In June, YFM were lucky enough to spend some time away from the city on working property Mulloon Creek Natural Farms (MCNF). Tony Coote, owner and visionary, explained how the farm operates in symbiosis with natural systems, treats its animals ethically, and how their model is one for long-term sustainability in a context of larger uncertainty about the future of farmers and farming in Australia.
Tony came onto the property – in Bungendore about 45 minutes East of Canberra – in 1968, initially farming in a conventional way, working with large amounts of water and fertiliser. In 1994, though, tired of the way the farm seemed to constantly be working against nature rather than with it, the farm shifted its philosophy dramatically and turned biodynamic and organic.
In the years that followed, MCNF changed their entire model to be one of managing the landscape, borrowing from principles of permaculture to implement a vision that is not only restoring natural systems degraded by years of transplanted European farming methods, but also taking steps to ensure these are functioning for years to come.
HOW THE FARM WORKS
The farm, which actually consists of two properties – the Home Farm and Duralla (both on Mulloon Creek) – spans 1740ha, about two-fifths of which is dry sclerophyll forest, with the remainder being floodplain pasture and rangelands. The farm operates on what Tony calls “enterprise stacking,” basically time-controlled grazing, a system of rotation of animals on various patches of pasture across the farm. This means they rotate their cattle, chickens, and pigs (porcine produce coming soon) over the same patches over a long period of time, each type of animal behaving differently and doing different things for the soil. Not only is this good for the animals, it is also a means of providing varied, organic fertiliser (negating the need for chemical fertilisers), it ensures the soil is turned and replenished, and aids the recovery of the land.
For example, their free-range, organic chooks (laying hens) have mobile hutches which are moved gradually over a large area, the chooks following them. Ethics are of high importance too, as evidenced by the design of the hutches (no doors – so they’re always open!) and the fact that all feed is outside and the chickens roam free over large stretches of pasture. In a market where there is the definition of the term “free-range” can leave much to be desired, it’s comforting to know that some farmers maintain their own high standards in their treatment of animals not as a sell-point, but because they genuinely care about them (and YFM can vouch for them, we’ve seen it ourselves!)
MCNF operate a “key line” system with their water, aimed at restoring the natural floodplain and creek systems that operate in Australia – an idea first implemented in Australia by Natural Sequence Farming pioneer Peter Andrews, who inspired Tony’s vision.
Tony explained to us the ideas behind this model of land management, how in the past water distributed itself across the floodplains by a series of ponds and spillways, but nowadays, with the way the land has been managed, we see more a network of creeks. These creeks move water at great speed and in vast quantities so in times of heavy rain they are responsible for losses of nutrient rich topsoil (rather than redistributing it over the land, which is ideal) and in times of low rainfall they remain dry, as does the land, which is already parched of water. With the existence of these creeks we see mass flooding when the waters break their banks, and more severe effects from drought, as the land holds less water. Tony spoke about how MCNF were recreating chains of ponds, building “leaky weirs” (filtering systems of rocks and plant-life), with the aims of raising water levels across the floodplain and both filtering and containing water – which have the added benefit of working as flood and drought control mechanisms.
So the system at MCNF is, as Tony says, a “renaturalisation process” aimed at restoring these sustainable methods of the land taking care of itself. Tony focuses on “regenerating and rehydrating the landscape,” to create a farming system that is the best system they can have with the landscape that they’re working with, to work with the landscape and not against it – “agriculture has to fit into the ecosystem, not the other way around.”
SEEDS OF KNOWLEDGE
Tony laments the fact that agricultural teaching, in his view, tends to be about volume first, with little focus on sustainable practices or land management. This, and the fact that teachers with practical experience are few and far between, have led to Tony setting up the not-for-profit Mulloon Institute, focusing on teaching people about their methods, conducting practical research, and using their farm as a model for future generations. Tony explained that the private institute at Mulloon runs courses on farming, growing food, programs for doctors doing regional work and that they have the ability to put on practical courses and short courses that an institution like a university could not necessarily manage.
Tony’s most inspiring idea is that of collaboration, whether between farmers, or between farmers and people whose expertise lies elsewhere. This presents a potential option to protect the little guy heading into the future, with ownership models that protect smaller farms through collaboration between farming families, rather than favouring the monopolistic ambitions of big agribusiness. This way everyone learns together and can share in a communal bedrock of knowledge, experience shared successes and learn from each other’s mistakes.
Mulloon Creek and the Institute exist in many ways to act as a model for a method of farming that can be regenerative and sustainable, supporting healthy food production for our future. Their work is an inspiration and we can take stock in the fact that there are places like MCNF working towards a better farming future, and a better food future, for Australia.
For more information about natural sequence farming see: http://www.nsfarming.com/
and you can visit the farm’s and the Institute’s websites here:
Article written by David Matthews