As the end of this financial year runs to screaming halt – it’s time for us to take stock, and assess the type of world we live in – and how each one of us could be part of the solution to a better world!
Given the incredible outcomes of the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal, we are excited about the next steps from here for ORICoop. And how we as a member owned Co-operative can step up to help when it’s needed. And stick to our key mission of increasing and enabling more organic farmers to be better stewards of more land over time. And meet the specific needs of our farming community, member to member. While connecting our friends, eaters, farmers and investors more closely together, for a better and more aligned food and farming system.
You can become an ORICoop member HERE
Each year we love putting together our ‘hot’ list of leading organisations. If you are looking to make a real difference as a tax deductible donation some suggestions are here:-
So what else can I practically do? Here is a short action list!
We are launching the FIRST edition of BioLogical shortly. Here you will get the first glimpse of this collaborative journal, that covers organic farming, local stories, bushfire recovery, ethical investment and our community.
And make sure at this complex time, that you connect more closely with your local farmers and your food system. One bite, one meal, one good investment at a time!
You can keep up with ORICoop via Instagram. Or subscribe to our blog for our regular updates.
The Organic & Regenerative Investment Cooperative kicked off the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal with the fires in November 2020. What started as a $12,000 load of hay to NSW bushfire affected farmers has grown into a significant appeal. Now capturing more than $324,000 (including financial, donations & in-kind support) in value, this has directly benefited each of the bushfire affected organic farmers in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia!
Collectively between supportive organic farmers, best practice organic advisors, volunteer teams, our bushfire committee and donors, ORICoop has brought together a band of knowledge, experience and learnings. This network can only enhance the long term resilience and benefit of the organic industry. We thank each of you – and we are not finished yet!
Breakdown of $324,000 raised (and mostly distributed) bushfire appeal funds so far includes:-
- $89,000 cash raised
- $28,907 donated organic inputs
- $72,000 donated organic fodder
- $14,611 freight subsidy (fodder)
- $85,000 donated professional time
- $35,000 donated volunteer coordination
Best Practice Organic Farm Expertise
For many of the bushfire affected farmers – the best ‘value’ of the Appeal, has been their appointed volunteer bushfire recovery consultant. They have walked through the biology (courtesy of AgPath) and soil nutrient (EAL) tests with each farmer. From this data they identified the effect of the bushfires and the needs of their farm recovery. Together with ascertaining the physical damage and parameters using a Visual Soil Assessment and photos, these farmers are now on their road to recovery. Though the journey ahead is likely to be long and hard, the farmers won’t be walking alone.
Donated organic inputs
We would like to pay tribute to the organic input providers that have generously supported this Appeal. These are all organically certified products – and each has been tailored to the needs of these farms and their recovery.
Where to from here?
The Bushfire Committee is currently finalising the last of the applications for the Appeal and putting in place plans for ongoing support of the fire affected farmers. Now with the COVID-19 restrictions easing, the Committee is looking forward to finalising plans around bushfire recovery workshops and volunteer projects.
ORICoop has a need for volunteers to assist with the following (depending on the COVID-19 restrictions of course)
- Coordinated tree planting days
- Native tree fundraisers in your region
- Native animal box making
- Weed blitz days
- Bushfire recovery workshop coordination
- Marketing assistance
- Volunteer Coordination assistance
Register to be a volunteer HERE
Fundraising and community networking
Contact us if you are interested in hosting a community fundraiser – with funds to support bushfire affected organic farmers in your closest region. ORICoop is keen to see these farmers be supported for the long term. For some this is going to take months to years to recover. Ongoing community support for these farmers to continue is very important. Some of the farms have lost 30-40% of their orchards, with much of the bushland and wildlife destroyed. Many have lost infrastructure not least fencing, thousands of metres of irrigation and annual fodder stores.
Farmers tell their stories
We look forward to sharing more about these farmers, and their courageous stories of resilience and recovery. Christine Watts and Kym Green joined Carolyn, talking about the Bushfire Appeal as part of the Farming Secrets Summit HERE Both of these farmers show much courage and grit from the devastation they felt. And the heart behind their farming choices.
