Deep Winter comes to the Fleurieu!

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Joel dusted off his design degree to contribute a logo to the gathering.

Each winter since 2015, aspiring and established small-scale and regenerative farmers and their supporters and allies have gathered somewhere in Australia as part of the Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering to share ideas and inspiration for their projects and enterprises. In June 2019, this convergence drifted westwards to be held in Willunga, South Australia, and we were delighted to participate.

150 aspiring and established regenerative farmers, growers and their friends gathered in Willunga, SA, for the Deep Winter Agrarian Gathering.

The tone for the convergence was set with a keynote from former CSIRO microbiologist and climate scientist Walter Jehne, who spoke on the role and responsibility of rebuilding soil carbon and water cycles through agriculture and land management. Through his inspiring presentation, Jehne drew on indigenous land management as described in the work of Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe to also establish a precedent for the capacity of Australian soils to hold significant amounts of carbon and water.

Walter Jehne, in full flight.

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Yarnauwi Treefest 2019

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A serial tree-planter manages to synchronise his outfit with the colouring of Eucalyptus occidentalis.

A couple of days before this year’s tree planting, I rang our friend and regular tree-planter Jeremy, and told him that three out of four family members were sick with the flu and we were thinking of cancelling this year’s planting weekend. He didn’t accept that proposal, effectively telling us that tree planting would happen regardless of our involvement, that between his family and another they would take care of catering, rally the volunteers and get the trees in the ground.

It has always been an aspiration of ours that the farm might offer a place for people to be able to develop connection with the landscape through collaboration on land-based projects – “where people and the landscape can restore each other”. I hope that Jeremy’s response, and the support of our friends and community over the last seven years of tree-planting is an indication of this aspiration in development. In this spirit, this year we were also delighted to host regenerative side projects such as Steven Hoepfner’s seed ball regeneration experiment, and provide a waterway for Sue and David Speck’s sedges, and a forever home for Greg Wood’s trees.

Steven’s seed ball project: local provenance bundles of seed and nutrients distributed across revegetation zones to germinate when the conditions are right.

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Nightlife in the Country

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A little while ago I received a motion camera, triggered by movement and able to shoot in complete darkness with an infra-red flash. I mounted it on a fence post, scattered some food scraps in front and left it for a week. Over the week it’s offered us a fascinating window into the life of the farm.

Curious kangaroo

Boxing match

The fight gets out of hand

Persistence is rewarded

Very curious kangaroo.

Unsurprisingly, the hordes of kangaroos feature heavily. They graze through the day and night, occasionally box, and one problem-solver has multiple attempts at reaching  the enticing leaves of a mesh-guarded sapling. Continue reading

Saltbush city limitless

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At this time of year when it hasn’t rained properly for about 6 months and even the hardiest of our native trees and shrubs start to wilt, we say thank heavens for saltbush. This family of plants are the Australian climate change gardeners’ morale booster – the hotter and drier it gets the more they seem to leaf out, attract beneficial insects, tower in size over anything else and improve the conditions for other species.

The first species we have had success with, Old Man Saltbush (Atriplex nummularia), grows in inland areas of Australia. Its seeds were traditionally used as a food source for Aboriginal people, and the leaves are also edible and rich in protein, antioxidants, and minerals. It’s commonly used as a livestock grazing plant, which was one of the reasons we planted it, as a high-protein green fodder source at times of the year like this when there is not much else for stock to eat.

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Old Man Saltbush is extremely drought and salt tolerant and apparently lives for more than 100 years! It accumulates salt in its leaves as it extracts water from the soil so can help to reduce salinity. It is very deep rooted and can access moisture and nutrients out of reach of other plants, making those nutrients available to other surface plants via grazing. Its roots travel up to 5m deep and 10m wide to access nutrients and moisture, as well as having surface roots to collect light rain and bind soil. It also sequesters carbon in the soil.

It is fast growing so can provide shelter within a few years to other plants or stock, and works well grown as a hedge/windbreak. I am keen to grow it as a hedge border around a vegetable garden in future as it attracts beneficial insects as well as blocking wind. It seems to grow fine on our heavy clays, though I note it prefers the dryer ridge to the more low lying winter waterlogged areas. And it has such nice grey-blue shimmery leaves! And kangaroos don’t seem to touch it! So much to love. It really is a hero of the plant world.

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Woody trunk after 3 or 4 years growth

Another species we’ve been very grateful to be acquainted with is Creeping Saltbush (Atriplex semibaccata). We planted it on the disturbed slope next to our shed site as a way of stabilising the soil and avoiding erosion and it has thrived. It forms a dense low mat of up to 1.5m diameter, tolerates high levels of salinity and salt-laden winds, tolerates drought, has an edible berry, reduces soil temperature, and provides habitat for beneficial insects. On some of our hottest and driest summer days, it was green and covered in blue copper butterflies!

