Tweaking the farming dials in 2018


At the turn of the New Year, after a post-Christmas week of reading and quiet reflection, I hinted on social media that changes were coming to Half Moon Farm and I promised some details about the way we're hoping to to forge ahead. Well, here goes. 

Farming, I've been reminded, is hard. It's hard everywhere and in all contexts, and it's hard for various reasons. One is nature. She's the boss, and in the end, she always gets her way. Another is the marketplace. Australians eat relatively few fruits and vegetables on average, certainly less than the prescribed five and two per day, and they want to buy them cheaply, often for less than the cost of production. A third element - especially in regard to market gardening - is aptitude.

No-one likes to talk about this much, probably for fear of being seen as weak, but market gardening is extremely complex and very few people have the skills and abilities to build a viable business. A market gardener wears multiple hats. They must be super efficient. Dedicated. Disciplined. Organised. Fit. Responsive. Observant. Skilful. Scientific. Empathetic. Entrepreneurial. Good at marketing. Good at record keeping. Good at getting up again and again after being whacked around the head with the cricket bat of extreme weather.

Few people have what it takes to be farmers, and fewer have what it takes to be market gardeners. I don't want to discourage young farmers from giving market gardening a go, and I tip my hat to my farming mates who have what it takes to build a successful farming business. But it's a truly tough way to make a living.

The last year has reminded Kylie and I, that even though we have some of the attributes above, we ultimately lack what it takes to run a full time, commercially viable market garden. We can improve our skills and our soil but the reality is clear - we both value time and space for family, community and creative pursuits, things that are hard to do exceptionally well alongside managing a large and demanding vegetable garden. 

So in 2018, rather than fighting ourselves, we're tweaking our farming dials. We're turning down the volume on commercial farming, and turning up the dial on homesteading. Note that we have no desire to be hobby farmers. That's a derogatory term and it cheapens what genuine homesteaders are actually on about. Homesteading, and similar approaches to farming like smallholding and crofting, are about pursuing a true agrarian lifestyle that is closely connected to land, but doesn't use that land primarily to earn money.

Homesteaders grow firstly for their immediate household, with surplus and value added produce sold and shared beyond the homestead. This model has always made a lot of sense to me. My household's annual food bill last year was more than $15,000. It was our biggest expense, larger than our mortgage repayments and much bigger than the dreaded electricity bill. Yet here we were, picking and selling good produce at a loss, while eating the seconds and buying in everything else. I wonder how many market gardeners do the same? 

This year, we want to shift the balance. We plan to grow much more for the household, including staples like grains and pulses. We need to improve our supply of meat and eggs (our poultry set up needs a major revamp), and we'll get back to making things like preserves, cheese and sourdough. By easing off on commercial growing, we'll have the time. We'll still grow some things to sell, especially for our local restaurant Emeraude, and we'll focus on higher value crops like avocados, garlic, salad greens and berries. As always, we'll aim to grow these things to a very high standard. But they won't be our all consuming focus.

As for our farm stand, we're unsure what to do. During the cooler months, we'll sell avocados and some vegies, but support for the stand during 2017 was surprisingly flimsy and it looks unlikely to be the thriving little produce outlet that we thought it could be. It remains a work in progress.

A homesteading focus will allow us to make time for creative pursuits. I'll continue writing about gardening and I'm hoping to use my credentials in this field to land a book deal sometime this year. Writing is something I've always been passionate about and in the second half of my life, it would become a death bed regret to have not written a book. I have to give it a red hot go.

Does that sound like a plan? I think it does. Life in 2017 felt more challenging than usual, so we're keen to see the changes we make pay off in the wellbeing and happiness of our family. After all, the love of those around us and the health of the land on which we live and grow are what matter the most. We hope to nurture these things in the months and years ahead. Thanks for reading!

A few thoughts on Don Burke and toxic masculinity

I want to share a few thoughts about the Don Burke scandal. 

As many of you know I wrote for Burke's Backyard magazine from 2001 until 2003. During that time I spoke to Burke once on the phone (a discussion about waratahs, of all things), and a few times via email about articles I'd proposed or contributed. Most of my dealings were with the magazine's then editor, Maya Harrison, who I met in person on one occasion at the CTC Productions office in Sydney and always found to be thoroughly professional. Burke's Backyard published my first ever gardening article, which as a 27 old, kickstarted my career as a freelance gardening writer. 

