We often get asked to describe our farming systems and I would love to say we ended up here through well planned decision making but in reality, it was a couple a small questions and changes that snowballed along the way…….
The Pines has been a dairy farm since 1854, settled by our Irish ancestors who were likely baffled by the elements but threw themselves into shaping those uncleared, temperate rainforests into arable dairying land. The imposing red cedars were cleared – the ancient rocks heaped into dry stoned walls to make room for ox and plough. The fertile soils grew rich pasture, the cows grew fat and happy, and the Illawarra established itself as one of the prime dairying areas in NSW.
From the 1960s, synthetic fertilizer was King, the Dairy Industry was pushing profit and commercialised Dairy was the main stay. ‘The Pines’ was milking 80 cows, many of them award winning Holsteins, with high production, input feeding and pressure to meet our contract quotas. The deregulation of the Dairy Industry in 2000 saw many local farmers exiting the industry, while others upscaled to make their operations viable.
When we returned to the farm full time in 2008 it was obvious we would need to find a better model and that the shift would need to be total, long-lasting, mental and physical. After 160 years of conventional dairy farming we had generations of mindset to shift and damage to undo.
All the observations we had made about our own farm over the years – the issues of over-grazing, compaction, lack of drought tolerance, lack of diversity, weed and pest issues – started making sense the in the context of soil health. If we didn’t get things right at a microbial level, then the rest really didn’t matter.
We began to follow principals from different philosophies – Regenerative, Biodynamic, Holistic and Organic concepts.
”The land we have, with the history that it has, is very uniquely our own and we need the full arsenal to reimagine what this land is capable of.”
For us, the joy comes in reconnecting with the land itself. Since being chemical free we have observed more diversity of plant and animal species returning to our property. Our kids find great delight in seeing butterflies and dung beetles that they haven’t ID’ed before. We’ve found rare rainforest orchids growing in the gully that we didn’t know existed.
We plan our grazing, sowing and preparation spraying according to the Biodynamic Astral Calendar – letting the moon phases guide us through the seasons. It sounds a bit spooky, but when you stand outside at dawn at just the right moment you FEEL the earth taking a big, deep, damp sigh in.
The landscape is changing. Bare ridge lines now have small, gangly native trees that will soon offer protection and stop soil erosion. The patchwork paddocks that would have reminded our Irish ancestors of home have been reshaped through portable cell grazing – allowing us to move the cows multiple times a day, giving out pasture longer to recover, put down deeper roots and increase photosynthesis. Hell, even the cows are different. Where once the big black and white Holsteins dotted the landscape, now a mottled brown herd of small, hardy, cross bred cows thrive.
We know that healthy soil creates healthy food systems. There is something truly special in the intricate relationship between the environment and the food we produce. In a world of Industrialised food systems, it may seem like it will take radical structural change for our relationship with food and farming to get better.
But perhaps it just takes asking a few questions and making small changes along the way……
BY MAHLAH GREY