Changing times in the veggie patch
Circa 2006: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer
Mother’s Day in mid-May dawned fair and calm with a touch of cloud over the sea but clear blue skies over the hills up behind the veggie patch. My sons and I refer to my wife (their mother) as “Wonder Woman” – we wonder what she’s doing with all us blokes. It can’t be easy being the only female in the home, hens aside. Our three sons range in age from the mid-teens to the early twenties, and so they are either still asleep or off some place. So it’s just the two of us, and I put aside the calls of the veggie patch and we head for the Stirling Organic Café for Mother’s Day breakfast in the sun.
And how about that? One can have ‘organic milk’ now in one’s coffee and a whole meal whose ingredients are completely organic. Times are indeed changing – when we arrived back in Australia from Europe in the early eighties, I doubt we’d seen the word organic in print anywhere, and cafés selling a decent cup of coffee were as rare as chemical fertilizers in my garden shed.The years since then have been a real struggle, but sometimes now we get a glimpse of a future that makes some sense and seems possible to achieve. After our breakfast we walk through the Stirling Linear Park, through Australian eucalypts planted by the Stirling Community, and offering an almost European vista of hills trees and meadows beyond. Quiet reigns, and the smell of the autumn woodlands is wonderful.
Now and then we have young folk from Germany come out to see Australia, and camp with us until they get their bearings and launch off on the trail up through Ayers Rock and the Northern Territory, across to Cairns in Queensland, down the east coast and back around again. We used to bring them up here to show them the beauty of the autumn leaves, until we realised they’d seen all that at home and wanted to see “gum trees” and deserts. Now we show them nothing. Well, it looks like ‘nothing’ to them, and that’s fascinating – the wide-open vista looking out over the Murray Valley from Cookes Hill on the other side of the Mount Lofty ranges. Then along the foothills to Pine Hut Knob, where we light the camp fire and barbecue some sausages for them while the corellas and cockatoos screech and wheel around the River Red Gums, with not another human in sight.
A fellow turned up the other day from the local paper to interview me for an article he was writing on ‘Silent Achievers’. Turns out I’m regarded as a pioneer in the wind energy business in Australia, and the story that started here on the windy slopes of Pine Hut Knob thirty years ago is now newsworthy. Every dog has his day I suppose, but the story that began for us in a lonely farm house along the valley out there never had a rainbow of fame and fortune painted into its purpose – I was looking for a way to survive. I’d just returned to Australia in 1983, from engineering positions in the mining industry in Papua-New Guinea and Canada, and I was determined to build a career in environmental measurements. With a $9000 grant from the State Energy Research Advisory Committee and a new wife and a young son to support, I spent three years tracking down and instrumenting South Australia’s windiest places to investigate their potential for ‘wind energy mining’.
Using the primitive computers and data loggers of the day, myself and a small group of folk within the Department of Mines and Energy, ETSA and the Bureau of Meteorology identified the likeliest sites for potential wind farms. These sites were deemed capable of injecting significant amounts of sustainable electrical energy into the South Australian power grid.
Despite the successful completion of that SA Wind Energy Survey, little more became of the report for over a decade, except for the installation of a 300kW demonstration wind turbine at Coober Pedy, and some smaller wind surveys on Kangaroo Island. However, the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) introduced into the Australian power industry in the late nineties saw a massive revival of interest in potential wind energy sites in windy South Australia. The early-eighties data set - gathered without fanfare so long ago - was suddenly hot property! Key SA wind sites identified in 1987 were re-instrumented with far more sophisticated equipment and on much higher towers, and the wind potential verified. In the past five years, wind farms have sprung up on the most promising of those long-ago sites, at Starfish Hill and Lake Bonney.
I no longer wear the beard and battered bush hat I did over a decade ago, the “fat gene” has kicked in, and I no longer have to run around in the shower to get wet, even if I could. I spend my hours down in a veggie patch rather than up on wind-swept hillsides, yet I’m still mulling over every pioneer’s central question: “where to from here?”
Most folk are happier with old problems than new solutions. The Howard Government is about to tip half a billion dollars into geo-sequestration (burying CO2 from coal fired power stations underground) while pulling support out from under clean wind energy sources in Australia. Well, that bloke’s the worm in the Australian apple, and so it’s no surprise to me to see him trying to push an old barrow further rather than build a new one. And last week I took a bus into the city to hear a talk on the sustainability of the Chowilla Flood Plain up on the Murray River near Renmark, which is dying from salt in its dried up arteries. A small group within the Government had to move bureaucratic mountains to make even a small splinter of difference to the fate of our city’s major water supply.
So what chance now, twenty or more years on, of making a difference, when governments cannot or will not? I no longer want to crawl in among the basil bushes and weep – I’ve come up with a devious plan! This plan is only for me, but I don’t reckon I can change the world anymore, just a few things in my corner of it. So I’ve decided three things; that I will edit an organic magazine (The Living Soil), that I will raise and save rare vegetable seeds, and that I will be Adelaide’s first Backyard Farmer. My paddocks will be in the backyards of others, and fresh food will be closer to our doorsteps. Sometimes I’ll have share-farmers, but supply them with seed and advice. We’ll fertilise with organic compost made from plant matter harvested from the ‘green’ collections down here on the plains, from lawns and street tree trimming. We’ll be kindred spirits and a community again – folk swapping fruit and vegetables, seeds and cuttings, homemade jams and preserves, pickles and chilli paste. We’ll join a food cooperative, buy bulk and redistribute organic rice and flour from back door shops around the neighbourhood. And we’ll…
OK, I’m a dreamer, but the shop is open at our back door and I’ve joined the Seed Savers Network. I’m eyeing off the plot of land behind the house of my old Italian neighbour over the road – he’s too old now to farm it, and I reckon it’s perfect for all the melons and pumpkins that need little care but take up so much space in my own veggie patch. I’ll supply him with tomatoes in return for the water he uses on the garden. Then there are all the front lawns around here – I wonder who’d prefer a herb garden alive with colour scents and bees, to grass and the chore of mowing?