A few recent thoughts

When we “bought” this land, we thought it was a win-win situation. Despite living more than an hour away with a 6 month old baby, we thought that in the best case scenario we could restore the land and develop it into a flourishing farm business and family home. We also thought that if our plans changed in a worst case scenario, just planting some trees and removing the rubbish in the gullies would increase the value of the land and make it a good investment.

What we had not factored in was the power and connection developed through spending time on land and shaping the future of a piece of land. All the working bees with friends and family, pouring sweat and laughter into increasing biodiversity one hole at a time. Observing new birds and insects previously unnoticed. Gazing at the amazing starscape on a still night around the fire. Gradually figuring out the connections between elements of the ecosystems and life cycles of creatures. Getting to know each inch of the place, seeing the changes of the seasons, and from year to year. And it’s exciting how much there is still to learn!

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While there have certainly been times when we have questioned our decisions (particularly when the wind is howling and trees are withering!), I feel that at the moment we are in a place of total contentment, inspiration, and joy at having the privilege to steward this land. The grass is green and some of our worst paddocks are improving in grass diversity and productivity through management decisions. Our trees are growing taller, our shrubs are bushing out, and our sheoak needles are whispering in the wind. Our fig and plum tree are releafing after their winter dormancy. The kangaroo mob has abated, time out working in the sun energises us, and we are witness to processes of water and soil far beyond our control and that hold continuity with the distant past and distant future of this land. This land gives us a healthy sense of perspective at our place in the world, microscopic and very temporary, but able to effect positive change nevertheless.

The recent crop of new books we’ve had in the household have also helped in bringing together some of the disparate observations, ideas and philosophies we’ve had about our work with the land, into some more cohesive strategies for land management.

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“Beyond the War on Invasive Species” by Tao Orion has taught us about the important role that weeds play in moving landscapes through ecological succession. Spraying, tilling, and burning all keep landscapes juvenile when all they want to do is move towards greater levels of complexity. This intersected nicely with an observation by the owner of Deep Creek Organics (which we recently toured) that “all weeds have a role to play”. He pointed to cape weed as an example, and the way it has a deep tap root that can access nutrients further down. We see this too with our weediest cracking clay paddocks, where a profusion of wild turnip in previous years has brought up nutrients, which when slashed, adds organic matter and soil cover and allows other grasses to establish. As a result the paddock is looking much healthier. Rather than feeling frustrated with the profusion of “weeds” where we do not want them, we are trying to see them as agents of change in a landscape and not assuming that is for the worst. They also add diversity to our pasture and offer sheep greater choice and health.

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Another great read has been “Silvopasture” by Steve Gabriel, which is a handbook for creating landscapes that marry both grass production for grazing and tree/fodder crops (different to “agroforestry” or “farm forestry” which primarily focuses on tree/timber production), with a focus on sequestering carbon. In fact, silvopasture has been identified by Project Drawdown as one of the most effective agricultural strategies for sequestering carbon. In silvopasture systems, tree and shrub species are carefully managed to maximise both grass production and tree crops, both benefiting the other if done well. While we have experimented with woodlots in a few of our paddocks, we have now planned out our first silvopasture paddock to plant out in 2019, integrating Old Man Saltbush as livestock fodder and nurse plant together with various non-grass-inhibiting species of eucalyptus and sheoak for stock shelter, moisture retention, soil stabilising, and eventually firewood and timber. We are really excited about this new direction for our farm, starting with some of our least productive paddocks that are above eroding gullies which we hope will also slow erosion.

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I have also really enjoyed “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is both a biologist and a native American of the Potawotomi nation. She has some incredible insights into plants as teachers, the importance of gratitude, gifts and reciprocity with the non-human-world, and the awe-inspiring traditional relationships of native American communities with other plant and animal species as well as traditional teachings and stories. Such a powerful book, this passage resonated with our work on the land:

“Despair is paralysis. It robs us of agency. It blinds us to our own power and the power of the earth. Environmental despair is a poison every bit as destructive as the methylated mercury in the bottom of Onondaga Lake. But how can we submit to despair while the land is saying “Help”? Restoration is a powerful antidote to despair. Restoration offers concrete means by which humans can once again enter into positive, creative relationship with the more-than-human world, meeting responsibilities that are simultaneously material and spiritual. It’s not enough to grieve. It’s not enough to just stop doing bad things.

