Sugar → Reef: the Story So Far…

sugar cane ad from 1890

(Photo from here)

Even though gallery shows are only a small part of what we do as artists, it’s true that presenting an exhibition at a high-profile place like the Art Gallery of NSW can really open up some unexpected doors.

When The Yeomans Project occupied the Contemporary Project Space at AGSNW in early 2014, it popped up on Allan Yeomans’ radar.

Allan, aged 80 or so, is the late P.A. Yeomans’ eldest son. He runs the Yeomans Plow business in the Gold Coast, and like his dad, is an author, inventor, and ideas man.

Anyway, Allan and his wife Christina heard about the show, and decided to come down from the Gold Coast to see it.

In Allan’s helicopter.
Which he pilots himself. That’s how those Yeomanses roll.

It was a great honour to meet Allan and Christina, and the event for which they choppered in (a public discussion with P.A.’s youngest daughter Wendy) turned out to be a wonderful Yeomans family+friends reunion:

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The Yeomans family + friends reunion at AGNSW. At far left is Wendy Yeomans. Third from left is Christina, Allan is at centre with black shirt and thin western tie. Ian Milliss in black at the front, behind him is Julie Yeomans, then Robert Yeomans in the check shirt. Lucas Ihlein is on the far right (hah!), and I’ll add the names of the remaining two gents when I dig through my notes!

On returning to Queensland, Allan and Christina told their friend John Sweet about the project. John is a retired farmer, also getting on to 80. He worked with P.A. in the late 1970s and early 80s on the Keyline redesign of Rugby Run, a huge property a few hours inland from Mackay.

And that’s how John Sweet came to phone me up on the landline (he has no mobile nor email):

“Lucas, John Sweet here, from Mackay. Allan Yeomans told me about your project. I reckon you and Ian might be interested to work with me on something up here in Queensland”.
“Sounds good, John,” says I – “What is it?”
“Well,” says John, “It’s like this. I want to Keyline the entire Great Barrier Reef catchment area”.

Now, I don’t know much about Queensland, but I know it’s big. So after I got off the phone to John, when I finished laughing, I went and looked up the Reef Catchment area. It’s a strip about or 2100km long, and about 424,000 square kilometers in area. And pretty much choc-a-block with sugar farms.

This is a map from 1941. Not exactly up-to-date, I know. But it’s a nice map, and I think sugar cane is grown in much the same areas these days:

sugar mills map 1941

Map from here. Lots of interesting stuff on that page about social history and ethnic diversity in North Queensland.

And in this next map, you can see how the reef is situated off the sugar cane coast:

great barrier reef basin map

Photo from here.

According to John, the run-off (mainly fertiliser and pesticide) from cane farming in the catchment area is a major source of reef degradation. In this photo, you can see how the big rains of Queensland can flush those chemicals out of the farm, into the creeks and out to sea:

big rains run off cane farm

This photo comes from Ecos Magazine. The article it accompanies, written in 2011, also outlines some of the positive steps that have been taken by farmers to reduce these problems.

And so this is the theory: applying Yeomans Keyline practices to sugar farming would build up the soil so it’d hold more water, reducing run-off significantly. The soil would also be richer in organic materials, thus needing less fertiliser to grow a crop in the first place.

From all the work we’ve done on Yeomans, and from our visits to farms, this all makes sense. But doing it on two thousand kilometers of farms? And in Queensland? This was just about the craziest idea I’d ever heard.

Impossible. Imagine all the stakeholders – landowners, local councils, industry groups, processing mills. How could you ever convince everyone to agree to this? In this sense, the problem isn’t agricultural, it’s cultural. John Sweet is either a lunatic or a visionary. Naturally, we said yes.

And that’s how it is that I’m on the outskirts of Mackay right now, sitting in the humidity in my boxer shorts, brushing away small flying kamikaze beetles, writing this blog post.

Posted in Farming, Sustainable agriculture, Yeomans | 6 Responses

A heritage vision for sustainable housing goes to ICAC

yobarnie aerial photo

I recently wrote an article for The Conversation about the controversial plans to redevelop PA Yeomans’ historic Yobarnie, in North Richmond. We’ve previously discussed the attempts to get Yobarnie heritage listed in this blog.

It has emerged via the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) that the approval for the housing development was granted following an $18,000 donation to Bart Bassett, former Hawkesbury Councillor and state MP for Londonderry.

