Clockwise from top left: Whole farm view; Millpost merino wool; David, Judith and the extended family; David and his granddaughter examining the wool. photos by Judith Turley and David Watson
In the hills east of Canberra, down a dusty lane that winds up past the Lake George escarpment through Yellow Box Woodland (full of finches, thornbills, cuckoo- shrikes, kookaburras and robins), there is a rusty old gate with a stencilled sign that says ‘Millpost’.
Millpost was windswept and degraded when David first arrived in 1979. Since then, we’ve planted or direct-seeded approximately 15 kilometres of native windbreaks using eucalyptus, acacia, bursaria, callistemon and casuarinas.
Sheep are excluded from about 100 hectares, including riparian zones, to allow natural regeneration. Stock and wildlife alike benefit from shade and shelter in every paddock. Big increases in bird populations (135 species) mean improved natural pest control. But it’s not all good news: the resulting increase in kangaroo numbers threatens our viability.
Deciduous trees such as poplar, willow, oak, ash, honey locust and black locust are planted strategically to provide fire protection for the homestead complex, as well as stock fodder, shade and food (fruit and nuts). If they sucker, all the better! Both native and exotic trees are harvested for timber (building and fence posts) and firewood (heating and cooking).
By harvesting water from shed roofs uphill from dwellings, we use the permaculture strategy of storing water at the highest possible point and using gravity to move it, rather than relying on pumps. We also place dams as high as possible in the landscape to enable gravity-feeding of water for stock or gardens.
David Holmgren created a Whole Farm Plan for us in 1994. We are gradually implementing the design, moving from eight large paddocks back in the 1970s to about 60 today, which we subdivide further with portable electric fencing. The new paddocks allow us to spell over 90% of the farm at any one time and to keep the sheep out of wet areas when necessary.
Back in January 1980, David and I attended the first-ever PDC at Stanley, Tasmania with Bill Mollison. The insights we gained have guided our decision-making ever since. Minimising food miles, creating stability through diversity, turning problems into assets, zero waste, small-scale and local solutions— these have been our bywords.
Sheep In Permaculture
Our latest venture is Millpost Merino knitting yarn. Merino wool is the finest, softest wool in the world as a result of centuries of careful breeding programs. Merino sheep can withstand climatic extremes and still produce this robust yet soft multi-functional fibre for making clothing that can last a lifetime.
We are taking the stewardship approach to our wool enterprise by protecting and enhancing the endangered temperate native grasslands that make up much of the 1100 hectares of Millpost farm. Sheep are a regenerative tool, as they graze pasture hard for short periods then move on to a fresh paddock, allowing grasslands enough time to recover between grazing events. Depending on seasonal conditions, paddocks may be grazed briefly only two or three times per year.
We are starting small, with only the very best of our fine wool clip (three bales) being processed for yarn.
Survival In Tough Times
Bill Mollison told us the difference between conventional farmers and permaculturists was that the former looked at the land and asked, ‘how can this land be made to produce dollars?’ Whereas the latter asked, ‘what does nature offer?’
Our main challenge has been making a living from a relatively infertile farm, especially in frequent severe droughts. Yet our native pastures (which make up more than 50% of the farm) are botanically diverse and yield well even in drought.
Our permaculture system allowed us to survive low wool prices and other adversities, because producing our own food (vegies, fruit, meat, eggs and dairy produce) has lowered our cost of living.
Today’s challenge is to provide a livelihood here for our children and their families. We have already diversified in some small ways. For example, our middle son, Roy, has taken over the commercial garlic enterprise we started two decades ago. The rest of the family is involved with Millpost Merino knitting yarn. There are some other diversification projects on the drawing board.
Finding a fair solution to farm succession is a big challenge when more than one child aspires to a career on the land. One way of accomplishing a generational transfer that we’re discussing is a Family Trust. Our children would be beneficiaries but not own the land individually. Under this arrangement, all family members would receive an income according to their contribution.
The heritage of our farm is long, complex and rich. As custodians of it for 39 years, our family has endeavoured to preserve and enrich this landscape, while earning enough from the land to enjoy the privilege of maintaining stewardship.
To find out more, see David’s new book; Millpost: A Broadscale Permaculture Farm Since 1979, (self published 2018), www.millpostmerino.com.au