Reviving the Heartland

Agriculture, Australia, Culture

Stephanie Saal

“At eventime, the shadow,
Of one great giant lies,
Across a pleasant homestead,
That sits upon the rise.”

Australia has an agricultural problem. It’s not a problem that is based simply on economics or ethics or politics – it’s a cultural issue that encompasses all influences and elements of Australian society. It is an issue that has caused a formerly strong and stable industry to be exploited and mocked by leaders and workers alike, leaving farmers and regional workers exposed.

It’s a problem that has caused a variety of incidents to surface in the past year; the industry has been wracked by climate change, national food scares such as needles in strawberries, and the exploitation of crucial environmental systems such as the Murray-Darling Basin.

Unfortunately, and fortunately for Australia, our country is big. You can fit Britain into Australia 59 times and still have room left over. It’s a blessing to live in such a large nation with such beautiful natural resources, but it’s also a curse for our ever-growing population centres that sit at the edge of the Australian coastlines, far from the farmers who work miles inland in the heat and the rain and the dirt. Due to its size, farming is often overlooked in the typical ochre Aussie style of ‘she’ll be right mate’. We see news of 500,000 dead cattle in the Townsville droughts and send some thoughts and prayers. We hear about the news of needles in strawberries and begin to throw away perfectly good growth on the back of trucks. When the long lasting drought became newsworthy, only then did we think to financially support our farmers.

These issues are complex, and were caused by complex problems. And the solutions will be complex, with rigorous debate, research and trial before we even begin to reform the industry. But just as a farmer sows seeds of fruit, this article will attempt to sow seeds of change.

The Problem

“The monarch hills above it,
Are crowned by sombre trees,
That billow to the skyline,
Like dark, Titanic seas.”

The hurdles facing the agricultural industry are intrinsically cultural, but we can attempt to define them according to three separate categories: first, the exploitation of the natural environment and other species; the gap between settler culture and Indigenous cultures within farming communities; and lack of concern for native flora and fauna.

These problems are arising from multiple factors, including a lack of serious policy formulation and vision for the farming industry. As said before, there is no simple definition that could be condensed to 1000 words. But by highlighting these issues, we can begin to envision an industry that is supported by urban development and modernisation, instead of resisting them.

Cultivators, Not Conquerors

“Here came – to wage with Nature,
the old uncertain strife –
A stalwart, young selector –
and his newly-wedded wife.”

The natural evolutionary response to oppression is rebellion.

When settlers first arrived in this country, they gazed out at the forests and the fields like conquerors. They took what they wanted for themselves and carved up the land regardless of Indigenous ownership or knowledge. But this was not sustainable. The land fought back through drought and fire and regrowth, causing the farmers to work obstinately to produce food. There were many accounts of starvation during the first years of settlement – farms were not equipped with the knowledge or tools to handle the land. And yet, with a tenacious spirit, the settlers continued to farm the land only how they knew – instead of adopting the Indigenous farming techniques of the First People.

Because of this, the agricultural industry is largely built on Indo-European methods of cultivation. On a deep-rooted level the cultural ‘image’ of the Australian farmer is thus one that depicts the white male taking to the land, carving it in his likeness, taming the wild Australian outback. This image is accompanied by a depiction of the Australian farmer as a man possessing a fierce, unrigid work ethic, matched by a ‘larrikin’ disposition. This cultural image has been normalised and perpetuated through poem, song and book for centuries. It is why today when we see farmers on our television screens the images are of cracked, dry, middle aged men in overalls and dirty shirts, wiping their brows with sweat as they stare out across endless plains and fields. It is fundamentally a misconception of the Australian farmer.

If Australia wishes to reform the Australian agricultural industry, it must first reform the branding and image of the Australian farmer. To achieve this Australia must begin paving the path towards Indigenous agrodiversity and separate itself from its settler roots. Australia must separate itself from a past in which our ancestors rejected the wisdom of Indigenous men and women. We should be working with the First Nation people and relying on their knowledge and their talents to redevelop the land; and above all we should be willing to work with, not against, the raging nature of the Australian outback.

Europeans historically have constructed false narratives surrounding the Indigenous people, portraying them as nomadic hunter-gatherers that killed fauna when they needed to. But this is hardly the reality, and merely served European colonial propaganda efforts.

