A Grain of Good Soil

The first crack of the rifle just made the geese lift their head in curiosity. It was only when the second shot felled one, that the remaining three ran off in alarm. They stopped again a short distance away, not seeming to understand the nature of the danger. We were hiding in a line of trees nearby; Paul with the rifle, and Gareth, myself and the two young girls (daughters of Paul and Gareth) watching.

I had come to this farm to learn about grain, dairy, and regenerative farming, and hadn’t expected to find myself on a goose hunt. The feral geese had taken up residence here three years ago and were destroying the crops by uprooting the grain stalks, so it was time for them to go. Gareth had asked for Paul’s help.

Paul ran off to dispatch the wounded goose, and then set about shooting the others, aiming for headshots where possible. Finally, after a wild goose chase around the lake and through the maize field, he returns with two more geese for his tucker bag. One got away. The two girls aren’t squeamish at all as they inspect the dead birds and play with their feathers — perhaps a result of growing up on farms and being homeschooled.

On the way back to the farmhouse we stop by the grain fields: several large areas of raked brown earth surrounded by sheltering belts of trees. There are no grain stalks, only some straw on the ground and a scattering of small green shoots. Gareth tells us it’s the start of the fodder crop and I don’t really understand what this means, but I’ll soon learn it’s key to him operating without chemicals.

Paul wants to buy some products while he’s here, so after returning to the farmhouse we head up to the grain store: a traditional European-style wooden building. Inside, Gareth shows us the results of this year’s harvest: large wooden boxes full of wheat, rye, lentils, and some traditional grains like spelt and khorasan. I watch as he measures out the chosen amounts into large brown paper bags on a set of scales. Apparently Paul has his own stone mill at home and likes to grind the grain himself.

We head to the dairy next. Gareth brings out a crate full of bottles of organic milk that look like what a milkman might have delivered to my grandma’s doorstep in the good old days. The glass bottles can apparently be returned later to be washed, sterilised and re-used. It’s the same with the other dairy products he brings out: bottles of yoghurt and jars of cream and mascarpone. Eventually Paul heads back to his family, laden with geese, grain and dairy products.

For dinner that evening it’s just Gareth, his wife Tonya, their daughter Ida and I. Tonya is more reserved, and so Gareth does most of the talking, telling me their story. Tonya’s parents were dairy farmers in Bavaria, Germany, and they came and set up the first organic dairy farm in Tasmania: Elgaar Farm. Tonya grew up here, but eventually left home and moved to Launceston where she met Gareth and got married. They were drawn back to the farm as a place to raise their first child Ida. Tonya’s brother and sister also live and work here, each with their own families, and another brother commutes here every day from Launceston. I’d seen several other children around earlier, and I realise now that they must be Ida’s cousins.

For Gareth, joining a big, extended farming family was a huge challenge. He initially worked for Tonya’s parents helping with the dairy, but eventually realised he needed his own independent project. He gave grain farming a go, starting with a small trial patch of grain. Tonya’s parents were former organic grain growers, so he was able to learn from them and use their existing machinery and shed. Eventually he decided he needed the freedom to make his own mistakes, and so they developed a more formal arrangement to rent the land and operate independently.

They’ve been doing this for six years now. After the first few years of trials and building up seed stocks, they decided to take things further and launched their brand, ‘The Grain Family’, selling their grain and flour at the farmers markets in Hobart, Launceston and Devonport. Gareth does the farming, while Tonya takes care of the business side. It’s a big family collaboration, as they take turns doing the markets with Tonya’s parents and also selling their dairy products.

It’s Ida’s bedtime, and Tonya gets her ready for bed. Gareth and I are left at the table, and he launches my education in grain farming. He tells me that conventional grain generally has one growing season per year. The fields are sown in autumn and then harvested in early summer. Synthetic fertilisers are used to add nitrogen to the soil, and pesticides and herbicides like ‘Roundup’ are used to kill pests and weeds. These conventional methods using monoculture crops tend to deplete the soil over time, reducing its carbon content, and all those chemicals contaminate the soil and water and reduce biodiversity.

