Our motto: the industrial revolution is over; the ecological revolution is just beginning
Our mission: For the last hundred years food production, from farming to “food science,” has become increasingly industrialised. This is bad for us and bad for the planet, destroying air, water and soil. Now we must reconceive food production as a nature-culture collaboration, rather than an exercise in dominance. Planet-care is not some weird hippie thing. It’s an exercise in badass survival. To survive as a species, we must find ways to enlist nature’s strength in increasing yield while also enhancing planetary and human health.
The idea: Broken Creek is a tiny 40-acre farm with a dirt road along one side and a creek along the other set high in an open, elevated southern tablelands valley about 50km south of Braidwood NSW. Apart from its role as a piece of the great ecological jigsaw, an emotional and spiritual haven and a thing of beauty, our purpose here is to use it to explore, test, measure and propagate ideas about regenerative farming. Our aim is to use biodiversity to sequester carbon, build soil, enhance water-retention and produce healthy food. Approaching agriculture as ecology not industry, we propose to document the effectiveness of this and, by engaging interested people, spread the word.
The back story: A few years ago, feeling myself at a crossroads, I made, as you do, a list. On it were thirteen projects. They ranged from firm commitments to the vaguest possibilities. But how to decide? I asked myself what would happen if, rather than working for obligation or scrabbling for survival, as I always had, I pursued what I loved. What would that be? I tried to listen to what Renzo Piano calls “the language that is in your stomach” and the answer was obvious. Apart from words and children, I love biology. I love animals and worms and physiology and cell membranes and growing things and the weird and intricate connections between complicated humanity and even more complicated nature.
I also felt an intense desire to change something physical, to work bodily instead of head-stuff all the time, and to build. Build what? Not architecture. Something more like real life. I was already interested in sustainable farming practice, through the slow-water work of Peter Andrews in the Hunter Valley and, especially, the soil-building innovations of my merino-farming friend Colin Seis, near Gulgong. It was a little strange, this, since I’d never felt the slightest interest in farming as it was done in New Zealand, which seemed pretty mechanical, in both senses, and way too easy. Here in dry, hostile NSW, farming practice is far more challenging. It’s more messed up (psychologically but also morally) and, to my mind, more beautiful.
Add to that the idea of infusing the land with ideas (rather than chemicals) and the whole thing began to have enormous appeal – part Cistercian, part Confucian. I abandoned GoGet and bought a car, in order to do the trips. It took 35 property inspections, from Mudgee to Yass to Cooma, and I had to sell my house to do it but five years later, almost to the day, I bought my wee farm. We wanted land that was clearly agricultural (not bush or ten-acre ex-urbs). We wanted permanent water and a hill to walk up. We wanted it to be pretty and to feel gemutlich. We wanted it to be drivable from Sydney but in no danger of being swallowed by suburbia, and down a bit of a dirt road but nothing you couldn’t escape from easily in a fire. And although we didn’t get all of those things (the hill is there but it’s not ours) we got most of them, most critically a spring here it is. Broken Creek, near Braidwood, est. 2018
The place: As luck would have it, Broken Creek is an almost-perfectly square piece of land and almost-perfectly north facing. It’s not remote, by Australian standards, but it’s remote enough to be entirely off-grid regarding electricity, water and sewerage. And it’s high – 800m above sea level, set in a flattish valley atop the great dividing range. So the land has that high-under-the-sky feeling that I love. The property has been part of a much larger cattle property and has been treated in the traditional way with chemical herbicides and fertilisers. Nevertheless, many native grass species remain and, with its reasonably reliable water supply (a spring and a permanent creek), the property stands a good chance of making a strong recovery. So far, we have a waterless composting toilet, a 3.6kw solar system and two galvanised water tanks, one 45,000litre for rainwater and one 26,000 litre solar-pumped from the spring. We also have a tin shed, a log cabin and a driveway, some sixty-odd trees, and ancient orchard and six head of cattle. And wifi! It’s a small start, but it’s a start.
About me: People constantly ask “why are you doing this farming thing? You’re a city-lover. Did you grow up on a farm?” To which the answers are, in backwards order, no, yes and it’s complicated. I did not grow up on a farm. Like most people of my generation, I grew up in the burbs. I was always a nature freak. In NZ, that’s pretty hard to avoid, since the suburbs are universally leafy, you’re never more than a few kilometres from the coast, everyone goes “tramping” in the bush and we were inculcated with the principles of ecology and conservation at school. Within walking distance of our house, further, was John Logan Campbell’s amazing gift to the City of Auckland known as Cornwall Park, a farm centred on the extinct volcano that is One Tree Hill. There were cattle, sheep, chooks, pigs in a treed pastoral landscape you could wander about in your gumboots any day of the week. And I did, as a kid, a teenager and an undergraduate I lived close enough to indulge my love of walking, of biology and of mooning about with a head full of poetry and ideas.
An architect by training, I have a background in literature and philosophy but, before that, a deep and abiding love of biology. I spent my first decade or so in Australia learning to understand its cities and the next falling in love with the outback, the tiny red-dirt towns and, everywhere around and between them, the desert. But the countryside itself remained a mystery.
Somehow, more than NZ and certainly more than the UK (where I’d also lived), the Australian “country” seemed inaccessible. You could stay in small towns and you could travel through the countryside – had to, to get to the real “bush”. But there were no walking paths, bridal paths or ancient rights-of-way as there are in the UK. So you couldn’t actually engage with Australia’s agricultural self – get dust on your boots and hear the soundtrack – unless you knew someone. And I didn’t.
Until one morning, slumped blearily in the Qantas transit lounge in Hong Kong airport on the way home after a couple of months in London, I received an email. It was from one David Mort, who described himself as “a simple sheep farmer with an interest in AWN Pugin.” This was enough to pique my interest, since AWN Pugin was a 19th century British Catholic medievalist who designed Big Ben, and the elevations (but not the plan) of the UK parliament buildings in Westminster, as well as a few Catholic churches and fine stained glass windows in Australia. Not your typical sheep-farmer then. It took me a while to grasp the familial connections – to all those Mort Streets and Mort Bays around NSW. The fabulous Goldsborough Mort warehouses, the churches and rectories and schools. That came later.
David and I got chatting and, after a few weeks, that Easter, my younger daughter and I went to visit. It was love at first sight – the Palladian tin shed, the sausage dogs and kelpies, the cattle and the orchard, the sheds, utes and bikes, the soundtrack and the smell.
(although of course I’d witnessed the demolition or refurbishment of various Goldsborough Mort buildings in Sydney and half the suburbs have Mort Streets).
Then, at last, I got to know the in-between, the rural countryside.
So at last I got to know rural in-between, the countryside. Even so, I wasn’t interested in farming per se until, a few months later, I met Colin Seis. He is a fourth-generation sheep-farmer near Gulgong, some four hours north of Sydney. He has written a book about his story, which is truly remarkable – and we’ll come back to that.
Suffice it now to say it was Colin pointed out how you could quadruple soil depth and multiply water-holding capacity by eight, using hard-hoofed animals and farming methods that encourage what wants to grow, rather than killing things. It was Colin who made me see that this ideas-rich mode of farming was not only a form of ecology (rather than industry) but was quintessentially feminine. I was hooked.