You can read my article on the matter over here.

Posted in Politics, Town Planning | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Field Trip to Oaks Organics


Come with us on a day-long field-trip to a working Yeomans Keyline farm at The Oaks near Camden
9.30am – 4pm Sunday 4 May 2014
Meet at National Art School front entrance Forbes Street Darlinghurst

Bookings essential as places are limited, cost $40 per person.

Click here to book tickets online

Early booking recommended as past tours have been booked out quickly.

PA Yeomans regarded the promotion of his Keyline principles as an essential part of his farming practice. His weekend tours of his property Yobarnie at North Richmond would occasionally turn into field trips lasting several days during which he would offer lessons on sustainable farming and social infrastructure.

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Following this tradition, join artists Lucas Ihlein and Ian Milliss, and members of PA Yeomans family in a day-long field trip to Oaks Organics for a chance to discuss Yeomans’ ideas and see a Keyline farm which still operates on his original principles.

Oaks Organics is run by Peter and Julie Clinch and the farm was redesigned as a Keyline Farm by Peter’s father in the 1960s. He was inspired by one of PA Yeomans field days at his original farm Yobarnie at North Richmond.


We will explore not just this farm and Yeomans’ farm design principles and their implications for a sustainable agricultural future but also discuss why Yeomans’ approach to problem solving can be seen as a model for understanding cultural change and the radical re-interpretation of the role of the artist.

The bus leaves from the National Art School at 9.30am and will return around 4:30pm.

BYO picnic lunch, thermos and picnic blanket and suitable clothes and boots for hiking around a farm.

Posted in Art, Farming, History, Permaculture, Sustainable agriculture, Yeomans | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Responses

Field Trip to Yobarnie

This set of photos were sent by Caren Florance following our Field Trip to Yobarnie in January 2014.

The following is an excerpt from an email sent to us by Naomi Parry, who also came along on the Field Trip, and who offered an acknowledgement of country on behalf of our group while we had lunch at Navua Reserve/Yarramundi:

It was a great privilege to be taken around by Ian and Lucas on the Yeomans Project bus in late January and to see the shapes Yeoman cut into his properties. For lunch we stopped at Navua Reserve, on the side of the Grose River. When I looked at the day’s itinerary the destination meant little to me, but when I saw the river I realised I knew this place, but by a different name.

To me this place is Yarramundi, a favourite summer destination for people from Richmond, Penrith and the Blue Mountains. It’s a bit scarred at the moment as it’s had a lot of water flowing through it, but it’s a beautiful soft place, of riverstones and clear water.

The name Yarramundi, which really belongs to the locality, is in honour of a man of the Boorooberongal Clan of the Dharug. Europeans referred to him as Chief of the Richmond Tribes, but he was a doctor, or wise man. Sometimes he is called Yellomundee, as he is in Watkin Tench’s 1793 Complete Account of the Settlement of Port Jackson. Tench tells us that Yarramundi and his father Gomberee, another wise man, met with Governor Arthur Phillip on 14 April, 1791, just three years after the settlement began at Sydney Cove.

Almost exactly two hundred years to the day before our visit, on 28 December 1814, Yarramundi met with another Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, and handed over his nine-year old daughter, Maria, to the care of the Native Institution, then at Parramatta. It is through her that I know the history of this place, as I wrote her story in 2005 for the ‘Missing Persons’ supplement to the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Maria was remarkable for her ability to navigate white society without eschewing her familial bonds or her Aboriginality. In 1819 The Sydney Gazette reported that an Aboriginal girl of 14, thought to be Maria, had won first prize in an anniversary examination, ahead of 20 other pupils from the Native Institution and 100 white pupils. In 1822 she had married Dicky, the son of Bennelong, but he sickened and died the following year. By then she was living at the new Native Institution site at Blacktown and in 1824 met and married a white convict carpenter, Robert Lock. As a convict he was assigned to her: an inversion of traditional patriarchal and racial relations.

In 1831 she did something no Aboriginal person had ever done. She petitioned Governor Darling for land that had been granted to her late brother Colebee, which was sited next to the Native Institution. Colebee had received the land as a reward for working with Nurragingy on an ultimately abortive mission, tracking Aborigines with Macquarie’s men, in 1816. Maria now claimed it, citing her relationship to Colebee, as a daughter of Yarramundi. She received a grant at Liverpool where she was living but she was resolute on the Blacktown land and was finally able to claim it in 1843. It was, in many respects, the first native title claim in Australian history.