Gareth doesn’t use any synthetic fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides, and so he needs to do things differently. He has two growing seasons per year: a fodder crop from autumn to early spring, and then the grain crop from late spring to late summer. I’m keen to learn the different strategies he uses to enrich the soil and control pests and weeds without the use of chemicals, and so he takes me through the details of the yearly growing cycle.

Imagine, it’s the end of summer and the grain has just been harvested. The cows are let into the fields to eat the grain stalks and poo everywhere, their rich manure spread over the field to help fertilise the soil. It’s then time to sow the ‘fodder’ crop: a variety of legume species, such as vetch, clover and lupins, to fix nitrogen and enrich the soil. Grass species are also mixed in, and along with the weeds that grow, the whole diverse mix puts down different root structures, some shallow and some with deep feeder roots, that help to break up and add biomatter to the soil. He doesn’t plow the soil at this time, as too much turning of the soil can damage its biological content, and instead just sows the fodder crop directly into the grain stubble. Come spring he lets the cows in to eat all the fodder and poo everywhere again.

In late spring he uses a plow and a scarifier to loosen the soil, then sows his grain crop. The challenge now is to control the weeds. Modern strains of wheat have been bred to be quite short, so that more of their energy goes into producing large heads of seed. It means that they can’t compete with the tall weed species without the use of herbicides. Gareth uses older traditional strains that grow much taller. He uses a mechanical weeder machine for the first few weeks until the grain has reached a height where they can block the sunlight and outcompete the weeds on their own.

In late summer it’s time to harvest the grain and the yearly cycle starts again. This approach to grain farming has removed the need to buy in expensive chemicals, and at the same time it seems to be improving the soil. He says that each year the soil has become easier and smoother to plow, and it now has the consistency of chocolate. By this, I assume he’s thinking of the moist chocolate brownie that we’ve just eaten, made from their own grain.

Healthier soils also mean healthier crops that are more resilient to pests and disease. I’d seen the grain fields while out on the goose hunt earlier, and I now understood that the green shoots were the mix of grasses and legumes coming up. The sheltering belts of trees and vegetation help to encourage more wildlife, including natural predators that keep pests down. But not all wildlife are welcome, as I’d discovered. They want insect eaters, but have to make tough choices when grain-eating wildlife such as feral geese move in.

The weeds are largely controlled by the mechanical weeder, by the grain crops growing tall enough to out-compete the weeds, and by the cows grazing in the leadup to sowing the grain. Some other organic grain farmers use what’s called ‘green manure’ for weed control, where they allow the weeds to grow and then plow them into the ground before they produce any seeds. They might do this a couple of times in the leadup to planting the grain crop as a way to deplete the weed seeds in the soil.

We’ve been talking until late in the evening and decide to call it a night. I head to bed with my head full of crop cycles. The next day, after a relaxed Sunday morning breakfast, Gareth takes me to see more of the farm, and Ida and two of her cousins decide to tag along for the ride. Gareth and Tonya are homeschooling Ida and don’t shy away from including her in everything around the farm. This seems to be as much about spending quality time together as a family as it is about her education.

Gareth shows me a small fenced off area behind the house, perhaps 30m by 30m, filled with rows of grain stalks, the seed heads already cut off. This is his trial patch where he tests out new seeds and builds up his seed stock. He tells me how he starts with maybe 100 seeds of a particular species and will plant two short rows of grain here. After harvesting those by hand he’ll end up with maybe 400 seeds, which he’ll plant again to produce perhaps 1,200 seeds, until he has enough to sow a large field. It’s a learning process with each seed variety.