We have enjoyed the feast generously laid out for us by Mother Earth, but now the plates are empty and the dining room is a mess. It’s time we started doing the dishes in Mother Earth’s kitchen. Doing dishes has gotten a bad rap, but everyone who migrates to the kitchen after a meal knows that that’s where the laughter happens, the good conversations, the friendships. Doing dishes, like doing restoration, forms relationships.”

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Finally, I have loved “Dawn Again” by Doniga Markegard, a US woman who is a world-renowned wildlife tracker who studied with Jon Young’s Wilderness Awareness School. From tracking she was drawn to permaculture and finally into holistic grazing with an extensive grazing operation in California. The book is her personal journey from childhood to now parenting four children, such an inspirational and affirming read as it also mirrors the evolution of our interests.

I recognise that we have no claims over this land in the way that indigenous peoples do, but I do truly feel that after even a few years of walking and working on this land, we are beginning to have an inkling of what a deep relationship with a landscape can feel like, and a shadow of a sense of how it works. We have entered a bond of reciprocity with the land, and are so grateful for what the land has shared with us.

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Farming fungi

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Getting excited about fungi on a wet day at Hindmarsh Falls, Fleurieu Peninsula.

In the last year or so we’ve really begun to appreciate the importance of fungi in a living landscape. The fungi (toadstools, mushrooms and so on) we see pop up after rain are the fruiting bodies of sometimes vast underground fungal networks. Some of these fungi form relationships with plant roots that are often mutually beneficial and enhance the plant’s ability to access nutrients and moisture. The Australian National Botanic Gardens suggest that some 80-90% of Australian plants form or benefit from mycorrhizal networks (fungal associations), and may derive up to 30% of their food through this symbiotic relationship. Continue reading

Making a floating habitat island

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The planted habitat island, ready to launch

Regular readers and supporters of our farm will be familiar with the challenges we’ve faced trying to re-establish native vegetation in the face of large populations of rampaging herbivores. Inspired by an idea from @nature_at_work_ (check them out on Instagram) and folks around the world working to increase urban and rural habitat, we thought we’d construct a floating habitat island.

Once installed in the dam, we hoped the island would function as a seed bank for aquatic plants, a fox-proof roost for waterbirds, and offer filtration through the plant roots as well as aquatic shelter and habitat.

During the summer, our friend Shani, assisted by a team of kids, got to work assembling a frame from some leftover PVC stormwater pipe to act as the float, with a length of shade cloth salvaged from our gully junk to act as a base onto which we could later plant local aquatic plants. The frame was tied to a rock anchor and then launched with great ceremony.

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The official launch of the habitat island (and anchor)

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Installation requires a great deal of precision and technical know-how.

In the following months, the island became popular with waterbirds of all types, with ducks often spotted perched on the floating edge, grebes diving underneath and the enclosed centre of the island becoming coated with feathers and bird manure. Continue reading

The Occasional Farmers’ Book club: Discovering Aldo Leopold

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I’d never read the work of Aldo Leopold, but always had a vibe that philosophically we might have something in common. He’s one of the most prominent voices from the early North American conservation movement and I’d read of him regularly and particularly of the “Land Ethic” he articulated. I finally tracked down a copy of one of his influential works A Sand County Almanac, bundled with some essays from Round River, and published posthumously in 1949. I have a friend who once became enraged by how Thoreau’s work seemed to primarily be read in pull-quote form on social media or on email footers, and Leopold too is eminently quotable. In that spirit, this article will really be a collection of salient quotes tenuously connected with our own experience.