Maria and Robert lived well and long and had nine children. The land at Blacktown was lost to the extended family in the 1920s, but some of it and the Native Institution site remains contested. Their legacy, and Yarramundi’s, is in the family they created: up to 7,000 descendants, many of whom still have links with Greater Western Sydney, and identify as Dharug. The Deerubbbin Land Council are active in managing sites like Navua Reserve, and the rivers of the area.

It was a happy and beautiful accident that Ian and Lucas picked Navua Reserve for lunch. It is a fine place to think about land, and how the sense of it, and relationships, run through time.

Posted in Farming, History, Politics | Leave a comment

Videos in the Yeomans Project exhibition

yeomans project exhibition photo by louise anderson

In the above photo, you can see the “Yobarnie Map Wall” at the Yeomans Project exhibition at AGNSW.

There are four digital video screens hung on the wall, amongst a range of photographs taken from PA Yeomans’ books. None of the videos was made by us.

From left to right, these are the videos used in the show:

This is a short clip of “gopro” footage of a Yeomans Keyline Plow in action. It was made by Mark Russell & Nate Mitchell from Adventure Artists, and uploaded by Darren Doherty. I really love how the plow carves up the soil effortlessly, and the lovely metallic sound of it slicing through the turf.

Darren features in the next video as well, which is a kind of pegagogical doco in 5 parts called “Keyline Design at the Beach”. Even though the video is “rough and ready”, I found it gives one of the most tangible explanations of the way that Keyline design works that I’ve come across (compared to say, diagrams in books). The video was made by Jill Clautier and Carol Hirashima from Sustainable World Media:

Next along the wall was a video which directly related to the big maps of Yobarnie. It is called “Yeomans Property Threat from Development – Part 1” and it was made by Gary Caganoff of Lysis Films. The film was made back in 2009, when bits of the iconic Yobarnie began to be sold off for housing developments and a retirement village:

Sadly, much of the battle to save Yobarnie from this banal fate has been lost by now, but there is still a substantial portion that hasn’t yet been built over. We explored these issues on our recent Field Trip to North Richmond, where we met and were introduced to the complex tangle of real estate versus heritage by some of the members of the North Richmond and Districts Community Action Association, NRDCAA.

The final video at the right hand side of the wall was from 1955. It was a “Rural Bank” sponsored film which puts forward PA Yeomans as a heroic man of the land with ideas to save Australia from the drought. It’s a ripper (thanks to the archiving work of Geoffrey Booth for keeping this one alive):

There were a few more videos that we would have liked to include in the show, but we didn’t because they belong to the ABC, which would have charged us upwards of sixty dollars a minute. The strange thing about this is that both of these ABC clips are already freely available on the internet! Go figure.

The ABC videos, which are really quite good, are these:

“Keyline in the Kiewa Valley”:

and a clip from the 7:30 Report which discusses the Yobarnie property development issue:

Here’s a direct link to the TV programme.

Posted in History, Politics, Yeomans | 5 Responses

Finally after so many years

The Art Gallery of NSW exhibition has finally happened after so many years and by all accounts has been a great success. One of the things that has made us most proud is that most of Yeomans direct family saw it and all seem to have really enjoyed it – in fact the last talk by Wendy Yeomans turned into an impromptu family reunion.

So we are now already planning the next exhibition, different to this, an exploration of the way that Keyline farming principles could be used in yet another unexpectedly creative way, this time to save the Great Barrier Reef. But first here is a gallery of photos of the exhibition that our brilliant assistant Louise Anderson took on the last day of the exhibition, and some more from the bus tour a few days earlier.

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(all photos © Louise Anderson)

Posted in Art, Farming, History, Sustainable agriculture, Yeomans | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Response

Yeomans Project on the Radio

eastside radio logo_blk

On Monday 13 January, I spent an hour with Leah Haynes of Eastside Radio discussing the Yeomans Project, and listening to some farming songs I’d brought along with me.

You can listen to the podcast of the show here:

Posted in Art, Sustainable agriculture, Yeomans | 1 Response

Art Life Chooks

When I first met Annette Hughes many years ago she was an art dealer. She has remade herself several times since then – literary agent, author, musician, farmer. But what I hadn’t realised until recently is that she had become an avid permaculturist. 


