I am writing this post before I even think about the title, because there are just so many potential titles, so many things I could write about here. As I write this, stream of consciousness style, I don’t really know where it’s headed. I could write about a small producer creating amazing products, I could write about business integrity and ethics, an enormous learning curve about cows and biodynamics, a life-changing moment (or several days filled with life-changing moments), an existential crisis, delicious food, inspiring people, an incredible part of Australia, finding a purpose, fascinating conversations, the satisfaction inherent in learning a new skill, and so much more.
But I guess first we should rewind, start at the very beginning (although it’s not clear how far back we should go, really).
For years now, I have wanted to escape the city. Until recently, it was merely a vague notion that lingered in the back of my mind. An inspirational seed of River Cottage heritage planted long ago in my mind by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, that has patiently laid dormant waiting for the perfect time to sprout. I guess I’ve been almost unknowingly on this path since that seed was sown, only finally now getting so close to the destination that it has started to feel like a real achievable thing. That seed, while not quite yet sprouting, is finally ready to do so.
Earlier this year, Tyler and I went to visit and help out at Marrook Farm – a biodynamic dairy farm on the Bulga Plateau in NSW, home to a small herd of gorgeous dairy cows and the most incredible yoghurts and cheeses made on site from their milk. David and Heidi are incredibly passionate about creating good food and nourishing the land, and they work very hard to achieve this on their farm. There are two milkings every day (cows don’t take holidays!), yoghurt-making days, cheese-making days, order packing days, there are fences to be built/moved, cows to be moved, silage to be made, cow horns to be filled and buried, pasture to be tended to, and quite a lot more that I have yet to learn about. The Marrook Farm herd is a true reflection of David & Heidi’s hard work and dedication, as are their pastures and their products. I plan on sharing our experiences from that first visit (yes, of course we have been back since then!) with you all, to provide a window into life on a biodynamic dairy farm. But before I share my daily dairy diary, I want to share with you all just a sample of the things I learnt while I was at Marrook Farm.
1) Small producers matter.
Okay, so I didn’t exactly learn this on Marrook Farm – supporting small producers has been a passion of mine for a long while now, a passion which I live as best as I can through my purchasing patterns. But nothing drives home the importance of supporting small authentic food producers than living even a small part of the life of a small producer. They work hard. They receive so much less than they deserve for their product, with shopkeepers and distributors pocketing a large proportion of the retail price of someone else’s product and someone else’s hard work. Small food producers need the support of us ‘cityslickers’ if they are to survive in a market dominated by big corporations – and it is crucial that our small Aussie suppliers do survive. I am more motivated than ever to vote with my money – to support Aussie producers doing amazing things for the land underneath our feet. That means buying as much as possible from small farmers and producers, and direct from the source wherever possible.
2) Get up early, go to bed early. Work hard, on things that matter.
Honest: I’m still working on this one. I find it really difficult to ignore the mindless viral shares on facebook, to detach from my computer and my to do list at a reasonable hour. To look after myself each night, so that I have the energy to devote everything to my tasks for the following day. I had no trouble with this at the farm. Perhaps partly because I disconnected from the online world and my work. But this aside, I found that getting up much earlier than usual was so much more doable, exciting even, when the reason for doing so was to get out in the morning air and tend to the beautiful herd of cows waiting for the sweet relief of the milk machine on their bursting udders. I don’t think I have ever bounded out of bed so early with so much enthusiasm, ever. I’m not usually a morning person. But on the farm, I’m a different person.
3) Biodynamics is the future of agriculture.
I’ve been on the organic ‘bandwagon’ (farmwagon? tractor?) for a while now. But I will admit that, up until perhaps a year or two ago, I lumped organics and biodynamics into the same category out of sheer ignorance. I knew there was kiiiind of a difference between the two, but thought they were really much of a muchness. I have since learnt that this is very far from the truth. Whilst I am not ready to denounce organic farming practices (in my mind, even the most ‘conventional’ organic system is markedly better than conventional agriculture/monoculture), organic just doesn’t seem like enough anymore. In fact, many organic farms mimic conventional agriculture very closely – they spray (organic-approved sprays, of course), they don’t build soil health in quite the same way that biodynamic farming practices do, they can fall victim to the same monoculture troubles that plague conventional, large-scale agriculture. Before you get upset with me, though, I do want to state loud and clear that organics is still a very, very good thing. We have some amazingly responsible organic farmers in Australia, too. But put simply, biodynamic agriculture truly goes above and beyond organics. Biodynamics takes into account the entire system, from earth to stars, with a much bigger focus on building up the health of the land so as to give back to the earth that provides so much for us.