Tribes such as the Kuku-Yalanji performed their own process of farming now known as polyculture. The tribesmen would sow species of yam, ngardu, bush tomatoes and kangaroo grass with broadcast seeding [freely planting seeds without patterns to allow plants to grow together]. The natural plants grew together and complemented one another in a flourishing, cultivated ecosystem, and withstood the dry and wet seasons appropriately. In the 21stcentury, polyculture would be a welcoming sight for farmers. No longer would they need to fight the land for resources – the food would grow naturally because it has evolved to flourish in these climates. Further, polyculture does not rely on human intervention, therefore harmful pesticides and fertilizers would not be needed. Other negative impacts of agriculture, such as tillage [soil displacement] and biodiversity control would provide essential microbes and bacteria in the soil to strengthen nutrient intake. Additionally, polyculture systems embrace biodiversity of food. Only 70 plant species are estimated to be responsible for the majority of the world’s food intake (Altieri, 1999). In the face of biosecurity scares a polycultural system would introduce hundreds of potential new foods to the market, allowing us to have greater, safer choices for food consumerism. Indigenous tribes regularly cultivated native yams, riberrys, finger-limes, kutjera seeds, warregal greens, and quandongs, while intricately working to redirect riverways in order to trap eels and yabbies for catch. In the hot months of December to April, Indigenous tribes would sow fields of kangaroo grass to make their own form of wheat and feed, then burn the remaining reeds down so that it allowed new vegetation to grow through for kangaroo herding. They even knew how to dry lemon myrtle into a powder and rub it into the flesh of fish, giving it an acidic taste. They knew how to cultivate the land but respected it enough to not conquer it.

Where to from here?

And courage on his face is,
And love is in her eyes –
Some city folk might envy,
The dwellers on the rise.

Much like the settlers that stepped forward and cultivated the land with courage and pluck, we now must reform our farming industry with fearless and innovative imagination.

We must address the issues climate change will have on our farming ecosystems in this country. We must begin to re-develop our farming procedures from Indo-European practices to Indigenous agroindustry. We must begin to prioritise a subsistence economy that respects the environment rather than tramples it. And above all, we must begin to close the divide between urban populations and regional centres. It’s not going to happen overnight, and not everyone will be positive towards it. But a harvest doesn’t happen when the fields are full – a harvest occurs once the hard work is done and the crops have weathered the storms of the season. All we have to do is be diligent and be ready for change.

One thought on “Reviving the Heartland

  1. A well written article with more than hint of the outer & inner edges of the ‘Dream Time’ and in my view that’s a good thing. The ideas as raised might appeal to some but I would think the greatest obstacle would be the rural community & farmers themselves who are almost narcissistic self believers, very conservative and extremely resistant to change. Additionally, most of the ethnic Australians although having come from an ancient culture have not been known for keeping records of all things agricultural. It follows that many around (Caboolture) ie the Gubbi Tribe who nowadays live in urban or semi urban environments may have some knowledge ‘Handed Down’ by Word of Mouth’ they would have scant knowledge of the cultural experience of their race over 50,000 years. To take up your ideas in ‘Real Time the aboriginal people I know would need to relearn & come to believe in those elemental of ‘Natural Farming’ that until you opened the door of cultural history were still locked in the past. Whilst most of them show & support reverence of their cultural history I suggest that in respect to the matters you have raised, a starting point should be to determine whether or not our aboriginal people would give real support to a return to ‘Traditional Indigenous Agro Industry Farming’. On the types of natural vegetative foods that were historically harvested by the first Australians please note the fact that the Moreton Bay Region was a traditional source of Macadania & Bunya nuts which are native to this area. Traditionally, aborigines came to this region from as far away as the Northern Rivers of NSW annually to feast on the aforementioned nuts in the Bunya Mountains. It is also of note that the remnants of native fish traps and mindens composed of oyster shells still exist at Sandstone Point, Pumicestone Passage near the Bribie Bridge. Caboolture by the way is an aboriginal word for ‘Carpet Snake’.

    The ideas you have put forward should stimulate much debate and that in itself is good for Community Health. Well done Stephanie!


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