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Tell me about some of the challenges that that surround growing food here.
Leigh: The place had been pretty neglected.
Ray: Yes, had been. Well a lot of it was trial and error and as Leigh said, you know, he got information from the various field days that he was attending. And I suppose just talking to other people that we used to have – we had a barter market here for a while, on Saturday mornings I remember and a lot of people from other communities or just private land used to come and we’d exchange ideas at those markets and a bit of produce people would bring, stuff they’d grown, swap it. But, well, setting up, I think you had a lot to do with setting up the water system didn’t you Leigh?
Ray: Well we did have a little dam up behind the house at one stage but I think when I came that wasn’t working anymore.
Leigh: Didn’t work, no. No, well, Ellen and I got here in September ’79 and one of the things, there was a guy here called Brian Jessop; and Brian and I hacked our way up, along the hill through lantana, you know, [laughs] if you’re walking on the top of the lantana and if you fell through it you had a job getting out! And – well a very steep hill, and we put in a one inch pipeline. I remember Ellen and I were going down to Sydney for Christmas and we put this pipeline in, put it in the pool and couldn’t get any water out. By the time we got back, about five days later, the siphon had established [laughs]. And so that was the first water thing. The other thing of course, that you need to grow anything is good fertile soil, and we’ve got that. We’ve got fantastic soil here. And some of it’s flat down there and so they’re the two things you need, good soil and water for when it’s not provided by mother nature. And I remember, you did have a look at the garden last time you were here didn’t you? Well those areas – they’re about 500 square metres, twenty by twenty five, something like that – and the garden was just in one of them. Wasn’t it?
Leigh: The one, on this side of the shed.
Ray: And the original, there had been an original garden down just where the chook shed is.
Leigh: Oh yeah – well Dudley had ploughed some of it up too. Well that’s pre-me.
Ray: Well that’s where my first tent was down there and I remember there was the remnants of a few pumpkin vines and things there [laughs].
Leigh: Oh yeah, down where the orchard is? But by the time I got here the garden was where it is, just in one of those eight areas. And the soil there is pretty hard and so you had to work pretty hard to get a tilth so you could make anything grow. I think I might have mentioned to you last time when I talked that I’d been growing veges down [outside Sydney], you know I had a little rotary hoe and I thought well – I remember going over, Dave Larkin and I, who was Mary Ali’s partner, we had a look in the paper and found an old Italian bloke over at Fairy Hill selling a rotary hoe for fifty bucks. I went and bought that, remember that?
Ray: Yeah, yeah.
Leigh: An old one lunger, it chugged along, kept going for about a year or so. And that kind of got the garden happening. It took a lot of the sweat out of it. Cause you could actually get the soil loosened up. And then after that I went and bought Valpadana, got into Valpadanas and so, you know the lesson there is you really need, you need technology, you know.
Ray: They were walk-behind tractors.
Leigh: Walk behind a two wheeled tractor. So in other words, the three things you need are good soil, water and a way of loosening up the soil – in terms of this heavy clay soil that we’ve got.
Did you ever look to some of the more conventional farming models, did you ever go to the Wollongbar Primary Industries lot?
Leigh: Yeah, yeah….
So tell me about the different experimentations and trying to learn the best ways to farm in this particular area.
Leigh: What it came down to was just standard organic farming. People ask are we a permaculture farm, and I’d say ‘no, it’s just a standard organic farm.’ With bio-dynamics overlays, it you know what I mean. But back in the ‘90s I was an organic farm inspector, when that first came in, the certification schemes. And I learnt a lot just by going around and seeing what other people were doing. So, I think just seeing what people are doing. TROPO got set up. You know about TROPO? The Tweed Richmond Organic Producers Organisation.
