Rod's first reaction was joy tempered by stunned disbelief that I would so enthusiastically embrace the idea of farming as intensively as the Joel Salatin model requires. When we compared our impressions of the day, we realized that we had both been inspired by the thought of creating a sustainable and ethical enterprise on our little farm. Joel had stressed that both partners needed to have the same goals and be in it together for the operation to be successful and thrive. Together we would make it work.
Initially, I had considered Ayton to be Rod's domain, but the more time I spent there, the more engaged I became.This process evolved slowly and was given impetus when Rod broke his ankle as his horse fell on him during a game of polocrosse. This severely hampered his ability to do farm work, so I stepped in to do more physical work, which I discovered I really enjoyed.
I spent more time interacting with and observing our small herd of Braham cows (sometimes from our little balcony with champagne in hand) and became intrigued by their social structures and patterns of behaviour. There were the bossy, bullying cows and the quiet, nervous ones; the calm mothers and the first time mothers who kept a very wary eye on humans if they ventured too near; the protective circle of the crèche supervised by a few cows while the rest of the mums happily grazed at some distance.
When we moved our cows into a new paddock, we simply called, “come on cows” and they obediently followed us onto the fresh pasture.
In Spring, when Fancy, our Charolais bull’s thoughts turned to love, the ‘chosen’ cow swooned over him for a few days and no lover could have been more attentive to his lady than our Fancy. When the deed was done, they took no further interest in each other. They both moved on without regret and the mating ritual started all over again for Fancy. No tears, no jealousy and 9 months later –a beautiful calf.
In 2015, after our Joel Salatin workshop, my enthusiasm was driven by a type of ignorant bliss where I envisaged us leading an idyllic life on Ayton, producing great quality food which I would concoct for family and friends. In my dream, customers would instantly recognise the superior provenance of our produce and clamour to support us. I often reflect that I’m pleased I didn’t know what was ahead for us because I’m not sure that I would have agreed to such a dramatic lifestyle change. By the time I woke up to the reality that the dream walked hand in hand with, at times, sheer hard grind and what seemed to be overwhelming challenges, we had committed ourselves and our finances and there was no way we were backing down from our decision. Now, almost 12 months later, I have no regrets.
During my uneventful and wholly ordinary childhood in Townsville, North Queensland, there were 2 things that did not feature at all on my horizon-turning 60 and becoming a farmer.
These events are now at the forefront of my life and both of them have had a profound effect on me.
It is difficult to pinpoint when my life started on this course. Obviously my birth in 1954 was the starting point to 60 and, as time moves inexorably, I was always going to celebrate my 60th if I lived long enough. What I didn’t bargain for was the effect turning 60 had on me. Suddenly, I recognised that life really was finite and my mortality became more real to me. I had now lived a greater percentage of my life than that which was left to me.
Farming certainly didn’t feature at all on my list of career ambitions. Neither did teaching. I discovered that I loved teaching, even though I quite happily gave it away for motherhood- which was another ambition which I didn’t really aspire to either! I am not one of the lucky ones who knew exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up. I am not a great planner and tend to just go with the flow (even though I am not really a relaxed person). Then I met someone who knew exactly where he was going and formulated 5 year plans to get him there. How could I not fall in love!
Farming was not Rod’s career ambition when I met him. Although he grew up in western Qld on a sheep station and pined for the family property when he was incarcerated at school, he was studying accounting and all his ambition was directed at a career in commerce. Eventually, he developed his own very successful accounting practice and as far as I was concerned he was ensconsed in the city, with his city bred wife and children.
Our lives had developed into a pattern where we worked and lived in the city and looked forward to family holidays in the bush with our 3 sons who loved the freedom and excitement of their uncles’ properties. Rod was aware that many of the lifestyle qualities that he most desired had disappeared from the bush that he remembered.
We had a contented life in Brisbane with family, good friends, the best of the bush with regular holidays and a proximity to beaches to satisfy my love for the water.
I thought we had resolved the bush dilemma when Rod took up polocrosse which dealt with a substantial mid life crisis and his deep love of horses. I acknowledged that Rod felt that he was a square peg in a round hole and disliked what he describes as ‘the concrete termite’s nest’ of city living.
Then, in the early 2000s, we lost 3 very close family members at the same time of the year 3 years in a row. Since then a significant number of our very large –and very closely knit- family have suffered significant health problems as have a number of our close friends. During a routine colonoscopy, it was discovered that I had an abnormally high number of potentially cancer causing polyps. These events caused us to reconsider our diet and lifestyle. It was also during this time we were introduced to the grain free life style which I initially resisted. However, it would not be an exaggeration to say that it has transformed my life.
In 2007, during a discussion on factors that influence our physical health and mental wellbeing, a health professional, who was also a good friend, mentioned the importance of having a ‘freedom space’ to escape to. When he asked Rod “where is your freedom space?” the answer came immediately (and I also could have answered for him) - “the bush”.
Two weeks later we had found his freedom space-200 acres near Rathdowney with very small, very neglected cottage, no fences and a very unsafe red tractor. We named the farm Ayton after the village in the Scottish Borders where Rod’s maternal relations had their roots.
Rod was in heaven!
I was very happy too, playing at being a farmer without any of the problems. We escaped for weekends to our ‘bush retreat’ and if Rod spent a lot more time down at Ayton that was fine too as it was only 11/2 hours to drive back to Brisbane. It seemed pretty cool to have a tree change and although I knew that we would move to Ayton eventually, well that was for sometime in the future and I could always drive back to Brisbane for bookclub, theatre and social events. It seemed that we could have the best of both worlds.
Then, in 2014, the future that I had spent 8 years ignoring arrived. Rod announced that he wished to withdraw from his accounting practice and farm full time. In the intervening years we had concentrated on improving our pastures using techniques advocated by Peter Andrews (Natural Sequence Farming) with the intention of regenerating our farm and producing our own food, uncontaminated by chemicals. Rod had been given a copy of Peter’s book “Back from The Brink” when we first bought Ayton. We had consulted Peter on farm and implemented many of his recommendations. We visited the Hunter Valley to see his theories in practice.
We also had a dream that our farm could potentially provide a viable pathway back to a fulfilling life on the land for the next generations of our family so that they too would have a choice to pursue farming if they wished.
Our challenge was how to bring our dreams and ambitions to life on a small farm.
The answer arrived in March 2015 at a one day workshop at Noosa -ironic that my love for the beach supplied the catalyst for moving full time to the farm -where we were present to hear the gospel according to the regenerative farming guru from America, Joel Salatin.
He strode up to the lectern, stood in front of his audience and announced “You Can farm” and so at 60 I became a farmer.