The dairy cows play a fundamental role in the grain operation, helping to control weeds and fertilise the soil. Gareth tells me it goes both ways, as the cows also benefit from having greater diversity in their diet. He offers to show me the organic dairy farm, and we arrive at a charming heritage building, built in a traditional Bavarian style with rendered wooden walls and a stone cellar. After cleaning our boots we pass through the milking room to the large pen out the back. “Can I please clean up the cow poo?” — a question I never thought I’d hear a child asking. Soon the three children are fighting over the privilege, and they end up all scraping up the muck together, making a game out of it.

Most of the biomatter that the cows eat in the fields they poo back out again and leave behind, but some they take away with them. Here at the dairy the mass of cow poo that piles up gets flushed into a nearby pond. Each year Gareth stirs up this pond water and sprays a small amount of it over his grain fields, to replace the nutrients and biomatter that was taken away by the cows.

Gareth tells me some of the differences between Elgaar Farm and a conventional dairy farm. A major focus of a conventional dairy farm is to grow lots of grass, and all of one type — they’ve calculated which type of grass leads to the most milk production. Large quantities of water, fertiliser and herbicides are used, and in addition to the chemical contamination of the soil and nearby streams, it can lead to salinity problems. It’s also not natural for a cow to only eat one type of grass. Here at Elgaar the cows eat a mix of many different grasses and herbs, and the more diverse diet means healthier cows that don’t need all the medications and antibiotics used on conventional dairy farms.

We go for a walk down the long driveway to where the dairy cows are grazing, mothers and calves together. Ida and Gareth giggle together as a cow eats grass out of their hands, its tongue like sandpaper on their skin. It’s nice to see father and daughter enjoying these simple pleasures together. Gareth explains how on a conventional dairy farm the calves are removed at one day old and taken to a calving shed to be raised on formula milk, whereas here they are kept with their mothers and allowed to drink their mother’s milk for the first several weeks.

Conventional dairies push their cows to be as productive as possible, and at six years old their milk starts to dry up and they’re sent away to be turned into pet food. At Elgaar Farm, however, they continue producing milk, sometimes until they’re 15 years old, and they’re allowed to grow old on the farm. I later hear a story of when a dairy inspector was horrified to see what looked to be a sickly cow in their field, as he assumed it had been mistreated. It turned out he’d just never seen an old cow before.

We make one more visit to the grain store before returning to the farmhouse. I’ve seen a number of pet cats around, and it occurs to me that their additional purpose might be to catch rodents that are attracted to the grain. Not that that’s a problem in the grain store, which is sealed against pests. Gareth shows me their separating machine and stone flour mill. After the crop is harvested, a threshing machine is used to remove the seed from the stalk and husk, then the separating machine is used to sift out the seed from any remaining organic debris.

The big flour companies typically use a roller mill that allows them to remove the oil-containing germ from the bran and starch (endosperm) so that the flour keeps for longer. Gareth believes it’s healthier to eat all of the grain, and their stone grinding mill produces a wholemeal flour that contains the bran, germ and starch. Because of it’s shorter shelf life they just mill as much flour as they need, and store the rest as grain, which last indefinitely.

Last night as we’d stayed up late talking I’d asked Gareth how financially viable their operation was. He said that they were turning a profit, but they were still new to this and it was a work in progress. He came into this as a town boy turned farmer, and it’s been a steep learning curve. He’s confident though, as he’s freed himself from many of the challenges that large conventional farmers face, such as the increasing cost of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, and their land deteriorating over time.

I admire his slow and steady approach. Rather than rushing to expand, he wants to first make sure they’re doing things right, that the soil is improving, that it’s financially viable, and also that their lives have a healthy balance with enough quality time together as a family.

I’d heard it’s hard to leave this farm. There’s something about this wonderful family and the pace of life here that causes you to linger. Before loading my bike and setting off I join them for one more meal together — lunch — and help myself to a couple of slices of their homemade bread, slathered in butter, followed by more homemade chocolate brownie. From a small handful of seeds to fields full of grain being harvested and turned in to this delicious food, and all while improving the land instead of degrading it — it’s a wonderful thought.

A huge thanks to Gareth, Tonya and Ida for being such wonderful hosts and patiently sharing their world with me.

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