You can also catch up with more stories around the Bushfires, in our upcoming BioLogical Journal. And you can follow our Instagram page HERE.
Stay Well – and now more than ever, support your local organic farmers!
(photos supplied by Kym Green – credit to Nutri-Soil for their generous donations!)
The stories are shadowed right now by COVID – 19, but we know these bushfire affected farmers are rising from the ashes, and their resilience will be a shining light to all of us. We are thinking of the regional communities affected by bushfires, and their impending risk and impact of the virus on their people and place. May strength and resilience be our friends through these uncertain times.
As these farmers take stock and move forward with their recovery journey – it has been incredible to see the photos of the greening orchards, the response to the rains, and natures’ assurance of ‘it’s going to be ok’. And how the environment has a way of it’s own in recovery, some of which we don’t give her credit for. At least not to the extent we should!
The great outcome from the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal, has been connecting some of the leading biological and organic consultants together, to nut out the best process and plan for recovery for these organic farmers. As these farmers recover, we look forward to sharing their stories, and the journey of their soil, farm and businesses being restored.
The first steps to recovery for any farm post bushfires, or other natural disasters is assessment. Both physically, biologically, and above the ground.
All these farmers have been encouraged to follow this process, outlined by Gerhard HERE. These steps can be followed by any farmers looking to become more aware of the biological strengths and weaknesses of their soils. These key steps include:-
Once these tests are done – you can put all three together to obtain an accurate picture of the effects of the bushfire, both on the biological response, and the nutrient load or bank. It has been really interesting seeing these results come through for each of the bushfire affected farmers. And the diversity of farm systems (all organic), together with the expertise of the farmers themselves (some with more than 30 years of experience in organic farm systems), with the biological consultants. If you are interested to engage with any of these specialist consultants, you can contact us directly and we will put you in touch. You can also join the Organic & Biodynamic Farmers Facebook group – to ask any questions of your fellow farmers.
I was privileged to join a call between Gerhard Grasser and Greg Paynter, both pioneers and long term supporters of the organic industry. Highly experienced in soil agronomy, biological principles, organic standards and sustainable growing systems. Together they discussed the latest soil and biology tests for each of the farmers, the way that the Bushfire Appeal funds could be best utilised to get the most efficiency from the existing nutrients from the results, and to restore the biology to support the tree and soil systems over the long term.It is so clear that there is not one single answer. That every farm is different. That every farmer has a different response. The one aspect that is clear – is that together we are better. Together when farmers can share their stories of fire affected pastures and orchards, when leading consultants can liaise together to learn from each other’s strengths – that is when our industry has the opportunity to grow and prosper. We look forward to fostering that. More and more.
ORICoop is proud to have stepped forward to assist these farmers in their hour of darkness. And we will put together these stories as case studies for future farmers to use. And we hope that with each natural disaster, we can build case studies of resilience, or ways that farmers have used natural means to work with nature, and to see restoration as a journey, not a destination.
If you are a bushfire affected organic or biodynamic farmer – make sure you have applied to the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal. Due to COVID-19, it has been agreed that the Appeal applications will close mid-April. So the funds raised can offer direct assistance to those that need it. And see their farms through recovery. As much as possible.
** We would like to take this moment to thank all our biological consultants for their efforts to date. Offering pro-bono support to these bushfire affected farmers. And to EAL and AgPath for offering their soil & biology tests at cost to these affected farmers (cost covered by bushfire appeal funds).
In conclusion. It’s with a heavy heart that we announce the postponement of our ALL volunteering events for bushfire affected farmers until further notice. We are saddened to have cancelled all the volunteer projects in the pipeline – due to COVID-19 risk.
The overriding need for ORICoop is to display social responsibility and enact the Ethic of Care for People, both those volunteering and the affected farmers. The idea of spending time around other people practicing social distancing on farm volunteer weekends, cooking and eating dinners together and close proximity is too complex and risky for all. And really… no contact affects much of the intention and purpose of our volunteer projects. We are really sorry. Both to the hundreds of keen volunteers, but mostly to the bushfire affected farmers, that were all looking forward to hosting these projects, and seeing works done in their road to recovery.
