We drove home across The Nullarbor on a high of farming, found a patch 40 minutes north of Perth, and got growing!
Mel and Dec have been deep in the start-up trenches working hard to get their 30 acre leased farm enterprise off the ground. Roly Poly Farm is located in the hills of Gidgegannup, 45 minutes from the city of Perth, WA, Australia.
They have just started their first season of growing mixed vegetables for a farmers market, restaurants and weekly boxes via their community supported agriculture (CSA) model. They are also raising 150 heritage breed chicks in order to establish a pasture-laid egg enterprise (as you can see below they are pretty darn cute at the moment!).
WHAT IS THE BEST THING ABOUT WORKING IN AGRICULTURE?
Mel: Falling into bed at night in the blissful, contented and exhilarated exhaustion that comes from physically moving and pushing your body, mind and soul, from sunrise to sundown...this is the best thing about working in agriculture for me. Since I was little, I have been heavily affected by environmental and world events, and I find that farming is a way for me to direct this concern and be an activist, without losing hope.
Dec: For me, the best thing about working in agriculture is the opportunity to take part in an applied science. I get to be a biologist, a chemist, and an entomologist. I am a mechanic, a gardener, a soil scientist, and an electrician (albeit, not always a very good one!). In no other profession do you get to be so many different things, that directly relate to your passions and values.
Our metaphorical hat stand is overflowing with the many hats of two small-scale farmers...but we're loving it!
WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT WORKING IN AG?
Mel: The hardest thing about working in agriculture is the insecurity. We are dependent upon the seasons, the soil, the wind, the bugs, the insects, the airborne diseases. We are dependent upon our council, and what's more, dependent upon the individual councillors who hold so much sway at interpreting archaic legislations and zonings. We are dependent upon markets, consumer preferences, competitive forces, and our landlord. This will change, as we grow both as farmers and as a business. However, currently, this is the hardest thing for me.
Dec: The hardest thing about working in agriculture is respecting my body and it's limitations. As a farmer, you have so much to do, and it's often hard to think of yourself, and to put your body first. I get lumbered under the illusion that, just because I am doing physical work all day, I am caring for my body. When my back ricochets with pain, I remember that this is not the case at all. Look after your body. It's the most important tool on the farm.
WHAT WAS THE VERY FIRST STEP YOU TOOK ON YOUR AGRICULTURAL CAREER PATHWAY?
Dec: I stumbled into agriculture when I was trying to sort through my anxiety. I was wwoofing at meditation centers in America, and some of them also happened to practice permaculture. This ended up being the solution that I really needed. The elements of growing and tending to both land and mind resulted in a much more holistic solution than initially intended, and resulted in total life and career-change...for the better.
Mel: I grew up visiting my grandparents and relatives on their various farms, both across The Wheatbelt and in the Murchison. My sister and I would be booted out of the house after breakfast, and we would get up to all sorts of mischief, relishing in the absolute freedom that comes from living on a farm with not another soul for miles. This progressed into more manual work on another relative's property near Wagga Wagga, NSW, as well as various wwoofing stints around the world.
4 years, 6 countries, 13 volunteer gigs, 11 courses, 4 internships and 31 farm tours …
Tell us more about your learning journey.
Whilst living in Fremantle in 2015, we began to dip our city toes into all things farm and all things community. We would spend our weekends visiting farmers markets and community gardens, growing on the front verge, and Dec started milking a couple of goats that an awesome couple have on their urban permaculture block nearby. Inspired by this, we decided to take the leap.
We started with our Permaculture Design Certificate at Fair Harvest in Margaret River, and then wwoofed at a number of farms in the South-West. Later we both moved to The States to intern and volunteer on a number of farms in California, where we witnessed first-hand the viability of farming on a small scale as your primary income. We worked on various mixed-species farms, market gardens, fruit orchards and pasture egg-laying operations for a year, before continuing our learning into Central and South America.
Here, we spent a further 3 months learning about mushroom cultivation, natural building, and established agro-forestry systems, before returning to The States to embark on a whirlwind tour of a number of world-renowned regenerative farms across the country.
Coming home, we were lucky enough to be accepted for internships by Jonai Farms in the central highlands of Victoria and Old Mill Road Bio Farm on the NSW South Coast, where we learnt both how to farm and how to live. The Jonai taught us about ethical animal husbandry, on-farm butchery and charcuterie, and how to relish in all that an agrarian lifestyle can give you. At Old Mill, we learnt the ins and outs of small-scale regenerative vegetable farming, the importance of building a vibrant and supportive community, as well as the confidence to plan and develop a solid economic understanding of your farm as a business.
We drove home across The Nullabor on a high of farming, found a patch 40 minutes north of Perth, and got growing!
WHAT ARE THE TOP 3 AGRICULTURAL LEARNING EXPERIENCES YOU HAVE HAD?
- Tree grafting in Guatemala
- Visiting White Oak Pastures in Georgia, USA, and seeing a fully operational and vibrant farm, that is truly utilising their waste streams, whilst also creating a positive work environment for their employees and town.
- Pasture 42 in California, and being given responsibility for the care of thousands of animals in a mixed-livestock enterprise
- Books! The learning that can take place in a good farming/agriculture/food politics book is invaluable.
- The combined practical experience of all of the farms we have worked on, visited, and stayed at.
- Instagram. There is an amazing small-scale farmer community on Instagram. As one of our mentors once told us, "Get on the 'gram...now!".
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE STARTING OUT IN AGRICULTURE?
Read endlessly. Question everything. Ask as many questions of other farmers as you can. Repeat. Context, practice and critical thinking are the most important things a farmer can have. And don't forget to maintain your whole you!
What are you most excited about for the future of ag?
We're excited to see a re-localised food system, and all of the ramifications that come from that. Healthy soil, healthy air, healthy people and healthy farmers. Perth is currently quite sparse in small-scale regenerative farms. There are a few of us rattling around, but we need more! Having enough people and farmers who share the same visions and goals and practices, is one of the things we look forward to the most. Vast networks of people who are open, transparent, and are learning and growing with each other. And community. So much community.