Witty memoir about taking over the family farm takes into account Indigenous dispossession and climate change

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This article by researcher at the University of Western Australia, Dr Catie Gressier, originally appeared in The conversation on August 29, 2022.

The years have been difficult for Australian farmers. Just months after the devastation of Black Summer, the pandemic hit. Catastrophic flooding soon followed. African swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease on our doorstep pose a huge threat, as do the more mundane issues of inflation and labor shortages.

Farmers are a resilient crowd, but on top of all that, they feel under attack. Cattle have become a benchmark for climate emissions. Images of animal cruelty in intensive systems are fueling industry-wide assumptions. City dwellers play down their own complicity in indigenous dispossession by pointing the finger at farmers.

Sam Vincent’s new book is on one level a work of rural-urban translation. It makes no effort to address the negative impacts of agriculture, but adds much-needed nuance by detailing how regenerative farmers are working to reverse the destruction caused by colonial extractive agriculture.

learn to cultivate

The story arc of the book follows the estate of the family farm, located in the Yass Valley at the northern tip of the Australian Capital Territory. Divided into four parts, the book begins with Vincent’s entry into farming life, as the enthusiastic, if clumsy, farmhand of his aging father.

At first glance, the book appears as a light and comic portrait of his agricultural apprenticeship. Yet by mingling the personal and the political, Vincent provides a wealth of insight into Australian settler history, industrial agriculture and the regenerative turn.

Because the writing is clean, the humor tight, and the rural vignettes compelling, you often don’t even realize you’re schooled.

Vincent’s agricultural know-how expands throughout Part Two, “Orchardist”, in which he catalogs his foray into fig farming, alongside a warty, almost affectionate analysis of his father and neoliberalism. that he defends.

The dizzying array of fig facts will leave you craving one of those richly symbolic flowers (not fruit!) which, as a keystone species, play a key role in promoting biodiversity.

One of the funniest facts is that in hipster circles, figs have more cultural cachet than cattle. The ranching industry assumptions are hilarious in Vincent’s alternate Tinder profiles as a cattle or fig farmer (spoiler: he finds love online, but via Twitter, not Tinder).

Praise of regenerative agriculture

Filled with spicy musings on gender, class and family dynamics in rural Australia, the book’s meat and potatoes are served up in Part Three, “Grazier”. Building on his time at “grazing school” – a TAFE holistic management course – Vincent digs deeper into the principles and practices of regenerative agriculture.

After a detailed and incisive critique of the negative ecological impacts of the industrial cattle sector, Vincent pleads for regenerative approaches. “It’s not the cow, it’s the how,” he intones, emphasizing the positive role livestock can play in agro-ecosystems that maximize carbon sequestration and promote biodiversity.

His dialectical style, responding to his left-handed friends in town, makes a compelling case for him. Indeed, Vincent’s positioning, with one foot in both the agricultural and urban left, means he will likely bring both camps with him.

Settlers Account

Regenerative agriculture is integrally concerned with social justice, and Part Four, “Settler,” provides the book’s most valuable contribution.

Dave, an archaeologist friend, inspects the farm and identifies an ocher quarry of considerable cultural and historical significance. The Vincents come into contact with members of the local Ngambri, Ngunnawal and Ngunawal communities and begin a journey that takes several years to classify the site as an “indigenous place”.

Vincent seeks to inspire other farmers to let go of their fears and connect with the traditional owners of the land. He strives to convey that nothing is lost for his family in this process; they will still have access, and even grazing rights, to the site, while earning a lot.

Rather than relegating to the distant past “Australia’s founding sin, the violent theft of the land that allowed my family and our society to become wealthy”, Vincent turns to the relatively recent history of his family.

He notes the proximity of his mother’s cousin’s farm to the blatant massacre at Warrigal Creek. He remembers his grandfather describing the indigenous people living on his Murray River property in the 1940s.

Facing the past in this way, and the implications it might have for the present and the future, is uncomfortable. Vincent’s transparency about some of his less generous thoughts and his occasional uneasiness bring a rare honesty to the national conversation.

Vincent is not alone in this judgment. Farmer-led organizations such as the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance have recently launched their First Peoples First policy.

The Victorian farmers I work with pay rent to grassroots Aboriginal organizations. Others in New South Wales and Queensland have returned parts of their farms to traditional owners, who use the land in different ways to connect with the country, for ceremonies, to grow traditional foods and to tourism projects.

There is no simple solution to the dispossession and generations of pain and suffering that Australian settlers inflicted on Indigenous Australians. The land question is particularly insoluble. While many non-Indigenous Australians refuse to even adequately acknowledge the stories of genocide and displacement, a new generation of farmers are working hard to advance social and ecological reparations.

Drought and fire

In the final chapters, the drought of 2017-19 is painfully rendered. After the hard sell of regenerative agriculture, Vincent admits that in the face of such extreme conditions, there are limits to even the best land management practices.

Yet, while no rain brings respite to the land, Vincent offers readers comic relief. His fig orchards, watered sparingly for a few hours a week, became an oasis of greenery for him and his father. “We stopped for a moment,” he recalls, “me on my hips, dad lying down like a kangaroo coming here.”

These delightfully idiosyncratic imagery aside, Vincent claims that “there is no vocabulary for what happened next.” Yet he manages to powerfully evoke the harrowing fires of Black Summer: months of relentless smoke, fear and dread, animal deaths, ecosystem devastation, human tragedy.

There is a powerful immediacy here given the recent timing of the events of that terrible summer.

With the birth of her first child, the book returns to the theme of succession and ends on a hopeful note.

Vincent has already demonstrated his writing abilities through his first book, Blood and Guts, and his Walkley-winning writing in publications such as Monthly and The Saturday Paper. The brilliance of this book is its multiple layers. Readers who come for the exuberant rural romp will stay for the postcolonial politics and food system education.

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