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Creeping away

And it now seems to be coming up “by itself” (maybe with the help of ants moving fruit around) in a couple of other spots around our shed, not minding growing in gravel at all. This year we are planning to plant it on our gully walls in the hopes of stabilising those slopes, increasing habitat and creating a living mulch around other trees and shrubs.

 

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Colonising the shed site

Finally, we are always overjoyed to see Ruby Saltbush (Enchylaena tomentosa) popping up by itself in various paddocks around the farm with no help from us (via birds or sheep perhaps). Again the small red fruits are edible, again it is ridiculously hardy tolerating drought, salt, and sand.  Sheep love eating it, but unfortunately they leave nothing behind! And the green leaves are such a sight for sore eyes in this driest time of year.

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We feel we have only just started on our journey experimenting with saltbush, and look forward to encouraging this family of perennial plants to be our allies on the path to increasing productivity and biodiversity.

Treasures from the deep: more curated gully junk

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Despite a long silence from us, there’s still lots going on at Yarnauwi, not least our ongoing attempt to clean up historic dumping in our erosion gullies. We feel like we’re closing in on the last 30 metres or so of junk to clear and now we’re so close to finishing it can sometimes be difficult maintaining motivation! While most of the material remaining is steel or demolition rubble, both of which we recycle or repurpose, there are still pockets of wonder in the form of various plastic domestic items. Happily, the plantings established in previously cleared areas are now well-established and working to stablise the exposed gully walls as well as restore them as habitat and an ephemeral waterway. We’ll write with more updates soon, but in the meantime, enjoy these treasures from the deep.

Specimen #51: Plastic clown launcher from a “Dandina Sky Dancer”, released in 1995. This particular clown is from the Italian Masque series of the toy. Intact toys from this series in original packaging are available online for a mere US$75.00. (Thank you to Pascelle for the ID, see comments below)

Specimen #52: Wobbling bear in winter attire.

Specimen #53: Battery operated toy train.

Specimen #54: Lightly soiled Boggle Junior console, dating from around 1988. Some cosmetic wear and tear.

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Not ‘if’, but ‘when’: planning for fire

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Melted tree guard on a eucalyptus seedling.

A few evenings ago, someone set off fireworks on the road beside our property. Embers from the fireworks landed in the grass on the property boundary and quickly took, spreading through the dry summer grass along the fence and down a drainage line. Thankfully, our neighbours quickly noticed and set to work with their own fire unit while awaiting the arrival of the police and Country Fire Service. The blaze was contained with minimal damage, but it’s stimulated us to revisit our property plans and consider how we’re designing for the inevitability of fire.

Scorched earth and singed trees.

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Attempt #1: Cape Jervis to Victor Harbor via Heysen Trail

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I’ve always wanted to do a multi-day hiking and camping adventure, but having a 3 year old and 6 year old has put a hold on that dream…until now! Joel offered to look after the kids so I could attempt the first 4 days of the Heysen Trail, which is South Australia’s long distance walking trail that extends for 1200km from the Fleurieu Peninsula to the Flinders Ranges. I think my main goal in doing the trip was to put myself in a situation where I would need to rely on my own resources more, and in doing so improve my resilience, problem-solving and decision-making skills.

The section I wanted to do was the first leg along the spectacular southern coastline of the Fleurieu. The guidebook describes it as “Starting at the port near the small town of Cape Jervis, the trail traverses steep cliffs, rocky inclines, wooded valleys, a long sandy beach, two conservation parks, a dense forest, and a magnificent waterfall before ending near Victor Harbor, one of South Australia’s most popular seaside towns”.

It also states “A challenging walk, this leg of the Heysen Trail is rugged and potentially dangerous, with few flat sections. Walkers need to be experienced, have a high level of fitness and be well equipped. The trail’s proximity to the Southern Ocean means rapid, unpredictable weather changes are frequent”.

It’s fair to say that the main preparation I did in the lead-up was watching many YouTube videos of North American “thru hikers” demonstrating such things as how to pack light, how to pack a pack, hygiene on the trail etc. A fascinating subcultural vortex to be drawn into! I also thought that carrying 20kg+ children around the farm and on bushwalks was good training, and also did some big day walks in the lead up.

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What went in the pack: in hindsight, a lot of food!

I borrowed lightweight camping gear from friends and packed sparingly, and my “base weight” (weight of gear and bag excluding consumables) ended up being 9.35kg. My consumables of food and water added up to 7.61kg, so I totalled almost 17kg which went down over time. Some sites I looked at said that total pack weight should be no more than 20% of your body weight, others said 1/3 of body weight, which puts me between 14.4kg-23.76kg. In future I would try to get it down below 15kg. I definitely ended up packing too much food – I ate less on this trip than I do on a normal day at work in an office! My main regret was a packet of pumpernickel bread which weighed 500g and went untouched…the bagels were lighter but dense enough for a lunch so were a better option. Also could have reduced the muesli bar/nut/dried fruit snacks – but kept the chocolate! I welcome advice on how I could have reduced my load further…


Joel and the kids accompanied me for the first few kms until Land’s End, where we saw a big pod of dolphins feeding on fish. A group of these dolphins kept me company as I headed around the cape, through dunes and in and around multiple windswept rocky coves with occasional shacks interspersed with designer homes and always a view across to Kangaroo Island. I startled a brown snake and nearly trod on a shingleback lizard, before coming down the hill to Blowhole Beach where I saw my first humans for 12km.

