GROUND CON­TROL

THIS FAM­ILY IS LEARN­ING THE FARM­ING ROPES WHILE REWRIT­ING THE RULES ON WEED AND HAZ­ARD RE­DUC­TION.

Country Style - - OUR LIFE IN THE COUNTRY - WORDS PENNY CAR­ROLL PHO­TOG­RA­PHY MARNIE HAWSON

IT WAS LOVE at first sight when Michael Ble­witt and Bil­lie John­stone found Dry Creek Farm, 40 kilo­me­tres north east of Mudgee, NSW, in 2015. The Syd­ney cou­ple, search­ing for a place to es­cape the city and bring up a fam­ily, fell for the 105-hectare prop­erty’s nat­u­ral beauty — but com­pletely un­der­es­ti­mated its weed prob­lem. “We saw a lit­tle bit of black­berry around, but we were look­ing in the non-grow­ing sea­son, so it didn’t look too bad and we set­tled on the place,” re­calls Michael. “Then we came in and just looked at all this black­berry ev­ery­where, and thought, ‘Was this here be­fore?’” Quit­ting their jobs — Michael worked in freight han­dling and Bil­lie in of­fice ad­min­is­tra­tion and child­care — and mov­ing to a prop­erty only ac­ces­si­ble via a five-kilo­me­tre 4WD track, the first-time farm­ers were thrown in the deep end. Their so­lu­tion to the black­berry in­fes­ta­tion, how­ever, was a win­ner. Michael, 42, and Bil­lie, 28, had com­pleted a per­ma­cul­ture course be­fore their move, which in­spired them to try us­ing goats to re­move the weeds. “For us, the no­tion of spray­ing the full length of the prop­erty to get rid of black­berry was a non-starter. We just didn’t want to do it,” ex­plains Michael. Within 12 months the herd of 26 goats had munched through the prop­erty’s en­tire black­berry in­fes­ta­tion, and were hun­gry for more. “Once the sup­ply of black­berry in our place di­min­ished as quickly as it did, it be­came ur­gent to start get­ting the goats out to eat other peo­ple’s weeds,” Michael says. It was the im­pe­tus they needed to launch their busi­ness: the cou­ple now hire the goats out to farms through­out Mudgee and the Cen­tral Table­lands for en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly weed and haz­ard re­duc­tion. Us­ing goats elim­i­nates the need for harsh chem­i­cals, their soft hooves are gen­tle on the land and their ma­nure helps to re­plen­ish de­graded soil. The goats are a cher­ished suc­cess on Michael and Bil­lie’s tu­mul­tuous farm­ing jour­ney. Brought to­gether by a shared love of mu­sic — Bil­lie plays vi­o­lin and Michael tuba and banjo — both dreamed of mak­ing a life in the coun­try, but nei­ther an­tic­i­pated just how chal­leng­ing it would be. Three years in, “you just feel like you’re con­stantly learn­ing,” says Bil­lie. They’ve weath­ered fenc­ing dra­mas, a dev­as­tat­ing wild dog at­tack and a med­i­cal emer­gency when Bil­lie de­vel­oped pre-eclamp­sia dur­ing her preg­nancy with Mavis. De­spite the roller-coaster, the life­style Dry Creek Farm of­fers the fam­ily — in­clud­ing Michael’s chil­dren, Jess, 18 , a pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dent at Mudgee TAFE, and An­drew, 15, who lives in Syd­ney, and the cou­ple’s new ad­di­tion due this month — is the sweet­ener. “It’s beau­ti­ful, it’s peace­ful; we’re def­i­nitely hap­pier than we’ve ever been,” says Michael.

MICHAEL Bil­lie and I were rent­ing a house in a nice area of Syd­ney, but we wanted to be close to na­ture and away from liv­ing on top of other peo­ple. Here, the near­est neigh­bour is about two kilo­me­tres from our house. It’s a beau­ti­ful place to be. In an­tic­i­pa­tion of mov­ing out from Syd­ney, we’d looked at what sort of farm­ers we wanted to be and weren’t re­ally sure un­til we came across per­ma­cul­ture. It’s such a nat­u­ral way of look­ing at farm­ing and it res­onated with us in­stantly. Our plan for the prop­erty is to grad­u­ally work to­wards self-suf­fi­ciency, but I still work part-time in the waste fa­cil­ity at the lo­cal coun­cil be­cause we have a mort­gage to pay. Hope­fully, over time, we can pro­duce most of the food we need our­selves — at the mo­ment we have an or­chard of about 60 trees, and chick­ens. I think most peo­ple have de­vel­oped a mis­un­der­stand­ing about weeds. They think that weeds are what’s de­grad­ing their land but weeds are the in­di­ca­tor of de­graded land. Us­ing goats gives you the abil­ity to ad­dress the prob­lem. If you spray the weeds, you end up with a big dead thing in the pad­dock, but get­ting the goats to eat the weeds squashes them down and turns them into mulch — cre­at­ing the con­di­tions you want for grass to grow, rather than weeds. Early on, it crossed our minds that hir­ing the goats out was some­thing we could do and, once we saw how ef­fec­tive it was, def­i­nitely some­thing we wanted to get into. Just as we were on the cusp of start­ing the busi­ness in April 2018, we had a dog at­tack. We lost four goats and an­other six were in­jured, rather badly. It was aw­ful. At one stage it looked like our busi­ness was gone in an af­ter­noon, and we just said, never again. Within that first week, we’d started con­tact­ing peo­ple about get­ting Maremma sheep­dogs [as guard dogs for the goats], and that’s how we ended up with our two, Holly and Luca. They’re great, and they were pretty good from the get-go, even though they were pups and tiny. Bil­lie and I re­ally did take a leap of faith mov­ing here, but it’s that re­ally cheesy thing of com­plet­ing each other. We don’t ever de­cide on any­thing with­out talk­ing to each other, and if we didn’t have each other to get through some of those long, tough days, it would be re­ally dif­fi­cult. There’s lots of hard, phys­i­cal work on the farm, but we re­ally en­joy that and it’s great to see things com­ing to­gether. >

Michael Ble­witt and Bil­lie John­stone with their two-year-old daugh­ter Mavis, Michael’s daugh­ter Jess, 18, and some of their goat herd on Dry Creek Farm in NSW’S Cen­tral West. OP­PO­SITE PAGE Nim­ble goats can re­move weeds where ma­chines can’t.

CLOCK­WISE, FROM ABOVE With a re­cent birth, there are now nine kid goats on the farm; Michael and Mavis take a break from goat wran­gling; Dry Creek Farm’s rugged and iso­lated beauty ap­pealed im­mensely to Bil­lie and Michael. FAC­ING PAGE, FROM TOP Mavis, Bil­lie, Jess and Michael with the goats’ body­guard dogs, Marem­mas Holly and Luca; the mainly cross­bred herd con­sists of one buck, seven wethers and 23 fe­males. A por­tion of the herd is nearly al­ways out on hire at other prop­er­ties.

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