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About three fifths of my volume of A Sand County Almanac is dedicated to Leopold’s observations of his Wisconsin home, together with sections reflecting on other landscapes of North America. While his meditations on geese landing on ponds and the accumulated wisdom of pine trees are a beautiful thing, I admit I skipped over some of this section to get to his more directly philosophical work. One of his central arguments is about the need to separate economic perceptions of value from our appreciation of the landscape, with a particular focus on acknowledging the social and cultural importance of a landscape and the intrinsic worth of ecological diversity and resilience. From his essay Country,

There is much confusion between land and country. Land is the place where corn, gullies and mortgages grow. Country is the personality of land, the collective harmony of its soil, life, and weather. … Poor land may be rich country, and vice versa. Only economists mistake physical opulence for riches. Country may be rich despite a conspicuous poverty of physical endowment, and its quality may not be apparent at first glance, nor at all times. … In country, as in people, a plain exterior often conceals hidden riches, to perceive which requires much living in and with.

For me this echoes the tension we’re trying to navigate with Yarnauwi, to transition the landscape away from one that has grown gullies and mortgages for generations to one that again supports a diversity and complexity of lives, and that acknowledges and inhabits the many cultural stories that have shaped it. If we think about the permaculture principle of “obtaining a yield”, Leopold suggests that the yield may not be economic or even tangible, but can still be something of value. Continue reading

Tree-fest 2018: Six years and growing

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Volunteers planting at the very first Yarnauwi tree planting extravaganza, 2013

The work continues in 2018 with new plantings amid established trees.

Six years ago we first invited friends and family to come and plant trees at Yarnauwi. They came, dug holes in a windswept paddock, hunched their shoulders against the cold and ate lunch beneath one of the property’s two big old red gums. That first year most of the plants were devoured by kangaroos and deer. Amazingly, our friends and family came back the following year and every year since, with the tree-planting weekend growing into an annual celebration of moist ground and hope for the future.

Loyal volunteers work on a windbreak

Continue reading

Uses for sheepskins: prototyping seats and bags

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Prototype Yarnauwi sheepskin tripod campstool and belt pouch, demonstrating their commitment to the late-summer Fleurieu colour palette.

As part of running meat sheep on Yarnauwi, we’ve always been committed to using as much of each beast as possible, including tanning their hides at a local tannery when the animals go to slaughter. While our farm-raised sheepskins are available for purchase online and through our occasional stall at the Second Valley Market, we’ve also been exploring options for how we can better utilise this tough and supple material.

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The tripod stool

Our first attempt is a take on a classic tripod campstool: a luxuriant Dorper lambskin seat on an Australian Oak tripod base (Eucalyptus obliqua, fittingly this grows on the hills just a short distance inland from Yarnauwi). It took a few goes to get the hardware right, we’ve now settled on high tensile steel fittings to withstand the most vigorous campfire sing-along.

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Next in the works was a Damara hide belt pouch for threading onto one’s belt for outdoor adventuring, an extra pocket for farmy stuff (cable ties, a bit of wire and a pair of pliers, for example; or perhaps a hoof-trimmer and a lump of ram crayon) or even just to garner some cred at the local branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

We’re continuing to refine concepts, and learning oodles about leather craft and design in the process. We’d welcome any suggestions or feedback you might have! We hope to be able to release some for purchase via our Etsy site and through markets in the coming months.

 

Yarnauwi: the First Five Years

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Towards the end of 2012 we first came to Yarnauwi Farm. The property at that time was a single paddock, carved up with junk-filled erosion gullies and with two regal, remnant red gums smeared up the hillside by the wind. However, set within a grand landscape of rolling hills and a couple of kilometres from the coast, there was something about it that captured our attention and our aspirations.

Five years later, the property is beginning to change. The survivors of annual tree planting are now heading skywards, most of the junk is gone, paddocks have been fenced, some erosion gullies are stabilising, sheep graze, fruit trees peek from the tops of tree guards and rain thunders on a shed roof. The last five years have brought with them an almost vertical learning curve, challenge, plenty of failures and the indescribable satisfaction of seeing seedlings become trees become woodland.

We’ve tried documenting this process online here at yarnauwi.com, but to celebrate this milestone we’ve also produced a limited edition book curating photos, illustrations and writings from the last five years.

