We met at ACCA in the morning. Some enthusiastic punters beat us to it, and were already milling around in the foyer. They had brought cute-looking picnic baskets and thermoses, and there was an excited feeling of agricultural anticipation. Field Trip!
Like nerdy highschool students, we piled onto the bus…
I quite like the period of calm which a short bus trip creates. Someone else is in charge of the navigation and the driving, and all you have to do is sit back and drowse, until you arrive.
…unless, of course, you’re on a bus with Ian and Lucas, armed with a funny old microphone furnished by the nice bus driver. In which case, you’re likely to be regaled with stories about Yeomans (and about ourselves) for most of the journey.
This, essentially, was our “artists’ talk” about the Yeomans Project – the sort of thing you usually get when you go to the gallery and the artist stands in front of his/her work and gives you a bunch of extra info which hopefully will help you understand or appreciate it better.
The great thing about rumbling along in a bus while you do this, is that you can have pauses to look out the window, and contemplate the landscape rolling by. These silences seem significant, not awkward.
While we had the mike, we picked on a few folks on the bus to get a bit of a random sample: who were these people, and why were they on this trip? When you organise a Field Trip to a farm, starting from an art gallery, it’s helpful to know these things.
Most of those we spoke to had some sort of affiliation with the art world. But like us, they were interested in agricultural processes – an interest distinct from (even if overlapping with) their interest in art. There were a few who said they had a particular enthusiasm for “social processes as art” – of which our Field Trip was an example – so I suppose for them, the tour itself was an item of study.
There were also some kids who just wanted to see the chickens.
We arrived at Taranaki Farm around noon, and were greeted by the farmers: Ben Falloon, his partner Nina and their daughter Maya.
Ben began his introductory statements by reminding us why we were visiting Taranaki, and not some other nice-looking Victorian farm: PA Yeomans.
Taranaki Farm has developed, over the last six years, from a conventionally run cattle farm, to a shining example of “regenerative agriculture”“. That is, land which is on its way to better things, rather than running down its biological resources until they are exhausted. Studying and applying Yeomans’ farm design principles is a key method in this shift for Ben and Nina.
We all tramped off for our first paddock walk. It took about forty seconds for my mesh sneakers to sink deep into muddy water, and I definitely wasn’t the only one with impractical footware.
Ben walked us up to where his cows were stationed for today. He pointed out an area of land which he was planning to develop according to Yeomans’ Keyline principles. The beginning of this process, he explained, was finding the contour of the land, and making it visible. This can be done with coloured pegs or stakes, or, as in this case, by fencing off along the contour and allowing the cows to graze up to the edge of one side:
This allows him to “see” where the water can be made to flow, along and just below the level of the contour. He can then start to think about how to link this particular water flow line with elements like roads and dams.
The basic principle here, Ben explained, is to keep the rain that falls onto his land, on his land, for as long as possible. Ultimately, that might mean that the rainfall landing on a hilltop could zigzag from dam to dam, following multiple channels, for a long time before it exits the property. In the meantime, it seeps into the soil, and fills up all those storage units – the dams.
I haven’t got a diagram of Taranaki Farm’s water design to show you, but here’s one from Yobarnie (one of Yeomans’ farms on the outskirts of Sydney) which clearly shows a whole bunch of dams situated at crucial points in the undulating landscape, linked by water channels running between them:
According to Ben, the purpose of all of this is twofold. First, to improve the land itself: to bring extra moisture into the soil, increasing its capacity for growing pasture to feed cows and so on; and second, to build in a sort of water storage “buffer”, so that the land can better take care of itself during periods of drought.
After this explanation we tramped over to look at an actual dam that Ben recently created. It’s a beautiful piece of land engineering:
Ben showed us – this time with peg and string lines – where the water flow channels will join this dam to future dams he will make. This is hard to get your head around. As one lady on the Field Trip remarked – sometimes the water flow channels seem, to the naked eye, to travel up hill! But Ben explained that the eye can play all sorts of tricks, and it’s his trusty laser level that he relies on to tell the truth about where the water will really flow.
There’s a tale about PA Yeomans, that whenever it rained, he would race outside to see how all his dams and channels were working, and from this he would know how they could be improved. It was a constant cyclical process of observation and action. Ben, almost foaming with glee, told us that he is the same. The rain tells the truth about whether his Keyline design plan is working or not.
After a visit to another dam, the crowd was ravenous, and so we sloshed back to the farmstead for our picnic lunch.
This was lovely. Though it’d been threatening to rain all day, the sun shone feebly for just long enough for us to spread out our blankets in Taranaki’s ramshackle orchard, and recline for our luncheon au plein air.
The picnic was a good chance for the Field Trippers to get to know each other a bit better, share some snacks, and chat about what they’d seen and heard. For those who knew had hitherto heard little of Yeomans’ Keyline principles, Ben’s rapidfire introduction needed to be calmly digested, so to speak.
