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This website aims to develop case studies of the development of farming practices and attendant transformations of local ecologies of defined blocks of land. Through these biographies of particular plots of land we are developing localised analyses of the wider historical trends in the political economy/ecology of the Northern Rivers.

The story is an edited version of a conversation between Venu Gopal Das, Hazel Ferguson and Tara Melis, on November 9, 2012.

It contains reflections on Starting the community  | The history of the land  | The Cow Department  | Changes  | The spiritual role of food  | The future

My name’s Venu Gopal Das, Gus. I’m currently and for probably the last four years I’ve been looking after the Cow Department (which is an umbrella to include a lot of different departments in itself). When we say Cow Department we use the term goshala, and goshala is a Sanskrit term which means shelter for cows.


Starting the community

Basically we acquired this property in 1977. I came about three months after they acquired the property. I was living in Adelaide in one of our temples there, and I go this phone call “we need some on to cook for the community here. Our cook’s just left. Our cook’s flown the coop”. I think they went to Indonesia, or somewhere.

The acquisition came from a group of devotees which were travelling, in those days it would have been, late ‘70s, they were travelling around the country on a bus doing cultural programmes and such. And the person that was in charge of the bus, his name was Surbarbadi Prva, and he had this in his mind for many, many, years that when he first met out spiritual leader, one of the things which really kind of struck him was that people won’t do anything unless their bellies are satisfied.

If they are hungry, forget it, you know. So grow food, and that is the beginning of happiness. So Surbarbadi had this thing, he felt we don’t have a farm in Australia, we should have a farm, at least we can supply our temples and our restaurants and such with the produce that we grow ourselves. Which would be much more pure and much more healthy, etcetera. So with this idea he was travelling in the bus and at the same time he’s looking around, you know in the corner of his eye, where is a good place to by a farm? And they came around this area and they looked around and they… Anyway to cut a long story short they found this property.

It’s a thousand acres. If you see that mountain there; it goes right over the back of that mountain. We have all of that and this is the river here. This is the boundary. So everything over that side is not ours. And then the boundary on this side which is just where you drive in and it goes up that mountain half, the side of that mountain. This side stretches back two or three kilometres on the river frontage. So it’s quite a large property and it has a lot of diversity. Different things can be done here. There’s timbers on the property for building, there’s flat areas for growing things, there’s pasture areas for like nice fertile hill sites for growing fruit trees and such and for grazing, for cows. So pretty much it’s a bit of a blue print for, you know, self-sufficiency kind of ideology.

I came three months after they acquired the property. They’d been here. They were all living in the white house, when you came in that, Carunica’s house. That was the only house in the property and everything else was like, up to your eyeballs in long grass [laughs]; It was pretty uninhabitable. So whatever you see here, all the infrastructure, we’ve done that over the years.

So I came as a cook. And at that stage there would have been, maybe fifteen men, single men and about, at that stage there was probably about ten single ladies. And we had different living quarters because we were living a monastic kind of lifestyle. There’s what’s called Brahmacharya (Brahmachars and Brahmachins) which means they’re celibate students living in a monastery kind of atmosphere, specifically for the purpose of developing their own personal spiritual strength. So it’s more of a student kind of thing. There were a couple of married couples, and over the years it’s expanded. Now we have like 50 families living here, or whatever. And there’s a small monistic area of women and a small monistic are of men. There’s probably about five in each.

We’ve always had both sides. It’s just basically that in the early days there wasn’t so much marriage because we were just starting and we all came from single backgrounds. And ah, we were young, so then those first half a dozen years or so in the development of our cultural and spiritual kind of lifestyle we felt to keep things, you know, to develop that; that strength by keeping a monistic and a celibate lifestyle. And then, and then naturally, we become, we had families. And expanded like that. So it’s more like that monastic lifestyle is more like an educational lifestyle. It’s part of our beginning and the education.

In the early says of the history we were all unmarried, all single, and there was actually another house on the property, on the other side in an old dairy. But it was a proper house, like the white house. And so the ladies were living over there and the men were living over on this side. That’s just basically, but of a day time we would come and intermingle and do servicing, you know, gardening and whatever. And I remember, there was a really good garden in those days, it didn’t take long to start things going.

