Farm life

SUMMER DAZE OR CIRCLE OF FIRE?

The problem with Australian summers is you don’t know which you’re going to have:  a nice day on the river, dinner with friends, or an invasion of flames.  intrepid-triple-canoeing-photo-by-caroline

We’ve had a hot summer, with the compensation of time on the river in my new canoe.   Learning to use it involved lots of shouting, and we lost the “drop-in” (read “drop-out”) middle seat in the big waterfall.  canoe-launch-christmas-day-2016

Even Mum took to the river in her fabulous sixties beach jacket.

Meanwhile the grass on the hills has dried to a crispy straw consistency, perfect for flames.  Craig watered some of the more accessible of this year’s tree plantings, and we checked up on others (mostly good news).

panorama-with-alan-and-lisa

With Alan and Lisa checking up on the little triangle plantations on Adnamira

Andrew Leonard and Frank have been helpful at keeping the grass well grazed around the house.  There’s  so little nutrition in what’s left, the sheep have had to be shifted to silage and “sheep nuts” to keep them alive.   Or be sold off.

We were glad to have the short grass last night.  Out to dinner with the neighbours, they got a phone message from Richard Scanes at Adnamira:  “Fire at the Esdale house”.  We left abruptly.   fire-closeupComing over the ridge our first sight of Esdale was glowing flames running up the hill from the orchard behind the house.  Craig says I was swearing as I crashed through the potholes on the road, but I don’t remember. We were glad that both households had the fire tanks ready to go on the back of the utes.  Other neighbours turned up very quickly, then the fire trucks appeared, flashing lights and big hoses, just in time for the mop-up .  Our Mullion brigade trucks took an extra fifteen minutes because the Yass Valley Council has left the Glenrock connecting road in such terrible shape. They’ll be hearing about it.

If we had to have a fire, it was a good night for it.  Completely windless, so the flames were only knee high and moving fairly slowly.   I could immediately see it had burned through part of the orchard, leaving a nice campfire of one of the old plum tree stumps, and into the neighbouring paddock, where a log was alight. After changing into jeans and boots,  I ran up the hill to the small plot of trees Matt and I planted in August.   While I waited for Craig ( who was having a struggle with the fire pump and then had to go and use the hose on the cypress near the house), I whacked at the flames with the mattock and cleared trenches in front of trees I hoped to save.  It did have some effect, but the results of a stream of water from Frank’s fire hose were much better.

The fire had clearly started from the dodgy leaning power pole behind the house, which has been reported multiple times to Essential Energy and the previous power companies.   They’ll be hearing more  about it from us.

The repair guys when they arrived looked for fried birds on the ground, but in fact a wire had come adrift, probably dropping a molten piece into the grass.   It makes me wonder, with all the local fires started by poles, whether it would be better to take the investment in replacing poles and put it into helping us all go off-grid.

Anyway, in the aftermath, there was little real damage. 1.8 hectares (4 acres) of burned ground.  The metal chicken tractor protected the chickens from the flames, the fences are metal or metal and concrete, the new garden beds and the big cypress trees along the fence were saved, the radio dog fence was fairly easily repaired.  Three of my new fruit trees are probably gone, and at least half of my little revegetation plot, but some of the ones that survived will have done so because of the covers and heavy mulch (hard to put out, but good insulation).

Steve Faulder, our local fire captain, came down to double check for smoke this morning (over the terrible Glenrock Road again).  He laughed when I said I’d prefer to see him under better circumstances.  “I’m getting a bit of complex” he said “With all these people who say they don’t want to see me round their places, this time of year.”

What have we learned?

  • It’s always good to have your fire pump ready in hot weather.   And working.
  • Get a new rake-hoe (much better than a mattock for clearing ground in front of a fire).
  • It’s always good to have plenty of beer on hand for the post-fire midnight recovery.
  • Wine and climbing through barbed-wire fences don’t mix.
  • When we build our shed, put in a gravity-fed standpipe for filling up water tanks.
  • Emergencies can happen on a still night.
  • Neighbours are the best.

A big thank you to Andrew and Leonie, Frank, Richard, and the crews from Mullion 1, 2, 7B, Cavan 1, and Jeir-Marchmont.

MIGHTY MURRUMBIDGEE

Even in the dark I can tell when the river has started to flood.  I love to hear the normal soft rushing sound at night, a little like distant traffic.  This is more.  It’s a freeway roar that means big standing waves crashing against the rocks.  Big water on the move is magnificent.

Whole islands disappear, leaving just a set of scrambling waves, rushing to get past. Continue reading

ROMAN CANDLE AT MIDNIGHT

Whole tree burning with flames at baseAs I wandered outside on my way to bed a few nights ago, I noticed a speck of red light on a hilltop.

A star?  I’ve been tricked before by how bright they can be in the bush.  A red star?  Venus?  Wrong direction. Definitely not a car tail-light, on the top of a rocky ridge.

As I dithered, the single speck became two, one above the other.  Definitely a fire, probably caused by the lightning storm that played around us all evening, making the tv signal jump and flicker.  Still uncertain, I consulted the only other person awake at that time, my brother Andrew.  He at least has had some experience with fire fighting.coals at foot of burning tree

“Definitely a fire.  Definitely too wet to do any damage.”  The rain was still pouring down.  “Go to bed and look at it in the morning.”