Thanks to the many good folk that helped promote these events and we’ll be back in touch with some alternative dates in the springtime. Thanks especially to Penny & Amy, for all their work in pre-planning and promotion of these events.
We are all in this together. Thank a farmer for your next meal! Share this blog with your friends – we are stronger together.
Carolyn & ORICoop Team.
Story by Eva Peroni. Reprinted from Sustainable Food Trust
It’s hard to paint an accurate picture that encapsulates the scale and extent of Australia’s current bushfire season, and with more than 50 separate fires still burning across the continent at the time of writing, it may be some time before the magnitude of the crisis is fully understood.
Unprecedented in their intensity and geographical scope, fires have been burning across every state, but particularly fiercely through the coastal and eastern ranges of New South Wales (NSW) and north-eastern Victoria. As of 14 January, 2020, bushfires this season have burned through an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres), destroyed close to 2,500 homes, damaged more than 10,000 buildings and resulted in the loss of 33 lives. Air quality across the country has reached hazardous levels prompting a rise in people seeking emergency treatment for respiratory problems, with both Melbourne and Canberra’s air quality rated the worst in the world on several dates across January. The cumulative smoke from the bushfires has, on several occasions, surged more than 17 kilometres up into the stratosphere, blanketing New Zealand’s South Island and travelling approximately 11,000 kilometres (6,800 miles) across the South Pacific Ocean to South America. The ‘fire clouds’ that have formed as a result have stimulated their own weather systems, with thunderstorms and lightning strikes igniting new and unpredictable fires – and, at this writing, it’s only halfway through the summer.
As the driest inhabited continent on earth, bushfires have been a natural part of the history and mythology of the Australian landscape for tens of thousands of years. The fire conditions of the current 2019/2020 bushfire season, however, are without parallel on several fronts. Beyond the geographical scale and intensity of the fires, this season’s bushfires have burnt through areas and ecosystems comprised of typically fire-proof vegetation, such as wet eucalyptus forests, rainforests, heathlands and dried-out swamps. World Heritage-listed national parks that are considered some of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, like Western Australia’s Stirling Range, have experienced severe casualties of rare and threatened flora and fauna, and may never fully recover. While images of dehydrated koalas and singed kangaroos have captured the world’s attention, a (highly conservative) estimate of 1 billion mammals, birds and reptiles have perished, not counting the losses of bats, frogs or the invertebrates that make up the foundational elements of the food chain. The numbers are particularly harrowing considering Australia already bears the highest rate of species loss for any region in the world.
The climatic backdrop precipitating the spate of fires is one of several years of historically hot and protracted summers. Australia’s mean temperature in 2019 was 1.52 degrees Celsius higher than average, making it the warmest year since records began in 1910. Continental-scale droughts, affecting the eastern states most acutely, have been endured for several years, while water levels in key catchment areas, such as the Murray Darling Basin, have been at their lowest levels in a decade. Coupled with record lows in rainfall and soil moisture, and the soaring temperatures and wind speeds of this summer’s weather, the conditions were prime for small fires to become major infernos across large swathes of the country. Amid these conditions, Australian cities and towns in the past month alone have also endured tropical cyclones, hailstorms with stones the size of golf-balls, duststorms and heatwaves. Well and truly before this year’s bushfire season even began, the impact of droughts and flooding rains culminated in mass fish kills, hundreds and thousands of livestock losses and the decomposition of precious wilderness areas. A fragile and dry continent, Australia seems continually caught in the grips of extreme weather roulette, with the stakes likely to become more erratic in the context of a rapidly warming world.
A number of contributing policy failures and government inaction surrounding land and bushfire management have also compounded the risk and severity of the bushfire season. While the federal and NSW and Victoria state governments have announced independent expert inquiries into the bushfires, it should be noted that since 1939, there have been at least 18 major bushfire inquiries in Australia. According to former senate committees, ‘Previous inquiry processes have not resolved the issues that have been so consistently brought to the attention of governments.’ Some of these issues include inadequate protective burning and fuel reduction (both on public lands and around assets), insufficient resources for fire and land management agencies, and the disregard of local knowledge and experience – including traditional ecological knowledge and land management practices – in managing publicly and privately-owned land. These well-established concerns are likely to resurface in the next series of parliamentary inquiries, the question is whether the recommendations from these will be implemented.