There’s all big tree and everything [there now]. So before that basically we just ploughed it up and put a whole lot of biodynamic lifter into here and started growing stuff. And so I was cooking. There wasn’t much facility, because we were so broke we couldn’t afford gas so we got these 44 gallon drums, chopped the tops off and chopped a piece out of the bottom of them, stoked them full of wood and our posts, we had 60 galloon pots, and um, Surbarbadi said “no, we can’t afford gas this week Venu, you’ve gotta stoke up the fire”. And had to cook, you know morning breakfast for everyone, then lunch and then the evening meal. There would have been like 30 people and on Sunday there’d be 130 people because everyone would come in from, from the surrounds, because Hare Krishnas have a free love feast on Sundays. And they’d all come in and we’d sit out on the grass and we’d serve up and we’d have Kirtan, and plays and dancing and music.

The temple was the white house. The men were living downstairs and upstairs we turned into a temple. So the men were living quiet austerely because, downstairs, it’s a Queenslander… It was a dirt floor and there were no walls. There was a dirt floor, there were no facilities there was a bathroom downstairs and there was no rooms, just one big room and we just kind slept in there in the sleeping bags. And the weather was fine, winter was a bit cold. I remember waking up one evening and one of the boys, I hear this BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG; “What’s going on?” And I woke up and one of the boys had this snake, bashing this snake.

A poisonous snake, like a brown snake or something. We used to have all these things… We had a big snake problem. This hill, I heard afterwards (many years later) that the locals use to call this property, this hill particularly, ‘death adder hill’. When I first came here I remember, I don’t see them anymore now because it’s more built up, but, I used to see about 3 or 4 snakes a week; And death adders especially. Death adders are the little fat ones with the little tail. And they are very, very, poisonous. Brown snakes, a few black snakes lots of pythons, they’re still here, they’re cool. But the other ones are very dangerous, and I think one of the previous owners on this property was bitten by one a snake and they may have been killed, I’m not sure.

So it was called death adder hill because there were just so many snakes but over the years of developing the property, and you know, burning off and building and…, the snakes are not that prominent now. I’d be lucky to see one every couple of months. I do have some pet Carpet snakes in the dairy and I see them every day.

Probably in the next month or so we went out and got six or seven cows. Jersey cows, and there was an old dairy shed, or remnants of a dairy shed over the other side, where the ladies were living near the house. So we made the dairy over that side and we built up the dairy from six cows to 10 to 15 cows. And I was milking also. I started milking for about a year, at that stage. So that’s where I learnt to look after the cows and milk; that was the beginning of my training. At the same time I was cooking, I remember we used to have it for breakfast; we used to bring all this milk back, really rich creamy milk. I’d make yoghurt the previous night and have fresh yoghurt, like 20 litres of yoghurt every morning with fresh cut up fruit and Kitcheree, which is like a rice and protein mix, and halva, which is a sweet. And the veges in the garden were so nice that just simple things like pumpkin and peas, they used to pick the peas so that when, they were younger so they were very sweet, and they used to pick the pumpkins before they were actually ripe and they were easy to cut up, and also were very sweet and I didn’t have to use any spices, I just kind of cooked them together and put this paneer (paneer which is cheese curd) which we made from the milk and mixed it all together, and it was just, it was like heavenly, it was really nice. Just the mature of the fresh veges out of the garden didn’t really need much. You know … everyone was satisfied. There was a fit of surplus out of that garden so we started to take it up to the local market and sell like that. I think on the Gold Coast, on the weekends and such.

And I think Surbarbadi… where did he line up… he was selling them somewhere else. Because I remember he was selling them a box full of peas, boxes of peas we used to get. Just to harvest the peas was a real mission in itself, it was like we had to get 15 of us out there in the morning, and get all, pick all these peas; and I remember it would take ages to pick even three or four boxes. And Surbarbadi at one stage was thinking, yeah we’ll be able to make some, we need some money to kind of sink into the place, we’ll, let’s grow peas, after about a week of picking peas everyone said no we’re not gunna pick peas. No money in this.

There was plenty of produce for the devotees to live on. And plenty of milk. Fruit we had to buy in at that stage, we didn’t have many fruit trees. So that was ok.

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