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View down to Blowhole Beach

The final part of Day 1 involved a 3km punishing uphill ascent through sheoak and pink gum scrub of Deep Creek Conservation Park, and then I pushed on another 2km down to a wet and green little valley where I camped the night at Eagle Waterhole. This is a walk-in only campsite with a sleeping hut with basic beds, rainwater tank, and picnic table, and a great place to spend the night together with lots of kangaroos, blue wrens, and galahs. Alas, I also developed my first-ever ear infection in the night which made for an unusual sleep despite my super comfy sleeping set up.

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Eagle Waterhole campsite

On Day 2 my sister joined me, and we hiked across the rest of Deep Creek. Some sections were more burnt out and open, while others were closed in scrub or creeks with mini-waterfalls, and some near-vertical uphill climbs where Emmie tried to motivate me by falsely saying “You’re almost at the top!” over and over as the path kept climbing. We spotted an echidna and so many shingleback lizards. IMG_2175

I did find it challenging walking with an ear infection on top of the heavy pack, I couldn’t hear out of that ear and the pressure changes of going up and down slopes was intolerable at times, but we made it to Tapanappa Campground. Here I came across the only other Heysen hikers I saw for the whole trip, a couple who had walked the entire trail from the Flinders and were almost at the end. It was so nice to exchange knowledge about campsites, clean water and other tips and have a sense of camaraderie with others on the trail.

The pain in my ear was pretty intense that night, so I stayed at Glenburn Cottage down the road where Joel and the kids were holed up with Joel’s parents. I felt like I was cheating, but it didn’t lessen the length of the walk, and I certainly appreciated the good company, oven-baked dinner and dessert, and hot shower. Joel excelled in his role as “Trail Angel”, and the support he provided reminded me that no achievement happens in isolation and to always appreciate inter-reliance with others.

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Stringybark forest near Glenburn Cottage

On Day 3, I headed down out of Deep Creek Conservation Park through some of the nicest pink gum/yacca landscape I had encountered, smelling so good after the light rain.

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The view down to Boat Harbor Beach was amazing, and I had one of those moments where everything comes together to create perfection – the light and clouds were stunning, my panadol had kicked in, multiple pods of dolphins were frolicking in the waves below, and the view swept up this beautiful forested river valley.

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Tapanappa Creek at Boat Harbor Beach

From here the trail went in and around a few more coves before a 5km section of Tunkalilla Beach which was also a revelation. Steep hills to the left, crashing waves on a secluded beach to the right, and in between farming homesteads with pasture adjoining sand dunes. From here the path took a near vertical 100m climb up a hill on private grazing land, had to use the fence to pull myself up and I can’t imagine doing it in reverse! After crisscrossing some sheep grazing land, the trail then followed a dirt road for several kms before winding up at Balquhidder station where a camping area has been set up with a rainwater tank. And there my journey ended, 48km into the 72km walk. I decided it was prudent to get my ear seen by a doctor, as it didn’t seem to be healing while pushing the rest of my body to its limits.

I also realised a short way into the walk that, despite the guide book calling it a “3-4 day” walk, the way the campsites and water locations are laid out it would be difficult to do in that time frame. I was going to have to walk almost 29km on my third day to make it to the next water/camp site at Waitpinga, to then do 15km to get to Victor on the final day. I know I can do 25km in peak physical condition on a single day, but not sandwiched between other long walking days. Even the long distance Heysen hikers I came across were doing it in 5 days and just pacing themselves due to the slopes involved, I think around 15km is ideal per day when doing multiple days in a row.

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While the trail was well-marked for the most part, I was pleased at my map-reading skills and ability to predict how long it would take me to complete each section. I was also pleased with my walking pace and my body’s ability to keep up with the demands placed on it (not including you ear!). I made some good decisions along the way, and enjoyed being fully in control of my situation. I think next time I would prefer to hike with someone else for the duration, especially given the isolation of the trail and lack of other hikers, but I also enjoyed walking at my own pace and taking breaks when I needed to which is a real novelty when usually parenting.

I feel like I should be feeling more disappointed that I didn’t achieve my distance goal, but I don’t feel disappointed at all. The challenge was only against myself, and it was my first effort at hiking/camping and many useful lessons were learnt. I consider it a practice test for next time!

My advice to anyone who is considering doing this trail is that a walking stick is an absolute must, and don’t underestimate how much paracetamol you may need! It’s a great way to see some otherwise inaccessible parts of our beautiful region, and I think the only way the trail could be improved is for there to be more walkers on it.

Thanks to everyone who supported me in my endeavour, particularly Joel, Asher, Annika & Emmie, and also those who lent equipment and advice xx

 

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