Farmers on the frontlines
It will take some time before the economic, environmental and social costs of the bushfires can be truly ascertained. Significant impacts are already being felt by the agricultural sector, the repercussions of which are likely to affect Australia’s broader food system. While farmers have been grappling with the ongoing impacts of low soil moisture, water and feed shortages for some time now, the localised impacts of bushfires have manifested in unprecedented and highly complex conditions. While tens of thousands of livestock are likely to have perished (or had to be euthanised) as a result of the bushfires, farmers must now face the grim task of burying the carcasses to prevent potential public health and biosecurity risks. The task is so considerable that Australia’s Defence Force has been assigned to dig mass graves, while 100 veterinarians have been deployed across the country to assess and euthanise thousands of stock injured by the blazes. Some farmers have been in imminent danger and continue to face the threat from multiple firefronts, but due to their daily farming enterprises cannot leave their farm. Notwithstanding the defence of their properties and livelihoods, farmers also make up a large proportion of the more than 70,000 volunteers of the Rural Fire Service. It is not uncommon for these volunteers and their families to suffer significant losses or be made homeless while protecting the homes and lives of others.
As food, fuel and water run low in bushfire-hit regions, and some communities are cut-off from electricity and telecommunications for days on end, everyday farming tasks such as milking cows, feeding cattle, weeding or watering crops are no longer tenable, impeding production. Damage to vital infrastructure, such as sheds, storage facilities or machinery is critical, while the destruction of fencing leaves farmers with no way to safely contain their animals. In the absence of physical damage, excessive smoke can taint fruit and vegetable crops, with wine grapes being particularly susceptible. Entire cattle holdings, timber plantations and vineyards have been completely wiped outand charred by flame. When the landscape is burnt and blackened, microbial populations in the soil, particularly fungi, can suffer extensive damage. Depending on the intensity of the fire, it can create bacterially dominant soils and may destroy organic matter, opening up areas for the take-over of invasive weeds. High-intensity fires can also impact water quality by increasing the sediment and nutrient concentrations in waterways. With all the ash and silt pouring into estuaries and waterways, several oyster farms have been closed for harvest due to higher readings of algae, ash debris and other contaminants. Production losses are just the beginning. A whole network of vital infrastructure involved in packing, cool-storing and transporting goods can become impeded by road closures or power outages. Consumers can expect to see higher food prices as the costs of the bushfires add up.
From the ashes: recovery, restoration and regeneration
As the bushfire crisis unfolded across Australia, the world watched attentively. But with the rapid-fire nature of news cycles (and now the downpour of rain and floods across NSW), global attention and conversation has already shifted. How can a transformative dialogue emerge and be sustained after the fires are out? One that not only considers the risks posed by nature on human life and property, but also triggers a re-evaluation of how people conceive of themselves and others in their relationship with(in) nature? Such a dialogue will likely involve deep questioning about cultural and social values and beliefs, regulatory, legislative and financial institutions and the interdependence of biological and environmental systems. As people begin the long process of recovery, restoration and regeneration, how can they stimulate conversations and activities that don’t necessarily dictate a particular pathway for ‘resilience’ or ‘adaptation’, but rather, opens up possibilities for more sustainable futures to emerge?
For farmers Penny Kothe of Caroola Farm and Vicki Jones of CSM Organics, it was the catastrophic fires of Black Saturday that raged through Victoria over a decade ago that sparked a total rethink of the way they approach their farmland, families and community. As they began the physical and emotional work of rebuilding their lives, homes, businesses and towns, both farmers made the choice to shift from conventional to regenerative agricultural practices. Predicating the interdependent relationship between humans and the landscape, regenerative farming systems utilise a set of farming practices not just to grow food but to progressively improve the ecosystem in which that food is grown. A holistic and diversified approach, regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic the natural, self-organising properties of a healthy ecosystem by focusing on diversity and the health of integrated natural and human systems.