Okay, useless consultation over.  That ridge is at the back of my Box  Gum woodland planting area, full of long summer grass and baby trees.  No way was I going to leave it until morning.  Although the ground was wet now, a few hours of wind would dry it off to a flammable state.  We had a similar lightning struck tree three years ago that smoldered for two days, then took off, burning about forty hectares before it was put out, needing several trucks and firefighters. Continue reading

RIPPING INTO OUR PROBLEM PADDOCK

Tree planting doesn’t always go as planned.

In 2011, before we actually moved back to Australia, I spoke to Graham Fifield at Greening Australia about being part of their WOPR (Whole Paddock Rehabilitation) program.  That program is designed to revegetate an area of 10 hectares or more, using bands of trees and shrubs directly seeded on the contours.   It uses existing paddocks, so doesn’t require the extra fencing that most tree-planting needs.  After five years, the grazing animals are allowed back in, so it’s not taken out of production permanently.

Direct seeding equipment 2012. Looks like it has a tuba attached underneath.

Direct seeding equipment 2012.

I was interested in trying direct seeding, partly because the way I plant tube-stock trees (with deep drilled holes, plastic covers, mulch, heavy watering, fertilizer, more mulch) is pretty labour-intensive.  If seeding worked, it could be an easy way out.  I was feeling a little overwhelmed at the (643 hectare) size of the entire farm rehabilitation project, so doing 10 hectares at once seemed like it would be a big step forward.  I counted my tree seedlings in the thousands well before they were germinated. Continue reading

WASHING AWAY PART TWO – STICKS AND STONES

One way to stop topsoil from disappearing from under our feet is to use loose vegetation. Anything from grass and weeds to big logs will help catch it as it flows past.

The Southern ACT Catchment Group ran a workshop recently with Cam Wilson from Earth Integral as the expert advisor on how to make the best use of sticks and stones on small areas of erosion before they become large ones.

a knee-deep gully

A knee-deep gully

“Start small” Cam advised. “If the erosion hole is deeper than your knees, it’s probably too big for a beginner”.   Continue reading

WASHING AWAY – PART ONE – DAM IT UP

Topsoil is that thin band of living matter that lies across the landscape.  Except when it is undermined or dissolved by rain and carried downhill into first the gullies, then the waterways, leaving the water silty and the landscape denuded.

Boggy Creek erosion spiresAs a child I loved to play among the eroding soil spires where you could imagine yourself in a miniature Grand Canyon.  My little brother Andrew made endless tracks for his Matchbox cars in the walls of the gully near the house we now call Wombat Hollow.  Occasionally he and I would help the erosion along by creating bucket-powered rivers and flood catastrophes that would flush the tiny battered vehicles over cliffs and down to their doom.

The traditional way to discourage gully erosion is to throw in some old car tyres, kitchen equipment, broken fences and spare car bodies, and hope they will collect silt.  This sometimes even works. Continue reading

EATING HISTORICAL FRUIT

In the last couple of years we’ve netted the most accessible of the peach trees that have naturalized along Mullion Creek to keep the cockatoos from eating them.  The whole operation is worse than trying to get a giant bride and her veil through a forest.

peach tree being wrappedFour people were needed (one of them tall) and a lot of long poles.  The trick is not to twist your ankle,  fall into the wombat hole, the thistles, or in among the blackberries that grow lower down the bank.    Last year Charles tried throwing the net over using a tent pole as a javelin, resulting in a snarl of unreachable netting at the top.  This year we modified the system to prod the net over and then wrap it around.    Continue reading

TAKING TO THE RIVER

The Murrumbidgee River is a significant part of our landscape here.  But it’s only in the summer that we really get to play with it.

2 young men in kayaks on riverwaterfall duo below

Charles and his cousins Will and Alex had intended to go out in our old Canadian canoe.  I was doubtful it would hold three large young men.  However,  it filled up with water for a different reason.  It turned out I’d forgotten they’d put a hole in it last summer and not fixed it.  Last time that happened I spent hours cursing, trying to find a shady, cool place to do the repair in 34 degree (Celsius) heat, covering myself in gloopy runaway resin and trying to decipher the instructions which were written for “dudes” fixing “dings” on the “rails” of their surfboards.

Luckily this time the Leonards came to our rescue with the loan of three kayaks. Continue reading

WHO GETS THE RAIN?

From our verandah lookout at the bottom of the river valley, it often seems that summer storms pass us by on either side.  Whenever the weather report says “showers” I assume that means “rain for other people”.

We look up at the ridgeline of Adnamira and see the clouds tumbling past on their way to Canberra.

When there’s rumbling and groaning from the sky, I hope it doesn’t mean fires started by lightning strikes.    With almost daily thunderstorms, there have been dozens of small fires and a few big ones.  Luckily we’ve had no storms that are completely dry around here… lately. Continue reading

SEASONAL JOY: APRICOTS AT LAST

bowl of apricotsFresh, juicy, aromatic apricots are one of the joys of Christmas time in Australia.

