With just enough money to pay for compost and mulch, plus a generous donation of land, Justin Hartley established the thriving and popular Duck Foot Farm: the first notill, small-scale and land-share farm in the Southern Highlands in New South Wales.
The importance of soil biology and health has become more apparent in recent times, partly perhaps spearheaded by books such as Matthew Evans’ Soil and Charles Massey’s Call of the Reed Warbler and, of course, a flourishing community of passionate permaculturalists across the globe. After centuries of using aggressive agricultural techniques that heavily cultivate land, many contemporary farmers are simplifying their farming methods by using no-till, no-dig or regenerative agriculture to inspire more environmentally friendly and sustainable farming practices. It could spell the end of depleting soil health, spraying chemicals and poisoning waterways.
WHERE IT BEGAN
With over 15 years horticultural and gardening experience, Justin Hartley fell in love with growing food while working at an organic farm. But he often found himself frustrated by the farm’s use of conventional cultivation processes.
‘When you heavily cultivate soil, you destroy soil structure and biology, all of those relationships with the plants, so the plants have a lot of deficiencies,’ he explains. It was a chance encounter that inspired him to think more deeply about the fascinating intricacies of soil biology and health.
‘One day someone visited the farm with a lupin, and he showed me the nitrogen nodules on the root. He explained that when you have the right type of bacteria in the soil, the nodules can hold the nitrogen, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s available to the plants,’ he says. ‘But, if you have a particular type of bacteria in the soil, these nodules will turn pink because they’re full of nitrogen. As you cut them down, they release the nitrogen which makes it available to the plants. I was struck by it.
‘Ever since then, I’ve been studying and looking into soil biology and the interactions that soil has with plants. It’s just mind-blowing. I haven’t been so interested in anything like this before in my life.’
Justin was motivated to find another way to farm. This led him to no-till farming (sometimes described as no-dig or regenerative agriculture), a simpler, less labour-intensive approach that also minimises weeds, pests and diseases.
‘I’d been hearing about no-till and I couldn’t work out a way to make it work when you’re farming on a larger scale with vegetables,’ he says. ‘If you’re farming 20 acres, how do you make that happen? It’s really difficult. So, I decided to focus on land management, on how to really build and preserve the soil.’
The Duck Foot Farm model is all about small-scale farming, which helps keep the workload manageable. Justin has half an acre of land in Moss Vale, and has recently established more small-scale farms in nearby Exeter (one acre) and Penrose (one acre). As Justin says, ‘I’m demonstrating that it’s possible for anyone to do it. We don’t have to rely on ‘big ag’ and individual millionaires to do farming.’ The small-scale farming model simplifies things, and promotes health and community connection. For Justin, it’s about bringing a localised food system back to the people.
‘It’s not just healthy for the land, but it’s healthy for the people who buy the produce, and for promoting healthy relationships with farmers and consumers. Farming is also a healthy lifestyle. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming, back-breaking work.’
According to Justin, small-scale farming works because it’s financially, physically and emotionally viable. He’s documenting his model and processes so he can showcase them to budding farmers.
‘This is a high turnover, too. I’m laying cardboard, building my vegetable beds with compost, creating mulch pathways, I plant the seedlings and once I’ve harvested them I can replant again.
‘I can do that all year and then top it up with compost at the end of the year. I don’t have to bring in any fertilisers, I just add some compost or worm tea.’
Justin’s wife Eriko introduced him to local landowners Ian and Sandra Oates.
‘They jumped on board straight away,’ he says. ‘They asked me to choose the paddock I would like. They trusted me, even though I felt like I had no idea what I was doing!’
It took a lot of hard work. Justin describes is as ‘a mad, tough slog. I had a wheelbarrow and stringline and went for it. I was on my own, wheelbarrowing every day, I was physically exhausted and sore. But I could see where I wanted this little farm to go.’
Since then, the farm has been getting plenty of attention, with Justin being offered more land throughout New South Wales. The donations come with lease agreements for one dollar per acre per annum, just to keep things official. Still, there’s something beautifully radical about it.
‘We’re going from people saying, “I need millions of dollars to buy land”, to being able to access an acre of land for a year for a dollar.’
Justin and his farm have almost become too popular. He’s finding a way around that by providing three-month internships to budding farmers, and then partnering them up with landowners.
