Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Eating your steak and caring about it too - the ecology of sustainable communities

Early on Monday morning we took off for Ellenborough, in the Kindee Valley, some 30-40 kms west of Wauchope. Our first destination was Ewetopia Farm, a 130 acre property located on the mid-north coast hinterland. Ewetopia is run by Jill and Ian McKittrick, who embarked on this significant tree change around ten years ago.

Wanting to escape the Sydney rat race, they decided that there was a niche market for gourmet sheep’s milk cheese, and took a punt on a small milking herd of sheep. They have now received Council approvals to build a specialised dairy & cheese making area. Having experimented with some success on family and friends, Ian and Jill hooped to have their ewe's milk cheese available from September 2013, initially at the local Wauchope markets. We are really looking forward to sampling the future products of the new dairy!

Jill and Ian are also working to regenerate their soils, and are participating in a soil carbon project with Hastings Landcare and the Northern Rivers Catchment Management. The highlight of the tour for the children was the milking of Butterscotch the house cow, who placidly stood as the fascinated youngsters watched her deliver over 2 litres of rich Jersey milk.

Ian and Jill also run a farmstay cottage, with a well-appointed cabin that can sleep six. If you and your family want to stay on a small working farm, you can contact them at http://www.ewetopiafarm.com.au/

After idling away an hour or so at Long Flat Cafe, it was time to head to Kindee Valley Farm. You can find them here http://www.kindeevalleyfarm.com.au/ This somewhat tested our poor little Honda hybrid, which is simply not built for driving on dirt roads, fording river crossings, climbing grassy knolls, or cross country motoring. We eventually arrived on the top of a hill with a spectacular view of the valley and nearby rain forested hills. Around 80-90 people arrived also, which did test the parking and the area thoroughly – and the kitchen skills of Kerry, who was busy making lots of delicious Kindee bacon BLTs for the hungry visitors.

The farm is around 622 acres, with a 100 of these under rainforest. It is in the midst of this picturesque scenery that our hosts, Brian and Kerry Wehlburg raise their cattle, pigs and chickens to produce fine ethically pastured food. Brian and Kerry Wehlburg are also committed to improving biodiversity and sequestering carbon in the soil. This is one reason why the Wehlburgs run Kindee Farm - to do something about climate change. Carbon sequestration is one way of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere.

The Wehlburgs pride themselves on raising stock that never sees a feedlot, pigsty, or chicken cage. The animals are regularly moved onto fresh pasture to keep flock and pasture worm and disease free and healthy. Brian says that this is better for them, better for the environment and creates a more nutritious, flavoursome product.

And, as Brian said a number of times, their animals ran on solar, reproduced themselves, and when they died you could eat them. They were also handy tillers and fertilisers of the soil. What more could you ask?

Brian told me that his philosophy and methods are based on Holistic Management, a process developed by fellow Zimbabwean Allan Savory. Brian is himself an Holistic Management Educator and describes it as a way of making decisions that are socially, financially and environmentally sound. American Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms provides many of the "how to's" for practically managing the farm.

It is the word sustainable that is the key here. Though it is true that modern farming techniques have delivered profits to many – most notably the Colesworths of this world – it is equally true that such techniques have come at a high cost to our environment, the integrity of the food supply, and to small farmers. Australia, which has poor and ancient soils, has always battled with loss of topsoil and salination of its arable farmland, now also faces challenges to its food production areas from development, coal seam gas mining and contaminated groundwater. Overuse of pesticides, herbicides and artificial petrochemical fertilisers have compromised pasture and waterways and even put ocean reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef at risk from nutrient rich fertiliser run-off.

Many small holding family farmers feel forced to leave their land, due to increased costs, recent drought or flood conditions, and their inability to compete with larger, corporatised farms, or unable to make a living on the pittance that Colesworth is prepared to pay them for their produce.

Climate change is not going to make food production easier or more lucrative. With peak oil, peak soil, peak whatever, our food production is going to come under increasing pressure. Surely one answer staring us all in the face is to increase the number of sustainable farmers, and to promote greater amounts of local, safer, sustainably produced food. We need farmers who will maintain healthy soil and clean waterways, and who will produce fresh, healthy food for generations to come.

Lastly, we need communities who will support our farmers, and who are prepared to share equipment, facilities and work together. As Joel Salatin says, the ecology of community is as important as that of the land. Community ecology takes time, care and innovation, and anything less tends to create social and environmental upheavals. Factory food and huge chemically-dependent monocultures do not factor in the intrinsic and hidden costs of pollution and environmental degradation, or the increased CO2 in the atmosphere caused by overuse of fossil fuels and their derivatives.

Food from sustainable farming is actually cheaper for the planet because it factors in all these costs. Using manure instead of artificial fertiliser, moving stock frequently instead of needing to worm, using chickens and pigs as pest destroyers and cultivators in working with, not against nature, encouraging microbial activity and building soil are all sustainable practices that do not spoil or pollute. And it results in animals that are less stressed, and free to express their natural instincts. It also means that they eat what they were meant to, not industrialised fish waste or the like.

We should all be reacquainting ourselves with real food. We should all be cutting food miles and finding our food closer to where we live. The UK has a 100 mile food movement; maybe we should develop such things as well here in Australia. It means that we should eat food in season, and cook the produce of our regions in our home kitchens.

As a wise farmer once said, if you eat food, you should care about how it’s grown. Our farmers are rightly proud of their produce, and we feel so blessed to live in the Hastings Valley with all this wonderful food from sustainable farms, readily available at our local Farmers’ Markets. And by eating local we are saving on food miles, and we are supporting our local and regional economy. So support your local markets, eat fresh, choose organic and sustainable options and everyone and thing, including the planet, is a winner.

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