Clockwise from top right: Mandy with one of the chickens. Sarah with her cow. (L-R) Sarah, Mandy, Graham, Brohdan, Heath and Huon. Heath with the well loved pigs. Photos by Robyn Rosenfeldt
Symphony Farm, at Tilba on the far south coast of New South Wales, is an integrated beef, pork, chicken and egg farm, run by Mandy and Graham Thompson with their five children, Brohdan, Denham, Huon, Heath and Sarah.
Mandy and Graham were raised on farms, and realised early on that conventional farming practices are not what people, animals or the planet need. Mandy’s father was inclined towards natural farming practices on the family’s diverse thirteen acres, and it was here that Mandy learned the benefits of recycling systems, compost and closed loops: ‘everything was balanced and healthy’, she says.
Graham was also introduced to the benefits of natural farming practices, for the health of people and the land, at an early age. Working on conventional farms as a teen forced him to question if there wasn’t a better way to grow food. Now he follows his instincts when dealing with problems on the farm, and farms without chemicals.
The Thompsons’ method of farming is inspired and informed by a deep love and respect for the land: in tune with the cycles and systems of nature; focused on regenerating the earth. The family’s joy and passion for what they do is evident. They are also committed to creating and sustaining local food security, and only sell their products directly to the community at two local markets.
The family has been fundamental to the survival of the Bega Small Species Abattoir, which was on the brink of closing when the Thompsons stepped in. The abattoir allows them to take responsibility for the slaughter of their meat birds, and contributes to the holistic nature of the family’s farm, with all family members involved in transport, processing and packaging.
The integrated, pasture-based system at Symphony Farm is inspired by Joel Salatin’s vertically integrated farming methods, and Alan Savory’s holistic management strategies. The Thompsons understand the importance of healthy soil and manage their animals to promote diversity and health both above and below ground.
The animals are moved frequently to fresh pasture, with the chickens following the cattle as a natural method of parasite and pest control. The carefully managed movement of animals allows the pasture to be fertilised and cropped, but never overgrazed. The benefits are clear: healthy, vigorous pasture and animals.
They also milk three dairy cows to supply the family with milk, butter, yoghurt and ice-cream, and feed ‘clabbered’ milk to their meat chickens, providing essential protein and reducing the amount of feed that needs to be imported.
The desire to reduce financial and environmental costs has driven the Thompsons to let go of their organic certification, which they held for twentyfive years. This was a massive step, not taken lightly. They became uncomfortable with the requirement to import grain, and wondered how an organic system could be so unsustainable. They also worry about the growing corporatisation of the organics industry, and feel that certification didn’t meet many of the other values they hold, such as creating truly local, sustainable food production systems: ‘We want our system to be self-reliant, not dependent on transporting inputs from far away’, says Mandy. They are working to develop a diet for their animals that is sourced from as close to the farm as possible, and are exploring local inputs such as algae, tree lucerne and azolla.
The Thompson family’s thirst for knowledge is fed by the writings of various people such as: Joel Salatin, who they consider to be in tune with their own beliefs ; Andre Voisin, a forward thinker; Allan Yeomans; and Martin Stapper. But it’s their shared passion for the earth, and bouncing ideas off each other, that they find most exciting and rewarding. Mandy laughs that there’s no ‘chickens grazing on pasture in Tilba’ handbook that she can lay her hands on, so a lot of what they do is experimental, informed by their own experiences and instinct, and a respectful and vigorous collaboration of ideas within the family.
The Thompsons are close, and share their passion for the farm. All of the children are dedicated to making the farm into a sustainable enterprise, and they are determined to stay on the land. Graham puts his children’s passion for the land down to the pleasure they derive from the improvements they see, and also the freedom of their lifestyle. Mandy says the children appreciate life on the land, and understand that the space and freedom they enjoy is a privilege, which is why they all work so hard.
Despite their efforts, Mandy feels that the power to change unhealthy food systems lies with consumers who ‘should not accept that there are twenty companies controlling eighty per cent of the world’s food supply – there’s no security in that – people should demand alternative systems’.
You can find Symphony Farm at Tilba markets 8-12pm Saturdays (except for last Saturday of the month and at Sage Farmers’ market in Moruya 3-5:30pm Tuesdays. For more info visit symphonyfarm.com.au