Small clusters of picnickers organically composed themselves within the orchard. The whole thing was very bucolic. (But why hadn’t we thought to bring wine?!)
And then it was off again, for the second half of the day, to the “bottom paddock”, where some of Ben’s Keyline experiments are a bit more established. We rolled down the hill and crossed a sort of bog, where Ben had constructed a makeshift bridge so our woefully inadequate shoes wouldn’t have to suffer any more indignities.
Crossing this bog – which to a farmer might present itself as an irritating inconvenience – was, to us cityfolk, an adventure in itself. (“Sophisticated” urban dwellers, perhaps, don’t get the chance to wobble and play and risk getting mucky very often.)
At the bottom paddock, we got to see an example of Keyline design in action. Ben showed us two dams which were strategically positioned in relation to one another. I’ve tried to label the photo collage below to show how the water flows work.
So, the water comes down the hill on the right hand side of the photo, flows along a road (which has been bulldozed in that position on purpose) and winds up in the big dam on the left hand side. This dam, when full, will overflow and the water will run along a channel to the second dam, on the top right hand side of the photo.
(if you want to zoom right in massively on that photo, click here)
This system is pretty nifty. It satisfies the intellect – physics and all that. But there’s more. Part of the reason for doing this is that you can predict where water will be a lot of the time, and therefore start to plan the landscape accordingly. For example, you don’t have to wait for the dam to overflow – you can release some of the water whenever you like. In this way, irrigation can happen, and the areas below the channels can begin to support things like intentionally planted forests.
This is exactly what Ben has started to do, just on the other side of the crest from this system. Here you can see the beginning of his mixed forestry plantation:
The following photo shows quite well how the forested land drops away below the contour where the road we’re all standing on is situated:
Importantly, Ben’s forest is not just for “feel good” purposes. He intends to harvest the timber. Having a forest performs a host of other services too, like providing shelter for the cattle.
Oh the cattle, we haven’t even got onto them yet!
Because, besides a bit of timber, the product which sustains this entire enterprise is, of course, beef. And so it’s worth mentioning, before I sign off here, the amazing system of “cell grazing” which ties in with this whole Keyline farming business.
Taranaki employs a version of Joel Salatin’s beef management method.
Essentially, this means keeping the cows in a really tight area (a “cell”), and moving them every day to a new piece of pasture. This way, the cows intensively graze – eating almost everything – including weeds – shit all over it, and move on. The grass has a shock to its system, and starts to regenerate rapidly. By the time the cows come back again, some months later, the grass has fully recovered, and has deeper roots than before.
In an ideal world, a mobile chicken shed (or “eggmobile”) follows behind the cows, pecking at all the bugs in the cow manure, and adding even more diversity to the nutrient mix. (Taranaki’s chicken shed is built, it just doesn’t have wheels yet!)
According to Joel Salatin, this method mimics the traditional movement of animals through land:
Herbivores in nature exhibit three characteristics: mobbing for predator protection, movement daily onto fresh forage and away from yesterday’s droppings, and a diet consisting of forage only – no dead animals, no chicken manure, no grain, and no fermented forage. Our goal is to approximate this template as closely as possible. Our cows eat forage only, a new pasture paddock roughly every day, and stay herded tightly with portable electric fencing. This natural model heals the land, thickens the forage, reduces weeds, stimulates earthworms, reduces pathogens, and increases nutritional qualities in the meat.
Below is an aerial shot of Taranaki Farm, from Nearmaps. You can see the radiating lines coming from the dam in the bottom middle of the picture – these correspond to individual cells used on a rotating basis, day by day. Ben is able to shift one thin electric fence wire each day and the cows cheerfully shift to the next cell for a fresh day’s foraging.
Unfortunately, our day had come to an end. We were already running behind time, so we skipped back to the bus to head back to Melbourne.
I had prepared a special CD of (rather crappy but topical) farming songs for our weary Field Trippers to listen to (if anyone wants a copy, let me know), and there was much animated chatting about all we had seen and heard (and, I noticed some drowsing) on the bus.
One last thing, which I have been meaning to draw your attention to – amazingly, Ben, Nina and Maya have been farming at Taranaki for six years. What’s more, they started with Yeomans’ Keyline methods just three years ago.
It’s fantastic to be able to witness this transformation as it happens, with one’s own eyes. And it’s thrilling to be able to feel the land’s undulations, with one’s own legs. Of course, any narrative and photographic account can only be a shadow of the embodied experience we had on our Field Trip.
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Field Trip was organised by Ian Milliss and Lucas Ihlein, facilitated by ACCA. It was presented as part of Yeomans Project, which is featured in the exhibition Power to the People: Contemporary Conceptualism and the Object, curated by Hannah Mathews. Many thanks to Hannah, and to the Falloon family for making time to show us around their world.