In 2004 I made the difficult decision to leave the city and move with my partner to his family’s farm where I hoped to find the time to make my own art after a lifetime of being the handmaiden to others. Writing, like any art, takes time. It is a laborious, solitary practice. The first book to emerge was a memoir entitled Art Life Chooks published by Harper Collins 4th Estate.

In the book I use painting as a metaphor for my practice – ‘the work’ of art. I think the real work of the artist is perception. The expression of that perception in whatever form the artist chooses to make is the prism through which the perception is transmitted to an other. I thought I wanted to be a painter when I was young which led me to art school. I have since found that all the arts have equal potential. I am currently working in music and planting my 10th Summer crop. Both require the same devotion to practice.

Annette Hughes

What follows is a series of excerpts from chapter one of Art Life Chooks.
Read More »

Posted in Art, Farming, Permaculture, Sustainable agriculture | Tagged , | 1 Response

The Yeomans Project Newspaper

The following is a post by Louise Kate Anderson, who has worked tirelessly behind the scenes, supporting Ian and me, making The Yeomans Project possible. Louise works with me at Big Fag Press, and is a young artist, designer and arts manager.

In this post, purloined from her own blog, Louise discusses the process of designing and managing the printing of the Yeomans Project Newspaper, which is available for free at the AGNSW exhibition. Louise also produced the “website screenshot” digital prints of Milkwood, f(route), Diego Bonetto and Artist as Family which are featured in the show.

Louise Anderson at the Big Fag Press

Louise Kate Anderson at the Big Fag Press

In 2011, I started working on printing a series of works by Lucas Ihlein and Ian Milliss for the Yeomans Project on the Big Fag Press which was to be exhibited at ACCA in Melbourne. You can see I wrote a post about it in my blog here. The prints went on to win the 2012 Fremantle Arts Centre Print Award.
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Posted in Art, Yeomans | 3 Responses

Permaculture in the Practice

When I first argued in the early 1970s that PA Yeomans could be regarded as an artist it was treated as an absurd proposition yet we now find many artists who use farming, food production and permaculture (developed from Yeomans work) as part of their practice, as just some of the many media available to them. Several artists are featured in the AGNSW exhibition while others will  be seen here in the blog over coming weeks. First is Rhonda Ayliffe, an artist and farmer from Cobargo, NSW.

Rhonda Ayliffe – one sunflower with repaired/ replaced petal and some bees

Rhonda Ayliffe – one sunflower with repaired/ replaced petal and some bees

Can permaculture be used as the philosophical foundation of an arts practice? This was a question I posed in my Higher Degree research project ‘codex infinitum – the infinite book’ that ostensibly investigated the future of books and knowledge in a digital world but incorporated permaculture ethics and principles to guide my studio operations. Permaculture has been used in organic horticulture, small and larger scale agriculture, in relocalisation movements such as Transition Towns, and by individuals seeking more sustainable and ecologically responsible lifestyles. What could permaculture offer to an individual art practice and what changes would the adoption of permaculture’s ethics and principles cause to art making became key questions I wanted to address within my research. My essay Permaculture in the practice is an informal account in part drawing on my MFA exegesis.

I was born, raised and remain in a small community on the far south coast of NSW. Generations of my family have occupied this same small territory, a tight 10km radius around the tiny township of Cobargo; traditional country of the Yuin people. For the past 25 years I’ve lived on my family’s 360 acre beef property at Sams Creek. I married the neighboring dairy farmer and his 800 acres, and inadvertently have found myself a custodian of a significant swathe of farmland nestled at the outer foothills of Gulaga, the mother mountain. The combined farms are bordered to the west by the Kooraban National Park, with its small and highly vulnerable yet genetically significant koala population, and they encompasses Sams Creek, a small waterway that eventually empties to the east into Wallaga Lake, Batemans Marine Park. The farms feature varied productive pasturelands, remnant temperate rainforest, woodland and indigenous grass species, vital bird and marsupial habitats and wildlife corridors. The combined farming properties are of cultural, historical, economic and environmental importance.
Read More »

Posted in Art, Farming, Permaculture, Sustainable agriculture, Yeomans | Tagged | Leave a comment
  • This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.

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