So I was horrified to see that criminals were in the garden stealing our treasures.   I ran out shrieking swear words at them. crime in progress apricot thieves Of course they think shrieking is just talking endearments in their own squawking language, but the running about flapping my arms gave them the hint. Continue reading

SMOKE ON THE HORIZON

The problem with hills is that when there’s a fire, you can’t really see anything.

smoke from Glenrock 2

SMOKE

For one thing, there’s smoke.

Tuesday started with a rolling thunder and scattered rain.  Lightning struck somewhere, but who knew where? Continue reading

WINDMILL TILTING

Cliff working on windmillFor the last couple of years the old windmill by Mullion Creek has been sitting idle, creaking a little when the wind blows.

A plumber told me that windmill repair is a great job to be in – because they always need fixing.  They have moving parts from the blades to the pump “buckets” that bring up the water.  Moving parts wear out.

But when they’re working they are magnificently simple and sturdy…and require no fuel.  Wind we have in plenty.

There’s only one person locally with the skills to repair broken windmills, and he’s constantly busy.  Our neighbour Andrew complained that the last time the windmill had a major overhaul, it only worked for a month and then broke down again, leaving a suspicious scattering of loose bolts on the ground.  Cliff the repairer humphed at the suggestion it was his fault as we went hunting for the parts in the long grass.

timber shaftI was surprised to see that the main vertical shaft was made of wood, ancient, gray and flimsy looking.  “Better than steel” said Cliff “You want it to break and be easy to fix, and leave the steel pieces unbroken”. Maybe it wasn’t so primitive, then. Continue reading

MAKING HAY

grass in field

This spring growing season has been a big one.  Extra troops in the form of certified Angus cattle had to be brought in to eat down some of the extra grass.

Now the pastures have all dried off in the hot winds, in time for bushfire season.

Ready to burn. Continue reading

WEEDS – THE BOTANY OF UNDESIRABILITY

capeweed

capeweed (arctotheca calendula)

According to  Michael Pollan in The Botany of Desire there are plants that, just by chance, have turned out to be something we really want. Potatoes as food, apples for fruit and alcohol, marijuana for druggy highs.  Those plants that we like, we promote and encourage no matter how needy and pathetic they are.  We choose them over all others.  The attractiveness of tulips led to a bidding war that collapses an economy (in the 17th century, but still).  We move them from continent to continent, grow them under lights and in hothouses and despite all discouragement.

weed patchI was thinking about this as I hauled out weeds from the bottom of the garden. Continue reading

WEEDS – LIFE IN A THISTLE

Weevils are cute.

No, really.

Beetles tend to be sturdy and a little alien, flies have those weird multifaceted eyes, but weevils are like the Disney version of an insect, with big eyes and a long ant-eaterish nose. Continue reading

BAD FENCES

fence line 3There’s a saying about fences.  And it’s true.

I have an extra one: “If you want to plant trees on a grazing property, you’d better have good fences.”

Not as catchy.

Only a couple of years ago I was naive enough to think that a few star pickets could prop up a fence with sagging strainer posts.     But I’ve now learned that sheep and cattle are smart enough to find wherever the weak point is, and make their way through.

And if there wasn’t a weak point before, there will be one by the time they’ve finished scratching their rear ends or pushing at it.

What else does an animal have to do, standing around in a paddock all day, but plot a breakout? Continue reading

THE EARTH MOVES PART 3 – ROCKING ON

rocks and pipesIt’s amazing how projects grow.  I wanted water for my vegie garden.  I wanted a gravity feed water tank that would allow intermittent use of drippers and taps that tend to freak out our heavy-duty sprinkler pump.

The result, so far, is 550 metres of pipes and two rock walls.

Somehow I thought, when I waved my arm at a patch of sloping grass, that flattening it wouldn’t be a big deal.  And the retaining wall that would be needed would be maybe waist high.  Apparently I have no eye for a slope.  James O’Keefe, the master bobcat driver was pretty clear from the start that we would need to move a lot of dirt.

He was also going into hospital for his second shoulder reconstruction.   So we had a time limit. Continue reading

THE EARTH MOVES PART TWO – RAMPING UP

old entryA cattle ramp is the first thing you see when you enter most farms.  They’re easy to drive over, when they’re not buckled and bent by huge trucks, but they’re not always great at keeping sheep and cattle from crossing.

The old entry ramp at Esdale was particularly bad.  It was strong.  No truck could bend it, because it was made of concrete with square spaces that were supposed to be empty and frightening to a sheep.

Unfortunately, the spaces were usually filled up with gravel that washed in from the Cavan Road.  That gravel would soon grow grass, sometimes making a thicket half a metre high.

The sheep scampered across and up the road, laughing all the way. Continue reading

THE EARTH MOVES: PART ONE

IMG_1140Months ago, we arranged for some work to be done on the access tracks on both sides of the river.

I hoped to have them done in time for tree-planting and fencing, to save us all bumping and slithering over quite so many boulders, and allowing Andrew and Frank to round up their stock in future.     It was a tricky sequence – first the earthmoving and the new cattle ramps, then the fences, then the tree-planting Continue reading