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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In the Beginning...

For us it was the Eggplants. Living together in a house with a huge backyard in a small country town in northern New South Wales, we planted out some Eggplant seedlings in a small bare patch at the back of the 1920’s house. The bed had been prepared with a liberal addition of chicken litter and a heavy mulch cover, not dissimilar to the Esther Dean style of gardening. Sometime later huge melon size Eggplants grew on substantial plants. Out came the cookery and preserving books and feasts followed. There is nothing like an early success to draw you deeper into the labours of growing food.
Not that we had totally unrelated backgrounds. Both our mothers tendered vegetable gardens during our childhoods. Growing up in the late 1950s and 1960s was about making the most of what you had. Maybe we just wanted to relive the happiness of growing up and running free. Whatever it was, it took us into the next quarter of a century of doing things with soil, water and poo, not to mention the pleasures that followed in consumption.
Juliette and Friends in the City
So from Eggplants came chooks rescued from a battery. Doesn’t take long for the feathers to grow back and the unwalkable claws to wear down with the scratching on real dirt The old family recipe for Home Brew Beer didn’t say you shouldn’t use 70 litre plastic garbage bins. We added later that they tend to split from the heat and the 70 litres of sugary liquid is difficult to clear from the kitchen floor. And just to make it feel like a real farm along came the poddy calf, Juliette (after Juliette de Bairacli Levy whose work “The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable” inspired us further).
Juliette thrived on gleanings from the local fruit and veg shop’s throw outs. We’re still not too proud to glean when necessary. So adaptable that on a lean day she broke into the shed and consumed half a bag of wheat. Most animals would be seriously unwell after that, but Juliette just burped.  After a older and larger Juliette head butted a police constable into a neighbour’s lemon tree it was time to look for a larger holding and try real farming. Goodbye forever to suburban living and hello to land, privacy and opportunity. We kept our day jobs to pay for all this.
The Old Farm in Good Times
Along came 1000 acres in a remote valley and onto it went ducks and sheep and cattle and pigs and geese and cats and dogs. Youth and enthusiasm provides the ability to start earlier and finish later and work all weekend while keeping fulltime jobs. This was a time of learning. TAFE courses to learn animal husbandry, pasture production, welding, bee keeping and lots more. In conjunction were the hands on (at least one hand as the other hand had a book in it) salting and smoking meats, churning butter and cheese making, fruit wines, preserving various bumper crops etc. Milking, branding, vaccination, breeding, tractor maintenance, mustering, horse riding and working dogs in rough country.
And three years on, a drought which took the edge of the pleasure and a decision to downsize. Raising cattle for slaughter really wasn’t in our being anyway. One of us had turned to vegetarianism after participating in too many home kills.
The selection criteria for the new venture were fairly simple. An existing residence in any form (nothing is not fixable). A good distance to the road to remove the possibility of the cats becoming road kill. Far enough from the neighbours so you can pee off the back step (an old farming friend rates this as 2nd only to the water supply), a robust water supply or the opportunity to make one. And a view to share with the end of day beer or glass of wine.
The View from Home Hill Farm
The second property viewed met the criteria. A house 300 metres from the road with lots of potential for a handyman on 25 acres, neighbours out of sight, potential for a big dam and a view across the valley. A rock pile on a ridge facing north east but then soil can be bought or made. A little wind swept in the southerlies and westerlies. What didn’t get blown down endured until the windbreaks threw up a protective screen. And it is almost frost free.
The Beginning of a Vegetable Garden
The first and most important task was getting a vegetable patch started. Can’t dig down, too many rocks. Two courses of concrete blocks and 10 cubic metres of soil provide a raised garden for instant planting. Before unpacking is finished the Department of Soil Conservation (as it was known then) inspects and samples different dam sites. Not long after two D5 Caterpillar dozers arrive and in no time the dam wall is finished. While the D5s are about, a trench is ripped 200 metres from the dam to a holding tank near the house and in goes a nice fat black pipe connected to an easy to repair piston pump and small petrol motor. Later, when finance permits, a backup twin is installed. Within two weeks rain sets in and we are self sufficient in garden water. In go two more concrete tanks for rain water giving 100,000 litres of potable water and 7 mega litres of irrigation water.
The Orchard Starting
The first year is intense:  erecting temporary chook shelters, additional garden beds, marking out the orchard and selecting and planting almost 100 fruit and nut trees and a small vineyard. In between some household improvements, time is even found to attend work and start the process of clearing the mortgage. At some time in the future outside work needs to be replaced with the more important home work.
So this is the context in which we started a 20 year saga of developing our preferred life style.
One of the Permaculture ideas was to keep a weekly journal of farm events such as when the first Asparagus emerges, which trees have flowered, what’s been planted and has germinated etc. Ours is just an old unused hard covered multi column cash book in which two pages have been allocated to every week and a monthly summary page. It’s kept open in the kitchen (the most used room) and important events are pencilled onto the relevant page.

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