I ceased contributing to the magazine a few years later partly because I'd heard rumours from others within the horticulture industry about Burke's alleged bullying and megalomania. In my direct dealings with Burke I got the sense that he had a massive ego and oozed arrogance, but I never heard any sexual innuendo from the man himself, nor did I hear any rumours or allegations of sexual harassment or indecency. The bullying accusations were enough.

It comes as little surprise that there are now more than 200 allegations of sexual misconduct against Burke. The affable gardener persona who said "hooroo" at the close of his top rating TV show was clearly a facade that provided cover for a pattern of disgusting and completely unacceptable behaviour. 

Though I had no inkling of this behaviour at the time, I regret any historic involvement with the man and his enterprises. I feel sick to the stomach that I accepted monetary payment for my article contributions from a serial harasser and have since used that publication history to gain further freelance work in the horticultural media. From this point on I'm committing to not use any of my published articles from Burke's Backyard magazine to further my career and will be removing any reference to Burke from my professional bio. 

On a personal note, I want to distance myself completely from the kind of toxic masculinity Don Burke exemplifies. I'm a husband, a father of a teenage daughter, and perhaps most significantly, the father and mentor figure to two primary school age boys. I consistently teach my sons what it means to be a good man. I tell them that women should be treated as equals, that they must never, ever be treated with aggression, violence or oppression. I do my best to model these behaviours in the way I relate to my wife (and partner), my female family members, friends and colleagues, and women generally. 

To be a good man means to be humble. To be kind. To be compassionate. To have integrity. To look for signs of life and beauty in the world and to work toward their promotion and fulfilment. These are qualities of genuine strength, not weakness. Real men are not bullies. They stand up for those who are oppressed. They know how to say sorry, and I love you. They admit their mistakes and imperfections, but do their best to never let them define the way they treat others. 

Men like Don Burke need to be called out for the utter pricks that they are. The rest of us, though imperfect, ought to work doubly hard to show that real men exist and that we want to work with, and love, women as equals not objects of submission. Men, don't be pricks. Get real.

Can weather apps make it rain?

Of the many ways in which social media and the internet is stressing us out, weather apps take first prize for stressing out more people more often than anything else. I'm serious. Facebook and what have you are small fry compared to weather apps and weather websites. It seems innocuous, checking your phone or your computer on a Monday morning to see what the week holds weather wise, but don't be fooled, these apps will pile on the anxiety quicker than standing naked before a crowd of thousands to sing the national anthem.  

How many times a day do you check the weather on your phone. Once? Twice? More than a few times per day? How often do you look at the long range forecast? The 28 day rainfall forecast? The 12 month forecast? 

There's a sound case to be made that reliable weather forecasts are essential tools for industrial scale farmers. If you're planting a thousand acres of winter wheat and depend solely on rainfall to germinate your seed and get your crop off to a decent start, then fair enough, an accurate prediction of rainfall is critical to success. The same is true if you're harvesting hay or need to protect your crop from a black frost. Goodness knows it's handy to know that a cyclone is bearing down on your house.

But for the small scale professional farmer, the amateur smallholder and the enthusiastic backyard grower, weather apps are a bit like combustion engines, which generate a small amount of energy in relation to a huge amount of waste. They promise efficiency, but the truth is, weather forecasts offer a small amount of usefulness but uteloads of anxiety about what will or won't happen tomorrow, the next day, or 28 days hence.

I should caveat this by saying that I don't want to trivialise clinical mental illness. I studied psychology at uni. Mental illness is real and I know that it's potentially devastating for sufferers. The kind of anxiety I'm talking about is the sort of low level anxiousness that all of us experience: A general nagging feeling, a sense of worry, a concern about what might happen in the future rather than what is happening right now.

I've been there, incessantly checking the weather forecast for signs of rain during a drought. I've obsessed over a cool change during a heatwave and I've poured over the long range charts for signs that my kids and I might wake up to our first ever snowy morning. But does all this obsessing actually change the outcome? Can checking the weather on your phone every half hour serve as a 21st century raindance, causing the heavens to split open and wash away all of your concerns? 

Course not. No-one truly knows what will happen in the future and even the best weather forecasts are nothing more than educated guesses made by hydraulically cooled supercomputers. A forecast model is a prediction, not a tangible outcome. Weather, nature, is out of our control. If we truly acknowledge this fact, I can't help but think we'd save ourselves huge amounts of emotional energy and possibly even attain a level of contentment that actually makes food growing a joy rather than a cause for frown wrinkles. 