See I was a real networker back in those days. I mean Ellen and I were in, as I said, the Nimbin Organic Growers, we were in the Lismore Organic Growers. I did a permaculture course in 1981, then came back and I was running permaculture courses, the Adult Ed, and set up the first permaculture group in this area, which used to have field days and all the rest of it. And then when bio-dynamics came along, it must have been about 1985, I was the secretary of the local organic BD group and ended up being secretary of the national group. So you were just kind of exposed to it all the time. That’s for me, how I kind of learnt, and you’d be reading books and getting magazines.
Ray: Yeah we used to get Mother Earth Garden I remember for a long time, Grassroots …
Leigh: The Permaculture Journal, all that literature and you’d get ideas. I used to get the Banana Bulletin, which was the banana industry, I knew the lady who edited that, she now works for the Ag Department. You’re picking it up all the time, really.
Everyone here had their own connections I think, to outside information. I was certainly very keen on the agriculture thing, which was one of my main reasons for being here. As I’ve said I was involved in all those groups you know, and taking a leading role in them. I did a course at TAFE, Dave Forester who is now the president of TROPO. He started running a course in organic agriculture at TAFE. I did the first course back in about 1990, ’91 something like that. He’s still running it. It’s a very popular course. And he’s a bloke with a lot of experience, so you meet these guys who are doing stuff all around the place and you just learn. Soak it up. Yeah.
And what was the relationship with more conventional farming practices? Was there, was there one?
Leigh: I used to go to banana field that the Ag Department organised. I mean bananas are an obvious food in this area.
Ray: Yeah we used to get publications from the Ag Department and read up on ways they suggest that you do things.
Leigh: ‘Ag Facts’, it’s all online now but it used to be little pamphlets.
Ray: Booklets or pamphlets, yeah. Or ring the Ag Department sometimes, if you had questions.
So did you find contradictory material or did you actually find your way through ….
Leigh: No, ninety percent of what they say is applicable to organic farming. They tell you how, like, bananas need nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. You know and potassium is the main nutrient, all that sort of stuff. It all makes sense. I also had a lot of involvement with Alstonville and Wollongbar. They ran organic banana trials. I mean because I was president of TROPO I was involved in and used to go to meetings with all those guys and used to organise organic – there was an organic banana trial. They put out an Ag Fact on growing bananas organically. I was involved in all of that. Yeah.
It was interesting as organic production became a bigger thing in the wider community – the Ag Department had to get interested. I remember when they appointed their first Organic Officer for the whole state. I remember he came here and we wandered round, you know he had lunch here, I forget the guy’s name…. But now they’ve probably got three or four people doing that.
And so Ray were you as involved or did you all sort of take different roles?
Ray: Leigh’s always been much more into the Agriculture side than I have. No I’m more or less just hop along and ….
Leigh: Ray’s in charge of compost.
Ray: Yeah I’ve taken an interest in compost in the last few years. And it’s my main job as far as all the gardening goes. I’ve grown a lot of fruit trees over the years.
And how have you slotted into things JJ?
JJ: I’ve slotted into things by being interested in roads, and drainage … by, I guess by being interested in the stock, the cows. There’s sort of overlaps I think that are happening too. But there’s lots of interest in the cows and lots of management and Leigh, Leigh’s the main overseer of it. But lots of people want to milk in the morning and have something to do with the cows. So I bide my time and learn. Ah, you know, do the cow’s feet with Leigh. I also have slotted in on keeping the grass down in the banana orchards. So swinging the brush-cutter around and I think when I came I had a ride on mower so I was – well the grass was getting cut before that with a heavy cart and with brush-cutters. I slotted in just sort of cutting the grass.
Leigh: In the garden.
JJ: In the garden, around the garden.
Leigh: And JJ grows a few crops too. Everyone has their own crops down in the garden. You’re the tomato man aren’t you?
JJ: That’s right, tomatoes this season.
Ray: And yams?
JJ: Yams yeah, that’s right.
JJ: Yeah, some of things that I’ve grown before that weren’t being grown here, or at this time when I came weren’t being grown, I sort of put my hand up to do them again. That’s a good thing, a good space in filling up some gaps in the productive calendar.