4) I don’t know where I belong anymore. Or, really, I don’t feel that I belong here anymore.
That’s a pretty big admission to make on the internet, hey? You know me, I just tell it like it is. The fact is, now more than ever before, I don’t want to be in the city. But here I am, at least for now! Although I am absolutely desperate to get out of the city and begin my own biodynamic farming venture (stay tuned!), for now my place is here. And if I can use these experiences to educate city consumers about life on a farm, life as a small food producer, and the importance we city consumers play in determining the continued and crucial role of small farms in the Australian agricultural landscape, then that’s the best place for me to be for right now. If I sound like I’m at peace with that, I am absolutely not; but I’m trying to be.
5) It’s not up to us to judge another’s business decisions.
This is a tricky one. Because, for sure, consumers have a right to make a decision about what they do and don’t purchase – in fact, I couldn’t be more passionate about consumer choice. But that being said, I see a lot of city consumers making judgements of and assumptions about the business decisions made on a farm, without having nearly enough knowledge of the situation to be making these judgements and assumptions, and with much more callous disregard than they would apply to other businesses. If I can ask anything of you, it is that a) if you disagree with a farmer’s decision in the running of his/her farm, then arm yourself with knowledge about their reasons behind that decision – you might just find that you don’t disagree after all, and b) be nice – this is not only their livelihood, but their greatest love and passion, and consumers should be mindful of that when making their purchasing decisions. At the end of the day, you should only purchase what you feel comfortable purchasing. But the importance of both knowledge and compassion cannot be understated.
6) We need more farmers in Australia.
The Bulga Plateau used to be home to over 60 dairy farmers and now… there is just the 1 left. This is a reflection of a worrying trend all over Australia; farmers are part of an aging population, and there are not enough new farmers starting up. Farming is expensive, it is hard work, but it is just so important. It strikes me as odd that many members of our government and many of our citizens were so quick to express concern over imported foods in the wake of the Nanna’s frozen berries Hep A outbreak, yet nothing is being done to encourage, incentivise, or support young people who want to start farming. There is no government support to help small farmers deal with the costs of getting things up and running, bank loan interest rates are prohibitive, the supermarket duopoly means small farms are almost guaranteed to fail or at the very least find it incredibly difficult to establish a market, and from a cultural standpoint farming is seen as an unworthy profession to many of us cityslickers. But I believe farmers are the most important people in our country. We ought to start treating them that way, and we ought to start encouraging our youth to take up farming. There is no job so important as feeding the nation good food.
7) Milking cows is the most incredible experience.
Yet apparently it’s not something that everyone finds as enjoyable as I do… I was quite surprised when I found that out! I loved connecting with animals early in the morning (and again in the evening!), getting to know each one’s personality and udder a little better each time. The satisfaction in learning a new skill provided a confidence boost I hadn’t expected, and the pleasure in knowing you played a key role in providing good food for people you don’t even know is powerful. The rhythmic sound of the machinery pumping away sets your rhythm for the day. Even shovelling the poo at the end of milking is a gritty yet satisfying task. Apparently, being down in the dairy is something many find unnerving. I get it, on a conceptual level – cows are big animals. But on the other hand I don’t get it because they are just that – big animals. Treat them with respect, and they will offer you an udder full of milk in return. But if it’s not your thing – appreciate those who do it for you every time you have milk in your coffee, enjoy a bowl of yoghurt, or tuck into a wedge of cheese.
8) Something’s gotta give.
Our food system is all kinds of messed up. It needs to change, and we need to be the ones to change it. So whether you’re uprooting and starting a farm or simply making different choices when you shop for food, there is always something you can do. So get out there and do it!