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Yarnauwi: The First Five Years is divided into sections on the history of the property, trees and tree planting, creek restoration and erosion management, treasures extracted from the junk heaps, property planning, “obtaining a yield” and landscape change through the Fleurieu seasons. Each section is copiously illustrated with photographs and drawings and hopefully provides inspiration to others who are seeking to regenerate their own landscape or who have a connection with the spectacular landscape of the Fleurieu Coast. A number of sections contain “before-and-after” photographs of locations around the farm showing the impact of tree planting and low-tech erosion management strategies, predictably however, with a few decent summer downpours the changes were even more dramatic just a month or two after taking the final photographs!

It’s available for purchase now from our Etsy shop and we’ll also have a few copies available, together with sheepskins and farm- and Fleurieu-inspired artworks at the Second Valley Market from 10.00am-3.00pm on Saturday 27 January 2018.

Yarnauwi: The First Five Years
Softcover, 48 pages, full colour on premium satin paper.
Approximately 21.7cm x 28cm.

Kangaroo grazing and revegetation: looking for a way forward

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Western Grey Kangaroos fight it out in one of our revegetation habitat zones

One of the most persistent challenges in our work to revegetate areas of the farm has been managing kangaroos. Despite its previous status as woodland, for decades the farm has been an enforced grassland as hay paddock and pasture, the preferred environment of Western Grey Kangaroos. While early accounts of the region describe the southwestern Fleurieu as “kangaroo country”, land clearing, the elimination of predators such as dingoes, reduced hunting pressure, and in our case, the provision of year-round green pick in the form of a nearby irrigated golf course has contributed to a steady increase of kangaroo numbers.

We’ve observed that the kangaroos follow a seasonal rhythm of converging on our property in numbers during the cooler, wetter months, before dispersing into smaller family groups as the weather warms and dries. During this time, they typically move into the neighbouring golf course, and because of the constant availability of fresh feed it is rare to see a female kangaroo without a joey. While most species of kangaroos typically prefer grass, the Western Grey is also noted as a browser of shrubs and seedlings. Continue reading

New artwork: Fishes of the Fleurieu Coast

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One of the most spectacular elements of the Fleurieu Coast is the proximity of its rolling hills and forested highlands to beaches, reefs and towering rocky cliffs. A few kilometres down the road from Yarnauwi is Second Valley, and beyond that Rapid Bay, both renowned dive locations and in Second Valley’s case, periodically voted as one of the “best beaches” in South Australia and Australia. This new lino print is a tribute to some of the many fish that make their homes among the caves and kelp forests of this region.

Each fish was individually carved and is hand-printed in acid-free, fade-resistant dye ink on Canson cartridge paper. The finished print includes a list of all of the fish depicted hand-written in pencil. The prints are now available online at our Etsy shop.

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Print detail, showing an Old Wife and Southern Sea Garfish.

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Treading water off the Second Valley Jetty during ‘research’ for this print

Shed Quilt

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Back when I was just a mother of one, I embarked upon trying to learn quilting. I came across an excellent free online course through Craftsy, Block of the Month 2012, where each month you receive both written and video tutorials and complete two blocks using a new technique. Techniques included slashed blocks, paper piecing, foundation piecing, appliqué, half square triangles, curved piecing and more, with some traditional patterns like Dresden Plate and other more modern designs.

I set myself the challenge of only using fabric I already had in my collection, mostly stuff picked up secondhand including old sheets and scraps. I picked brown and pink as my main colours as I wanted to achieve a folksy Laura Ingalls Wilder look (alas there is not more gingham!)

I completed the blocks in 2014 during Asher’s nap times, and then went on to use one of the block designs, a variation on Drunkard’s Path, to make a full-scale quilt for my Mum’s 60th birthday. In my Mum’s quilt I did purchase a few new fabrics, and stole some from her collection which had special meaning for her, such as fabrics used in clothes she made for herself in the 70s or that she has used in quilts herself being the accomplished quilter that she is. I wanted to achieve a 1930s look hence the use of yellow!

In the meantime those original blocks have sat in a stack, undergoing multiple house and location changes. Finally this year I sewed them all together, and then stitched-in-the-ditch to hold the layers together. A Shed Quilt is born! I hope by bringing something handmade and soft to our new shed, it comforts Asher and Annika when they are feeling cold, tired, or overwhelmed by their farm experience, and adds some specialness to time spent here.

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