For Penny Kothe, the Black Saturday bushfires were not only a catalyst for reassessing her farming practices, but they also spurred a deeper contemplation of her place on the land and humanity’s collective responsibility for managing it. ‘Losing everything in a house fire made me realise the important things in life – family, health and community – and from that, I started out on a whole new track. Whilst I’d previously read books on permaculture and holistic management, the fire gave me a whole fresh start and determination to lead my life the way I wanted. It made me reflect seriously on the question: what are we even here for?’ For Vicki Jones, the Black Saturday fires prompted contemplation of issues such as farm succession, learned helplessness among farmers and the link between rural isolation and mental health. The rising input costs of feed and fertiliser, the social isolation experienced in supplying long and fragmented supply chains, and the financial volatility of the market during the global financial crisis were factors to consider in the family succession of her farm. These cumulative pressures prompted a shift from conventional to certified organic dairy farming, as well as sourcing an alternative market for her products. Vicki now sells through Prom Coast Food Collective, a producer- and community-centric, low waste model that returns 95% of the dollar to farming families
As both farmers attest, authentic regenerative agriculture requires the broader community to adopt an ethos in their approach to food, landscapes and culture. ‘Regeneration’ in this sense, requires a reshaping of the human journey, one that cultivates the values of environmental stewardship alongside more localised economies that strengthen solidarity between farmer, eater and the Earth. It encourages farmers’ social participation and connectedness with their local communities while instilling a strong, collective ethics of care in response to the social and ecological challenges of our time. As Kothe reflects, ‘It is through such disasters that we re-evaluate the meaning of our lives, come together as communities and divest ourselves of our consumeristic attitudes that have become so ingrained in our way of life.’
It is the collective experiences, voices and defined action of people from impacted communities that will help shape the vision for long-lasting, impactful, transformative change. For frontline farming communities, the solution starts with building thriving local economies which provide farmers with dignified livelihoods that are ecologically diverse, healthy and resilient. It continues beyond the farm through opportunities for integrated land management that draws on indigenous knowledge and the best of modern science. The local and global impact of Australia’s current bushfire crisis is being felt through grief, stress, frustration and disbelief. But perhaps from the ashes, transformative dialogues and new narratives can emerge – ones that create opportunities and pathways for a regenerative future.
If you would like to help farmers affected by the fires you can donate or volunteer with the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal. You can read more of Eva’s work here
You can keep updated with our ongoing stories around the Bushfire Appeal via Instagram
Photograph: Ian Barbour
“The support we have received has been brilliant. More than you know, you have all supported us and helped us to rise beyond the ashes. Thank you.” Those are the words of Christine and Chris Watts from Blue Sky Organics (above left pic – with Ian Watts on the right). Over the past two weekends, our first volunteer project has taken place with the Watts family from East Gippsland.
Fire burned through 95% of the Watts’ farm near Buchan, East Gippsland on New Years Eve. When they were allowed back onto the property a week later, they discovered that miraculously the fire had gone around the shed holding their drying garlic crop, along with their historic cottage and Fergie tractor. But nothing else was spared.
Penny Kothe, ORICoop Volunteer Coordinator extraordinaire (that’s Penny above in the middle of right hand pic), pulled together a team of a dozen volunteers to travel to East Gippsland and camp out for 4 days to help process the garlic for market. Together we snipped and cleaned 600kg of organic garlic!
CERES Fair Food has been a Blue Sky Organics garlic supporter since day one – Chris Ennis has written wonderful reflections on the Blue Sky Organics story so far: The Healing Process and Open Hearts – a must read, both of them! And, you can see more of the Blue Sky Organics farm and their farming principles in this video. It has been a privilege to be involved in the start of the recovery process for this family and their organic business.
As Christine Watts says, “The challenge for people after the fires is going to be the ongoing trauma. After all the initial attention fades people will feel forgotten – that’s why we need to keep coming together to heal.”
