibly lift, I saw two brolgas performing their dance, with wings held wide and heads aloft in a primeval dance that was older than the original human inhabitants of these huge floodplains. They seemed unaware of my presence and I must have watched them for more than five minutes, a real privilege.
When a big mob of sheep is grazing along, they have plenty of room and often flush ground larks and quail out in front of the mob. The whistling of the quail would attract Brown Hawks, who hunted along the front edge of the sheep and often caught quail on the wing.
After the drought of the first year, 1969 started off very dry until in early March, the weather broke and there were several good falls of rain. In one week, the bare ground disappeared under a sea of green in an almost unbelievable switch. 1969 was a good season, the grey clays grew lots of grasses and crowfoot. The sand ridge country grew a big body of corkscrew (Stipa sp), and could not be stocked with sheep as the corkscrew seed burrows into the sheep’s skin and they fail to thrive and are a target for blowflies. We had a couple of fly waves while I was at Coonong. The flies were so bad it was not feasible to bring the sheep in and jet them. So we split up into two groups and went to each paddock and caught the fly-blown sheep, cut the affected wool off with shears and dressed the wound with KFM. In a mob of 350 ewes there could be 30 blown and within a week there’d be another 30. The sheep blowfly was so prolific that they would lay their eggs on the damp washing on the clothes-line. Eventually the fly wave stopped, and normal station work resumed.
Part of the populating of the ecolosystem of a regenerative farmers mind was the conversations I had with all the new people I was meeting. The Hemphill family who brought the hay up to Coonong from Finley, Tommy Martin, the fencer who had his battles with the grog but knew the fencing game inside out, The Craze brothers, shearing contractors from Narrandera who brought their teams in and lived in the shearers huts, for shearing and crutching. Mrs Maher was the cook, the only person we knew who could make rank two year old rams that were culls from the sale teams and now meat for the shearers, taste alright. Mostly the rams were too rank for eating. If you were bringing sheep forward for shedding up at shearing time, you could unsaddle your horse and leave it in a small triangle paddock beside the bridge over the Columbo creek, and go over to the kitchen at the shearers huts, and Mrs Maher would give you a couple of rock cakes with sultanas in them washed down with a pannikin of tea. Jackaroos always packed their own lunch, sandwiches in summer and a couple of chops and some bread to toast in Winter. We’d light a fire and grill the chops on a bit of netting with a wire round the edge; we carried our lunch in a leather saddle bag and a quart pot, in a leather case which was strapped to a couple of dees on the other side of the saddle.
At the end of the day, if we’d been using horses and ended up at the shearing shed yards, the horses would be unsaddled and let go, the harness loaded on the truck or ute, and we’d drive the six miles to the station. The horses would canter home and meet us at each gate to be let through and then let back into the horse paddock. In wet years the mosquitos were savage and we’d light dung fires so the horses could get their heads in the smoke and get some relief from the mossies or they’d gallop all night.
Shearing was the biggest event on the station with 20,000 sheep being brought forward in their mobs and then branded and walked back to their various paddocks. I was very busy at this time as my job was to jump out early, bring a mob in and then walk a shorn mob out. Shorn sheep move along freely, feeding and spreading out, you could get the dogs up on the sulky and they were always fresh. Jackaroos were not allowed back into the quarters after breakfast, I think this was because it was considered good policy to keep out of the cook’s hair so she could get the cleaning done uninterrupted.
Jackaroo’s cooks were an interesting breed, the boss always advised us not to fraternize with them or they’d bend the rules and end up resenting us and leave. This was advice we never followed, and so there was a procession of new cooks who had to get used to us and vice versa. These were good lessons in tolerance and people management.
On Coonong there were two Irish families who had emigrated from Ballymena in Ireland. One was the Sinclair family, Bob and Mrs Sinclair, and their children. Bob was the groom, his job was to kill the sheep to provide meat for the families on the station, including the jackaroos. The dressed carcases would hang over night with chaff bags over them, and next morning they’d be carried up to the fly-proof meat room where they would be cut up; sawn down the mid-line with a manual meat saw, then cut down into chops, and roasts and distributed around the station. This was a weekly job, and for the rest of the week Bob would come out and work with us on the station. He had a brown Border Collie dog called Peg who was super-intelligent. If it was a station work day, Bob would sit on a chair outside the front door of his house with his esky, Peg would lie on the mat, she knew it was not a work day for her. If Bob came out with his cloth and knife and steel, Peg would tear down to the killer’s paddock and by the time Bob had walked down to the yard, Peg would have the killers in the yard. The killers were mostly Burdizzoed rams who had been bloodlessly emasculated with an instrument called a Burdizzo. It would crush the spermatic cord without breaking the scrotum skin. To check if it was adjusted properly you would get a cigarette paper and lay a human hair across it, fold it over and close the Burdizzo. If it was correctly adjusted it would cut the hair but not the paper. I could never work out just how that was possible!
We used to take it week about with bringing the horses in to the yards each morning. Horses were in the homestead yards every morning ready for work. If no horses were needed they’d be let out into the horse paddock. The night horse, Henry, was left in the yards overnight and whoever was ‘on horses’ would jump on Henry before work and bring the horses up to the yards. Henry had very prominent, bony withers that posed a threat to one’s manhood, but he had a loping action that was quite comfortable.
Bob Sinclair also had a few milking cows he’d bring in each evening, they’d go into the cow yard where the calves were shut up at night. The cows were turned out into the paddock next to the cow bails and would have full udders in the morning for milking. The cows get cunning and don’t enjoy having their calves shut up and will try all sorts of tricks to avoid being put in the yard in the evening. Bob was pretty intolerant of their attitude and had a limit to his patience. One evening as I finished work, Mrs Sinclair and the manager, Lionel Smith, were watching Bob bring the cows in; the cows were playing up. Bob rode a push-bike to bring the cows in and one cow was not moving as fast as Bob desired, he had the wheel of the bike between her back legs and was encouraging her with a switch of leaves he’d broken off a tree, and cursing her with a verbal tongue whipping. Lionel said to Mrs Sinclair, ‘Bob’s having trouble with the cows tonight’, to which she replied with her lovely Irish brogue, “If yon coo knew who was chasing her, she’d be on her knees prayin’”.
Tennis was a big deal at Urana the small town not far from Coonong, it was our main social outlet. Lionel Smith had been an army officer and there was a certain military discipline imposed for our own good! We were allowed a car, but had to hand in the keys. There was no leave from the station except for tennis on Saturdays. We worked till lunch time every Saturday, then cleaned up and went in for tennis at the Urana lawn Tennis Club, that bastion of social respectability with not a hint of any grass, the courts were all bitumen or ant-bed gravel. We met all the local station-owners and their families, who were very good to us. They would have been a mine of information to us if we’d ever thought to ask them about their stations, but being young, just out of school, lacking experience and probably floating in a haze of testosterone, we mostly missed the chance. We were probably low on the social pecking order as well.
All these experiences added to the store of knowledge about the practical aspects of managing a sheep farm; there was, however, scant reference, actually no reference to the ecological consequences of management. My love of nature had been forged in the crucible of my family and their intense interest in the natural world.
After many years of managing our farm along industrial lines I began to reflect on the sort of world my management would leave behind. My uneasiness at the impact of my farming methods led me to search for a way of farming that could increase the complexity of life on our farm, rather than simplifying the living community.
This is what I have termed an ‘allowing’ way of managing.