The Summer Work Gang

This summer we have tried a new schedule of work on the Rock Farm. On weekdays the boys (and Mum) have fronted up for work at 8am sharp for a morning of ‘farm work’. At an appropriate time, we break for half an hour for morning tea – remember we are feeding people with the appetites of Hobbits. I have to ensure all farm work is completed by midday. This leaves the afternoon free for bike riding, reading and even the Xbox…. And boy have the lads been working hard.

You may recall last summer we tried to restore an old horse float, but due to the total fire bans and constant smoke, we achieved very little until later in the year. Outside work was limited to essential tasks to keep the cattle fed and watered. This year, the summer days have been far more pleasant, and we have managed to achieve far more than I hoped, crossing lots of little jobs off my never ending list.

Some of the jobs have bugged me since we moved in. Others have been more pressing, just as repairing fences. I have been trying (not always succeeding) to make the work fun, and if not fun, at least educational. What I have really enjoyed most though is just being together with my boys, watching them problem solve and see their sense of achievement when they realise they can actually do things now without me giving them the full instructions. I am starting to give them more responsibility for the outcomes – it is coming slowly, for them as well as me as we transition to our ‘management by intent’ principle. That said, I am immensely proud of what they have achieved, and really pleased with how we are slowly getting on top of the organisation of the Rock Farm..

We spent our first morning on the job pruning the garden, and the laneways ensuring fire truck access to our property. Both the boys have started driving Myrtle (Our old Benz LA911) this year… they never thought they could have so much fun chugging along at five kilometres per hour! The truck is pretty daunting for a 13 or 15 year old, but it is relatively easy to drive, with power steering and synchromesh on all gears. The hardest part is its sheer bulk of the truck, and the narrow width of our gates!

Under the principle that a little maintenance now stops a much bigger problem later, the boys also learnt a bit about building, as we repaired our old stable block. We needed to prop part of the roof, and re-secure trusses, replacing loose nails with screws. I gave the lads very little direction in much of this task, but was impressed as they rose to the occasion and soon the stables were in much better order than when we started.

Some parts of our ‘farm work’ were just good old fashioned hard work, with nothing to do but get stuck in. Cleaning up the hayshed was the worst. This area of the farm was a real mess, and I have been slowly bringing it in to order. In the past couple of years I had used our old roofing iron to weatherproof the walls, and installed a new pair of gates. With the outside looking smarter, it was time to turn our attention to the inside. With piles of fertiliser slowly rotting amongst old furniture and junk, I really appreciated the strong and willing labour. It took us three mornings of concerted effort to clean up the mess and spread the fertiliser on our back paddock (by hand!). In the process, we found some hidden gems, including an old shearing blade grinder. Once I checked the wiring was in order, the old grinder spun up straight away when I plugged it in!

But it hasn’t all been hard work. With the recent spike in COVID cases cancelling sporting carnivals, we had planned on taking a few days off just to relax. Like so many others though, we kept a close eye on travel restrictions that were becoming more difficult to achieve. We had to cancel our original holiday booking, but were still determined to get a break from the farm and have a bit of a holiday.

We packed the car with our camping gear, and drove for a couple hours through the southern tablelands, eventually ending up back where we began… in our front yard! We turned off the phones and other electronics, set up camp and spent a couple of blissful nights reconnecting with each other. It was truly wonderful, and allowed us to see our place with a fresh pair of eyes. We even used the back of the ute for a special screening of Disney Cars. The view was spectacular, and with the dam just a stones throw away for kayaking, the bike track through the garden for tricks and the hillbilly pool available for splashing, we might have just found our new favourite camp site!

I do love the many challenges of the Rock Farm. There are times the list of jobs I want to do here can feel a little overwhelming. Whilst I am loving my mornings of work with the boys, it was wonderful to take the opportunity to step away and appreciate the farm for what it is. It is our home and refuge in this crazy world. It is nice to slow down and enjoy the quiet every now and then.

Especially given the residents are always happy to see you 🙂

Book Review: English Pastoral by James Rebanks

Under the Christmas Tree this year was a wonderful gift from my mother, English Pastoral by James Rebanks. Rebanks is a farmer in the Lakes district in the UK, an Oxford graduate and an expert adviser to the UNESCO on sustainable tourism. You might be forgiven for thinking what is the relevance of this book for a small hobby farm half a world away, but this book captures many of my frustrations with ‘conventional agriculture’ and provides guidance for me in our journey on the Rock Farm.

Rebanks opens his book with a memory of riding with his Grandfather as he ploughed his fields. When he was old enough, his Grandfather started sharing the traditional farming techniques used on a mixed rotational farm. Rebanks loved his apprenticeship, and learnt the old way of farming that had been largely unchanged for hundreds if not thousands of years.

As a young man, he witnessed his Father struggle with the lure of modern agriculture. With the drive for efficiency, farms started to grow in size. Fertilizers and high yielding pasture, along with specialised farms replaced mixed farms. This modern miracle increased yields enormously. But it came at a cost, and rested uneasily with Rebanks and his father.

A watershed moment came when a young woman, Lucy came from a local river conservation charity. With some simple changes, Lucy showed how the water courses running through their farm could be returned to their more natural state. And she had funds to help pay for the fencing that would be required to make it happen. Small changes made more natural areas in the farm, and Rebanks realised he was now a guardian of these wild spaces. This first step changed Rebanks as well as the farm.

Rebanks is a realist. He knows the future of farming lies somewhere between the vast industrial scope of broadacre agriculture with its intensive feedlots, and the small scale mixed farms. He is concerned with the increasingly binary arguments that place farmers at odds with environmentalists. He knows that the old style of farming is hard work. The health of animals and plants is hard work, and requires constant vigilance. I am reminded of the words of Allan Savory who believes all problems stem from poor management.

The idea that land must be either perfectly wild or perfectly efficient and sterile is unwise and blinding; it is a false and unsustainable simplification. When we despair and reduce our world view to black and white – ‘farming’ is bad; ‘nature’ is good – we lose sight of vital distinctions and nuances. We make every farmer who isn’t a saint a villain. We miss the actual complexities of farming, the vast spectrum between those those extremes and the massive scope for nature friendly farming that exists between them.

What I really enjoyed about reading Rebanks’ book was his descriptions of the land and all that lived in it. It was once said to me that a farmer’s footsteps are the best fertiliser. Rebanks embodies this, with his delight in the detail of his farm. He takes us on constant journeys around his farm, and shares the magic of sighting a barn owl in the hunt, the rising of the sun above the mist at dawn, the gentle cow nursing her new calf.

The more I learn about it, the more beautiful our farm and valley becomes. It pains me to ever be away; I never want to be wrenched from this place and its constant motion. The longer I am here, the clearer I hear the music of this valley: the Jenny wren in the undergrowth; the Scots pines creaking and groaning in the wind: the meadow grasses whispering. The distinction between me and this place blurs until I become part of it, and when they set me in the earth here, it will be the conclusion of a longer lifelong story of return. The ‘I’ and the ‘me’ fades away, erodes with each passing day, until it is already an effort to remember who I am and why I am supposed to matter. The modern world worships the idea of the self, the individual, but it is a gilded cage: there is another kind of freedom in becoming absorbed in a little life on the land. In a noise age, I think perhaps trying to live quietly might be a virtue.

This book is beautiful. It is shocking. It has challenged me to take time to get to know the detail of our farm. The wild things that live here, the changes of the seasons, the flowing of the grasses. It has also reminded me that our farm is a luxury. It is a hobby that I love, but I don’t stay up at night worrying about how I will provide for my family.

It seems the lessons of half a world away are equally relevant here too.