Last Saturday, the project continued in Preston at the CERES Fair Food warehouse, with a whole new team of volunteers (pictured above), to process the elephant garlic that was discovered to be heat damaged from the fires during our first weekend on the farm. ORICoop has supported Blue Sky Organics to find an alternative market for the elephant garlic – originally intended as seed garlic. Now perfect as a food grade garlic – ready for a creative product! Special thanks to Mohammed (pictured below) – for his generosity of spirit in managing the day at CERES, and rallying more volunteers from their packing team for the week, to see the Creole garlic fully completed by the end of the week. We cannot thank you and your team enough!
Reflecting on the previous weekend, Christine wrote: “These gorgeous people, whom we didn’t know before Thursday, held our hands and hearts as we realised our normally brilliant elephant garlic was not suitable for it’s normal purpose. The fires continue to take their toll for so many people who thought they were nearly through the worst of it. “They also helped us see there were solutions. Solutions that no doubt we would not have imagined possible amidst the busyness of recovery. “The greatest gift we received over this time, and as a result of the fires, is connection”
On our first volunteer weekend over 75% of the volunteers’ food was donated – almost all organic, locally grown and direct from producers across Victoria! Special thanks go to Christine Li – our incredible volunteer cook. And to CERES Fair Food, Hazeldean Farm, Timbarra Farm, Schulz Organic, Tarago Valley, Organic Angels, Loafers & Dench Bread, Crofter Dining, Peninsula Organics, Zankers Organic Ways Eggs, High Country Eggs & All Things Natural for their generous donations of organic food! Plus Rodwells & Yenckens in Mansfield for gloves and secateurs. And thanks also to CERES & Baw Baw Food Hub for their generosity as central collection points!
We will continue to work together to help organic and biodynamic farmers affected by the bushfires. We have been grateful to those in the organic industry that have walked beside us to support these farmers. Ben Copeman from Southern Cross Certified met with these farmers from East Gippsland last week, to help them with free organic certification amidst the complexity and cost of fire recovery. And volunteered to assist these local farmers in their long recovery journey back. His heartfelt response was simple – he will never forget the generosity shown to him when their farm was burnt all those years ago.
The real challenge for these farmers is in long-term support, and real support happens slowly, for long-term recovery. That’s why we’re planning to return to Blue Sky Organics and East Gippsland in winter, to help regenerate the oasis of land with native plantings.
Our next volunteer projects are coming up at Prana Produce in Braidwood, where we are looking for longer term volunteers. And Ontos Organics in East Gippsland, together with Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island to come shortly. Register here if you’d like to be on the mailing list for these and future projects to support farmer recovery.
Join us on Instagram!
ORICoop has launched a new Instagram account specifically for the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal – check it out here. You can see more of our first volunteer project with Blue Sky Organics, the incredible events that continue to happen and partners that are joining the Appeal. We will be sharing more farmer stories, volunteer projects, and joining in the conversation about recovery, regeneration and positive community led direct action here and on our blog.
A few more shout-outs!
Great to see people out there fundraising for the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal right around the country and beyond. In Perth, Organic Grocery Store, Dunn & Walton sold coffee and scrolls with 100% of sales to the appeal recently – thanks so much! Over in Harcourt, Victoria the Gung Hoe Growers have put together a sold out Luscious Local Bushfire Fundraiser, with many Central Victorian producers chipping in – it’s going to be a feast and many donated local goodies are up for grabs on the night in the raffle. In the Adelaide Hills, The Organic Market & Cafe has been raising funds at the store for the past month – thanks Bron and Graham and all your customers!
And in Paris this week, Tasmanian fermentation guru Adam James came together with a group of friends including Australian chefs James Henry and Shaun Kelly to cook a special dinner with proceeds to both the Appeal and Firesticks Alliance. Not only that – the group are holding a silent auction, with many generous and talented people donating goods and their time for unique experiences to be bid on – including a private farm tour and lunch at James and Shaun’s La Ferme du Doyenné farm project, with bidding currently sitting at 720 Euros – amazing!