‘I just want to see more small-scale farms around the place,’ he says. ‘I want to see people growing food in a healthy way that looks after the land and provides nutrient-dense food because of no-tilling and not using any chemicals.’
Land share is a mutually beneficial arrangement, especially when portions of land have been unused for years. Justin is not only growing healthy food, but regenerating and looking after the landowners’ land.
‘Their land is going from being a bare, overgrazed paddock to an oasis, and that’s always going to be theirs in the end. And they also get a family box of vegies every week, of course.’
Clockwise from top: Passion and self-belief allowed Justin Hartley to launch Duck Foot Farm; Joh Davidson is a local gardener assisting the project; Chef Veena Qureshi gains a greater connection to the food she prepares through the farm; Soil is left undisturbed and seedlings are planted into a top dressing of compost.
Weeds are a perennial concern in farming, but the no-till approach minimises them.
‘Even if you’re farming small-scale and you use a hand rotary tiller, which is the way most people farm, you end up weeding forever.’
Soil cultivation unearths a lot of weed seed, which increases spread and growth.
‘The only seeds that get in are blown in. On this halfacre farm I can get the weeding done in half an hour, once every six weeks.’
PESTS AND DISEASE
Healthy soil is the best defence against pests.
‘The healthier the soil is, the healthier your plants will be, so they’re resistant to pests and disease,’ he says, but does concede it’s impossible to eliminate all pests and disease. ‘You’d have to get your soil into some kind of ninja state to combat everything. There will always be something to deal with, but it’s certainly minimised through having healthy soil.’
For Justin and many farmers like him, it’s a neverending learning process.
‘Soil health, observation, learning about crops and pests and what they do and don’t like helps. Last year I put nets up to stop the cabbage moth, for example, but it created a perfect environment for aphids. The aphids could get through the nets, but their predators couldn’t.
‘It’s important that you’re always learning and every environment is different.’
Climatic events can also devastate farming crops, but the no-till approach strengthens resistance to severe weather.
‘We’ve had huge rain events – like nine inches of rain in a couple of days – and the farm’s intact. We’ve also had about 18 heavy frosts in the past year. The plants get frozen but as soon as the sun comes up they thaw out. That’s a sign of healthy soil. The plants have high sugar content, their cell walls are really strong, so they can protect themselves. And there’s no erosion.’
TRIAL AND ERROR
At the beginning, Justin’s enthusiasm led to lots of experimentation. ‘I planted lots of summer crops, eggplants and tomatoes, and we had the wettest, coldest summer after four years of drought and scorching heat, so I lost a lot of income.
‘I was trialling lots of crops, getting excited looking at different seed varieties, but I realised I had too many small amounts of things. Now I’ll just have one row of something, another row of something else. I’ve streamlined it to make it more manageable. There are so many plant species to learn about, and then it’s about what sells and what is valuable per square metre.’
COMMUNITY AND CONNECTION
Duck Foot Farm has grown a solid team of volunteers. This includes Justin’s friend Andrew Picker, local gardener Joh Davidson, chef and budding farmer Veena Qureshi, and his first intern Sam Hansen. They’re all learning a lot and can see a bright future. Justin’s vision is to see Duck Foot Farm become a hub for community, education and connection.
‘I want to create an environment where people are comfortable to visit. I want to do workshops and events, like with The What If Society. We will do farming, harvesting and cooking events. People will come to the farm, pick some vegies, Eilish Maloney will do a cooking demonstration, then we will all enjoy the food together.’
Duck Foot Farm is the place for inspiring and educating future farmers. ‘I’d love to have local schools come along and have education days where kids run around and pick some vegies. It’s really important to get kids involved, so they can see where food comes from before it turns up in the shop or in their fridge.
‘It’s about getting people connected again to what we’re putting in our mouths,’ he says. ‘What I love about Duck Foot Farm is that it’s giving people an alternative, if they don’t want to support “big ag” and the wilted silverbeet in the supermarkets. It’s going to cost a bit more, but they have an option to buy healthy, nutrient-dense food that has been harvested that morning. It’s heart is still beating, it’s fresh, it’s crisp.’
TWO FARMERS WHO INSPIRED JUSTIN TO TAKE THE PLUNGE
For further reading on no-till, small-scale farming, look up Conor Crickmore’s Neversink Farm based in the Catskill Mountains in New York State, or British small-scale farmer Charles Dowding, whose been practising no-dig growing techniques on his Homeacres Farm since 1982.