Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer
The pale yellow light of dawn strengthened over the small wine-growing town of Rutherglen in north-eastern Victoria as I pulled out of the motel and turned towards home. Something happens to me on a Friday – I start to shed my weekly skin, and to feel the call of the veggie patch, which now lay nearly a thousand kilometres to the west. Like an old homing pigeon, I’ll be looking to sleep in my own bed tonight – the thrill of the open road, motel rooms and hotel food is fading. Spring is fading too into summer, and I’ve still got packets of seeds lying about unopened that should have been planted out weeks ago.
As these trips go, this one has been short, crammed in between my youngest son’s birthday breakfast on Wednesday morning, and the need to be back in the garden early Saturday morning. Sometimes I get restless, wearing a path between home and the office, and I need to push out into the big spaces I know so well up behind Adelaide, and as far afield as the Darling Downs in Queensland. It’s in these big sparsely populated areas where our food is grown, keeping the city folk alive. Jetting between the luxury hotels in the big cities is not for me. I take the car and drive, for then I’m not at the mercy of timetables and taxis, but am left alone with my own thoughts and the chance to potter around the back of many of the small towns I pass through. Here I get out to stretch my legs and peer over the fences at gardens unpressured by time and real estate agents. In the main street one sees folk who’ve got time to stop and chat to each other, and to pass a “G’day” to a stranger like myself, just passing through.
There are no fashion statements on display in these small country towns – one can see in the homely faces the aging of our rural population, and the struggle their lives have been amidst a basic honesty of purpose. No ostentatious wealth here…
My first stop on Wednesday afternoon had been an almond orchard in the Riverland. There are clever ways to get to where I’d got to on this job, but my route had taken me up through the Adelaide Hills and out along the foothills of the eastern Mount Lofty Ranges through Cambrai and Sedan, following my tracks of thirty years ago. Back then, equipped with some aluminium cooking utensils, baked beans and a plastic sheet that could be strung between two trees for a tent, I’d loaded up my Dad’s old bicycle and set off to visit my sister in Barmera. (That darn bike – I even had to pedal it downhill, and the daytime temperatures were at least 45°C – in the water bottle!) By late evening on my first day I’d crossed the ranges and seen the Murray Valley laid out before me for the first time. I camped beside the River Marne that night, and on that earlier dawn, pushed on through the mid-Murray Mallee on the next leg to Waikerie. Some years later – with my first pay packets - I was to buy 75 acres of those foothills for $6000 in a burst of nostalgia and the mistaken idea that I could be self-sufficient in that parched landscape. On the following evenings, and on a number of canoe trips after that, I camped beside the mighty Murray River. Three decades ago it was a wonderland to me, full of fascinating bird life, giant goannas and all the diversity of the Australian bush. A canoe trip down the same river last year took me through a different and depressing landscape, of dead and dying red gums and black box, salt-scoured earth and little wildlife bar noisy humans in speed-boats slaloming around the once-quiet back creeks.
After my work was done in the almond orchard, the young chap I’d come to help out showed me a grove of almonds he’d worked on especially. Compared to those around them, these four year old trees were magnificent, a deeper green, and laden with almonds along every branch. Down the back of the property lay the secret – a system for delivering soluble nutrients along with the irrigation water, in a process now used in conventional agriculture called “fertigation”. As the evening bled away on the trip up to Mildura, my thoughts drifted away from those young trees to a gnarled old monster of an almond tree that’s stood down my backyard since Magill was just orchards and vineyards. Every year, with the benefit of nothing more than the rain that falls, this old tree loads up with almonds after a mid-winter display of pink and white blossom that’s a delightful harbinger of spring. According to the neighbour who shares this tree with me, those almonds of yesteryear were delicious. Then the Ash Wednesday fires forced the parrots down from the foothills, and they’ve been back each year since, clipping the tops off the green almond shells and neatly nipping out the nuts from inside. This year I’ve festooned the tree with old bags of every colour, encased clusters of almonds in onion bags, hung bird nets over the few branches I can reach, and even wrapped chicken wire around a few clusters. I reckon it’s time those Rosellas and Lorikeets shared some of those mythical almonds with me!
The next day (Thursday) started well then turned sour. My track en-route to Rutherglen took me down the Murray Valley Highway from Mildura through to Swan Hill. Swan Hill has a legacy of old soldier-settler blocks whose irrigation systems are fed directly from the River Murray. Here they measure the trunk diameter of their peach trees (in centimeters), multiply by six, and so arrive at the number of export-size peaches the tree can support, knocking off as many as three-quarters of the young peaches so that the tree has energy enough to plump up the remainder. Crikey – I haven’t been that clever by these standards! Each year I forget to spray my peach trees with copper sulphate and every Spring I curse my forgetfulness as they succumb to a disease called “curly-leaf”. Yet Mother Nature – that old ham – doesn’t see this as a problem. The crinkled leaves shrivel and fall off during spring and are replaced by healthy ones, then she goes on to deliver mouth-watering peaches of a good size with no assistance from me other than ropes to keep the heavily-laden branches from sprawling all over the ground. Perhaps I’ll just continue to leave the old girl to it…
It was in the River Murray town of Kerang that the worst of the damage to our riverine environment became apparent. The country around there is a moonscape, with ash-grey trunks of long-dead eucalypts pointing forlornly to the sky. The land itself is a testimony to the damage done by over-irrigation, rising water tables, water-logging, poor drainage, salinity, loss of soil structure, loss of bio-diversity, loss of habitat and degradation of the river itself. No need for a Ph.D in ecology out there – the land itself speaks forlornly of the disaster wrought upon it since the coming of the white man and his agricultural practices just a few hundred years ago. All down the Murray Valley Highway one can see the beginnings of this ecological disaster, but around Kerang one can see the future of this once great river.
In Rutherglen I looked over a cattle feedlot – the first one I’d ever been on – and my sense of doom only worsened. The cattle were penned up permanently in yards and fed grains and who knows what else; they’re treated just like battery hens, except they’re bigger. The problem the cattle were experiencing was not one common to cows who (like Nobel Prizewinners!) are out standing in their fields. Because they lie on concrete pads where they eat and defecate, their coats develop tangles that are almost impossible to remove during their processing into meat, creating health issues.
By the end of Thursday, I was too tired to start the journey home, even though there was some daylight left. Some years ago I gave up the chatter of the television set to give myself more reading time and the chance to dig deeper into the meaning of life. So the setting sun found me in the second-hand bookshop in the quaint main street in Rutherglen, judging books by their covers. The first one to catch my eye I paid for, and took along to read with my evening meal at the pub – “Natural Gardening and Farming in Australia” by Jeffrey Hodges. Part 1, Section 1: “Harvest your backyard”! Page 2: “Victorian farmers are losing 13 tonnes of topsoil to produce one tonne of wheat … it is taking 7 kilograms of our precious soil for every loaf of bread we produce.” And so and so on – the message over my Veal Parmigiana was clear: - if our agricultural practices aren’t sustainable – and the landscape has changed markedly for the worse in my own thirty years of travelling through it – then how can we sustain the human populations in our cities? A population blithely unaware of the death of the countryside that sustains them, because food continues to appear cheaply on the shelves of the local supermarkets…
And so Friday morning found me once again on the road, and by 11.30 that evening I was indeed at home and in my own bed. Worn out and heart-sore it’s true, but ready to stagger out into the garden at dawn’s early light, the same old bloke, but with a new title: “Backyard Farmer”