My conclusion is this: Why stress about what may or may not happen tomorrow. Have a single check of the forecast at the start of the working week, set a rough course for the next seven days, then just deal with whatever comes your way now, in the present. Our ancestors managed to feed themselves and their communities without checking Weatherzone every half hour. Why can't we?

A Turning Point

Hello, and welcome. This site has been a while coming. It's something like the 10th website that I've put together, and though it took me just a week or so to make, its launch represents a turning point in a much longer journey.

Four years ago I had a major car accident while travelling along the New England Highway with my son Fergus in the back seat. He was four at the time, still in a toddler seat. Before getting into the car he asked if he could take a pencil and notepad with him on the trip into town, and once we were off he started drawing pictures. 

It was the first pictures he had ever drawn. They were nothing more than squiggles, but I was so excited by the milestone that when Fergus said "Dad, look at my picture!", I instinctively turned my head, just for a moment to acknowledge my boy's work. 

I'd made a near fatal error. While my head was turned my car drifted across the centre line of the highway, and clipped the front corner of a large box trailer being towed behind a ute.

The moment of impact still gives me chills. The car's airbags were released, everything went dark, I remember yelling "what was that!" and the vehicle entered a violent 360 degree spin. My face jammed against the driver's window from the centrifugal force. 

Thankfully, the car didn't hit a tree or another vehicle, but slid beautifully onto the side of the road in the same direction that we were travelling. My first reaction, once the car had stopped sliding, was to again turn my head to check on Fergus. His car seat had tipped on it's side, my boy was howling, but he was otherwise safe. "We're okay," I said. "We're okay". 

My right leg was jammed between the crushed drivers side door and the steering wheel, so for a few minutes I sat helplessly in the car with the radio still going, unable to straighten Fergus's seat or calm the poor kid down. A kind bloke stopped to help. He released Fergus, lifted him out of the car and then helped me get out of the driver's seat. A grey nomad stopped and started directing traffic.

My car was a write off. The trailer that I had hit was ripped clean off the back of the ute. It was carrying building materials that were now strewn for 100 metres down the road. My leg felt like it had been whacked with a hammer and I'd grazed my head, but what really hurt was my pride. I felt like a complete and utter fool. 

The police were sympathetic (I even showed them the drawing), but had no option but to charge me with Not Paying Due Care and Attention, a step down from Dangerous Driving. Apparently I'd taken out the other vehicle's side mirror, so we were literally 30cm or less from a serious head on collision that had the potential to kill all four occupants of the vehicles. 

I'm not usually a mystical person but for months afterwards I wondered why the crash wasn't worse. Why had we survived? Was it because I had a child in the back? Other children die tragically in accidents. Was it sheer luck? Or was my time not yet up?

I chose to believe the latter. Big mistake.

The notion that I was here for some kind of purpose initially threw me for a loop. I got a bit lost. Looking back, I realise that I've spent four years trying to work out what that purpose is, and how I can use the second half of my life to make the world a more beautiful place. It's been a frustrating journey, full of false starts and missteps. At one stage last year I was ready to pack up my current life, move the family somewhere new and start again from scratch. But now, finally, I get it. 

I'm here to create things that help people live close to the land. That's my purpose.

And guess what? I think I've known this all along. At least since I was in year 12, and my English teacher read a story of mine to the class and praised it as an example of great writing. But it's not always easy to narrow your focus and for me, there is a complicating factor: I have this responsible streak. For most of my adult life it's had the better of me to the extent that I feel like I've spent 25 years doing more to please others than I have in being true to myself. Being responsible works. It's a good trait to have when you're a husband and a dad. But it's only one half of my personality and the time has come to get it, and the other side of my personality, the untamed, edgy, creative, risky half, back into a healthy state of balance.  

To cut to the chase, launching a website bearing the words "Justin Russell" is a big deal for me. It seems insignificant, but to brand myself in my own name feels like I'm finally taking proper ownership over myself, and this is at once terrifying and deeply fulfilling. I value authenticity to the extent that I've never willingly faked anything I've done in life. But honestly,  I'm not sure that I've ever totally embraced my true self.  

So here I am. I'm Justin. I create.

Thanks for reading. The beast is unleashed!