By Imogen Semmler
Set against the backdrop of drought, 'Farmers in Flux' is a story-telling project that follows four farmers on their journey towards ecological stewardship and regenerative change. Each journey is very different. Some farmers are just starting out and others are years down the track, still tweaking, adapting and learning. I have been collecting audio and piecing together these amazing stories for an interactive installation at Groundswell in Bingara (September 7 -8) and the Cementa Festival in Kandos from November 21-24.
So what has been happening? In my previous blog post I wrote about Dr Judi Earl, so here is a bit about the other farmers involved in the project:
Jane Pickard and Ray South run 'Banded Bee Farm' on the outskirts of Armidale. I met them when Jane responded to my call-out for farmers to participate in the project. Jane and Ray are running a diverse agroforestry enterprise on a 40 acre block which, when they first began, was a windswept plain with only a few trees. In addition to putting half of the property back to native vegetation and planting some introduced trees such as oaks too, Jane and Ray are designing a phenomenal food system of perennials and annual plants. They have alleys of fruit trees, berries and nut trees interspersed with vegetables; chook tractors clearing the way for food forests; cold frames and covered cattle yards brimming with salad greens. Jane and Ray both began their journey when they studied permaculture with Rosemary Morrow. They are plant obsessed and are taking horticulture to the next level, growing fruit and nut trees from seed and developing land races (using a mix of genetics to produce very resilient plants adapted to the local climate). It is such a pleasure to spend time with them and I am learning so much by just being around them. Their story is about diversity and resilience.
Lisa Daly is a cattle farmer from Hernani (about an hour east of Armidale). Lisa and I met at a Holistic Management short-course a few months ago and I offered to help her with some soil tests. We got on really well and I was drawn to her story and promptly asked her to be in my project. I basically bribed her, but she has willingly accepted! Lisa is smart as a tack. After taking over the book-keeping for her family's farm business and doing some research she happened across Holistic Management and became interested in learning how to manage grazing to improve the functioning of soil and landscapes while reducing the costs of synthetic fertiliser inputs. She convinced her Mum and step-Dad to allow her to take over one of the family farms and in her spare time when she's not working or raising three kids she is out there building more fences and dividing up the paddocks. Lisa's story is about drowning in information as she sifts through websites and fact sheets and reads books and takes her HM course. Lisa is building up her knowledge and each time I visit her she is more confident, knowing that she has made the right choice, both for the land and for the family's bank balance!
Alex Hunter and Bob Moylan own a small farm just outside Armidale. They have a herd of cattle (including two adorable furry highland cows), some enormous pigs and a gaggle of goats. I met Alex at the same short-course as Lisa (you'd think that I was hunting for talent but I wasn't - there has been a lovely mix of intention and accident in happening upon all of these stories!). Alex and Bob are at what they call 'ground zero'. They know that they want to increase soil health, improve diversity and restore ecological function to their landscape (which has clearly been worked very hard in the past and is quite degraded). They see enormous potential in the farm and they know this is the right thing to do. However, starting out can be exceptionally daunting and in the middle of the worst drought on record - where do you begin? Their story is about the challenge of taking those first steps.
As part of the installation at Cementa I want to create something for the audience to interact with alongside listening to the audio stories. For example for Jane and Ray's story I want to build an interactive collage to capture their stunning patch design of diverse plants growing together. For Lisa's story we are putting together a 'diary' of information so the reader can step into her shoes and follow along on her journey of knowledge as she works out what she needs to know. Alex, Bob and I are having crazy ideas about putting go-pros on their animals to see their blank canvas property from another perspective. And going back to Judi Earl's story (from my previous blog post), it's like she has all the different pieces of the game ready to play (and win!) but just needs the right set of circumstances (ie rain) to make it work. So on a recent visit to Coolatai we brainstormed an idea for a board game - a monopoly inspired adventure spanning the highs and lows of her farming journey. Set against the challenges of drought and climate change we addressed the fine balance between managing herd size and maintaining enough pasture in the landscape to prevent erosion and loss of ecological function. We got bogged down in complexity and had a few breakthroughs in how to set it out (Judi came up with the idea of moving through the seasons which was fantastic).
So what's next? At the upcoming 'Groundswell' event at Bingara on 7th & 8th September (part of the Pulse of the Earth Festival), I will show a video which my dear friend and talented filmmaker Matthew Woodham shot on a recent visit to New England - a little behind the scenes of my project featuring some of the farmers.
And watch out for my next blog as I attempt to bring the farmers together with some scientists in a unique and fun way.