Thanks everyone for your support! And make sure you keep up to date with our next steps via our blog HERE and the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal
Amy, Carolyn, Penny & the team at ORICoop
On Thursday afternoon the cars began arriving at Christine and Chris Watts’ Paynesville farm. Parking in an empty horse paddock, people lay out tents and swags, pull on work shirts and boots and introduce themselves. All of us have been drawn here by the desire to help out after the fires. Among the twelve volunteers is a young economist, a retired nurseryman, an arborist, a nurse and two organic farmers – who themselves had been burnt out three years previously.
At 6.30am the next morning, Penny, our volunteer coordinator gets us out of bed for a briefing. Under a makeshift shade beside drying racks filled with Creole, Silverskin and enormous fist-sized Russian Garlic, Penny explains that over the next three days we will be trimming and cleaning more than a ton of garlic. And so we make a start – clipping stems, talking, snipping roots, talking, rubbing off skins, talking.
CERES Fair Food has been buying Blue Sky Organics garlic since Chris and Christine’s daughter Madeline harvested their first crop as an eighteen year old ten years ago. The Watts family business grow their garlic up on their Murrindal River flats property north of Buchan Caves.
On New Years Eve the fire went through their farm. It was a week before Chris and Christine were allowed back in, escorted by police. When they got to the farm they couldn’t believe what they saw; everything had burned bar their drying garlic, a historic cottage and their tractor. With the fire continuing to flare in the surrounding bush they decided to bring the garlic back to their place near Paynesville for cleaning.
That lunchtime, our economist also our volunteer cook, has prepared an amazing spread from an abundance of food donated by farmers and organic businesses. Everyone wants to help; there’s milk from Schulz Dairy, bread from Dench and Loafer, eggs from Zanker Farm, apples from Hazeldean, veg from Peninsula Organics and Timbarra, bananas from Organic Growers Group even a delicious biriyani from Crofters restaurant. As we eat Christine Watts confesses they haven’t been cooking much lately – being adrenalised for a month has left the family in a collective brain-fog that manifests in inertia, forgetting and bursts of anger.
Early the next morning we drive up the Buchan Road to the Watts’ farm in Murrindal to collect two more trailer loads of garlic. Everything is normal until we hit Sarsfield, 19kms outside of Bairnsdale. Houses have disappeared leaving ghostly white concrete stumps. You can feel the panic from the hastily cut trees – dropped and shoved aside. We follow a truck loaded with round bales through kilometres of blackened forest. Already epicormic leaves are sprouting from eucalypt trunks but so many more seem too burned to come back. Recent rains have painted farm paddocks bright green. The contrast with the black trees gives everything an oddly benign feel.
We pass burnt houses here while others stand untouched and I recall lines from my old friend Pete Auty’s Black Saturday poem…
I don’t understand. Why this and not that?
Why burn on the ridges and not on the flat?
The little pink cottage surrounded by black,
The mud-brick houses reduced to wrack.
At the Watts’ farm the fire has burnt the bush on the ridges surrounding the property. But the grass has come back making the burnt-out hay baler sitting on its rusty wheel rims just a few meters from the garlic racks seem completely incongruous. We load the garlic stems and a kookaburra’s call builds and fills the river valley below us. Chris says when they first returned to the farm it was silent. But now the birds are coming back. Later on the way home we see a lyrebird scampering across the road and our spirits lift.
Back in Paynesville the news isn’t good; the Russian garlic we’ve begun cleaning seems to have been cracked by the fire’s heat. Christine hopes it’s just a bad batch but as the day progresses it becomes clear that 90% of the crop is affected. Most of these bulbs were to be sold as seed. Christine doesn’t know if they will be viable now. Everybody feels the strain and works on.
By dinner though we are sharing food and smiling once again. We eat and tell stories and later over ice cream, organiser Carolyn Suggate, explains that the most powerful part of the Appeal is the deepening of our relationships with each other, with our farmers, our food and our land. When I leave the following day I feel like I have been here a couple of weeks – the openness of Christine and Chris, the way shared manual work brings strangers together the opportunity to help, to learn, to appreciate and to bare witness is a privilege.
You can volunteer or donate to the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal here
You can find Blue Sky Organic creole garlic at Fair Food and CERES Grocery
Hold farmers in high esteem at through these tough times.
Written by Chris from CERES