Emily and Michael of Brightside Produce write:

A couple of weeks ago we had a visit from the weed inspector. Our area on the edge of the Monaro is really impacted by serrated tussock. Whole farms are covered with waving oceans of this unpalatable perennial grass, and our place has its fair share too.

The dominant farming paradigm sees this weed undermining the economic viability of farm land, an invader to be at war with. But nature never does anything without a reason. If we listen, weeds talk, telling us what is happening in our landscapes. Weeds may indicate compaction, excessive nutrient that is not being cycled properly by soil biology, a need to cover the soil or fix nitrogen. Perhaps if nature is throwing up this unpalatable weed in our fragile grazing country it is telling us that the mainstream economy is well out of whack with the natural resources upon which it is based. The soil is saying ‘enough grazing, I need photosynthesising cover to feed the soil biology.’ Ecosystems are complex, and our management of them needs to be subtle and nuanced.

Back to that visit by the weed inspector. Whilst there’s growing recognition that serrated tussock is a symptom of an underlying problem, the magic words when dealing with the weed inspector are always ‘I’ll spray it.’ Instead of saying this to them, I fight off the urge to cross my arms defensively whilst patiently explaining that we deal with the weeds through focusing on soil health. I don’t envy him his job at all. I’m sure he’s encountered ‘my type’ before. Perhaps he sees me as an idealistic blow in from the city, a hippy tree-hugger. I’m trying to bridge the gap between his paradigm and mine with careful choice of words and humour, whilst in my head I’m screaming ‘Where is the erosion inspector? Who inspects the water running off our farms to make sure it’s clean? Who fines people for grazing the paddocks to dust and sending our precious topsoil out to sea?’ 

Whilst the weed inspector does not enforce the use of herbicide, the timelines they give for eradicating weeds are almost impossible to meet without the use of herbicide, so his visit left me feeling deflated, overwhelmed and hopeless. We’ve just been through years of drought and the summer from hell. It seemed like kicking the land in the guts to now spray herbicide which would compound the underlying problem by killing soil biology and other plant species. But what were we to do?

Over the years of the two of us chipping tussock side by side in the cold months we’d joked about having a ‘chipping party’ and inviting all of our friends out to chip tussock. In this desperate moment that didn’t seem like such a mad idea. Afterall, we’d talked to plenty of ‘old-timers’ out here about the days when the farming landscape was filled with people, back before conventional farming was just one lonely man in his air-conditioned tractor cab. Back then people chipped the tussock by hand, so it wasn’t such a stretch to think we could do it again. We just needed an army of modern-day peasants.

Enter Southern Harvest Association. I contacted the indefatigable Ruth, who put out the call amongst the Southern Harvest Association network of members and volunteers and before long I had a willing gang of mattock swinging folks. 

I expected to get a lot of tussock chipped. What I didn’t expect was to make new friends, have deep conversations about important things and watch others make connections with like-minded people and exchange contact details. We shared a lunch made with food grown on the farm and showed people around where we grow the food that we supply to Southern Harvest.

Right beside us on the other side of the fence, our neighbour would occasionally hop out of his air-conditioned cab and hit a weed with his spray unit. ‘It’ll never work’ he told me over the fence, ‘I’ve lived out here for 30 years, the only thing that works is spray.’ Our neighbour’s nice enough, but I know how his paradigm works. I bit my tongue as I looked across at our happy peasant army and thought of those old-timers who were here MORE than 30 years ago. 

All in all, the day was inspiring and much more significant than the sum of its parts. Farming folk felt less alone and more supported by urban dwellers. Urban dwellers got to see where their food is grown, had a taste of the realities of farming, enjoyed the fresh air, horizon and making new connections. Computer hands got blisters to show off in Monday morning tea rooms. Most important, I reckon, was that together we were a ray of hope in these challenging times, standing together in solidarity for our earth.