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