This is an edited version of a talk I gave in August at a Ginger Catering event organised by Janet Jeffs at the National Arboretum in Canberra. This was one in a series of events that showcase local producers in the Canberra region, where Janet invites the producers to talk about their passion for farming and being involved in the local food network. She has been a pioneer in developing this food network in our region and supporting local producers and it has been our privilege to have worked with her for the past twenty years.
Boxgum Grazing is a farm business based on a 1500 hectare multi-generational farm at Young in an ecological landscape originally dominated by beautiful Grassy Box- Gum Woodland. It is the farm where I grew up and since returning in 2002 Claire and I have been managing the enterprises here. We created Boxgum Grazing in 2010 when we made the decision to move away from producing for the commodity markets and instead begin direct marketing our produce. At the current time Boxgum Grazing comprises Claire and I, our son Sid and daughter Molly and her husband Tom. Our eldest daughter Annabel, has also been actively involved in the evolution of our business since its beginning. Currently we are producing and marketing Grass Fed Beef and Free Range Pastured Pork to customers locally and in Canberra.
Claire and I have long shared a common desire in farming to produce great quality food and create a healthy and beautiful landscape. Over the 30 years we have been farming together we have been influenced and learnt from some inspirational thinkers. For myself the work of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, the creators of Permaculture, was an early inspiration in understanding farming as a field of agro-ecology. While for Claire and I the work of Alan Savory (who developed Holistic Management) and Joel Salatin has been fundamental to how we have combined profitable farming enterprises with the regeneration of our farm’s natural capital.
When we first stumbled across the work of Alan Savory in the early 1990’s his insights were absolutely inspirational to us, a “lightbulb” moment in fact. We had both come from backgrounds based on the grazing of livestock on pastures and had been through droughts and seen first hand the degradation that seemed to follow the herds of sheep and cattle. It was from Savory’s insights about the co-evolution between grassland and wild herds of grazing herbivores that we first appreciated that the degradation we saw on farms was not an inescapable product of grazers rather it was a product of our management of those grazers. He made the startling claim that if we changed the management of our herds of livestock they could be used as a tool to mimic what wild herds once did and in the process regenerate the landscape. For both of us these ideas seemed instinctively to make sense, they were proactive and positive and flew in the face of the dominant orthodoxy which basically accepted that livestock automatically degraded the land and the best you could hope for was to limit the damage. It certainly did not propose that you could regenerate land while grazing it with animals.
We leapt into this challenge and for the past twenty years we have been learning how to utilise our herds of animals to regenerate the soils and grassland of our “grassy woodlands”. This biomimicry has involved understanding how we must manage things as “wholes”, that the soil, plants and animals co-evolved together and can’t be managed as though they are separate. So, for instance, our management involves bunching our animals together into fewer larger mobs which we move regularly to fresh pasture, with the timing of these moves based critically on the condition and recovery of the grass species in the pasture. As all seasons vary the grazing periods must remain flexible and not fall into a set pattern. Our focus is based on the grasses that harvest the sunlight and produce the energy for the whole biodiversity that results. In this respect we see ourselves as “grass farmers” first and foremost and livestock farmers as the byproduct which harvests and markets this grass.
By 2010, while the cattle and landscape part of equation were going well and improving, we were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the generic commodity market as an outlet for our beef and decided to move to direct marketing our produce under our own brand. At which point Boxgum Grazing was born. At the same time we decided to develop a free range pig enterprise to spearhead our brand, increase the diversity on the land and increase the number of possible farm salaries.
Our mantra when designing our free range management was that it had to be good for the pigs and their welfare and simultaneously good for the land. We were not interested in running the all too common free range pig operation that is effectively nothing more than a pig feedlot, where the pigs end up staying on a set piece of ground for too long eventually turning it into either a dustbowl in summer or a quagmire in winter. Such a situation is unhealthy and stressful for the pigs and degrading for the land. As a result our management of the pigs reflects the “bunch and move” strategies that are so successful with the cattle. All our pig infrastructure (housing, water and supplemental feeders) is portable and follows the groups of pigs (30-40 per group) across the land through small temporary paddocks we create using temporary and very flexible electric fencing. The pigs are moved weekly to a new area of fresh pasture of approximately half a hectare and following the pigs the area is allowed to recover for at least 12-18 months before it may be used again for the pigs. The result is healthy pigs that require no medications and land that responds to the manuring and disturbance created by the pigs. As with the grazing of livestock it is our management that determines whether the pigs will have a positive impact on the land or a degrading one.
We began selling our pork and beef in 2012 and deliberately focussed on our local region, in particular Canberra, utilising farmer’s markets, online sales and sales to cafes and restaurants. Customers have responded very positively to our produce and farming methods and we really enjoy dealing directly with the people using our produce. Each autumn we host an Open Day where we encourage anyone interested to come and “jump the fence” and see how we manage the farm and animals.
In the latest developments we now have two of our children, Sid and Molly, and Molly's husband Tom returning from the city to the farm to help manage and develop the business. In 2015 we made the decision to build a butchery and bring the processing back onto the farm, so since the start of 2016 we taught ourselves butchering skills and now do all the butchering on farm and have also constructed a smokehouse to produce bacon and ham.
For Claire and I the journey at Boxgum Grazing continues to be an exciting one. We love what we do and are passionate about producing great quality food, regenerating our landscape and connecting face to face with our customers. For a local food network to develop there needs to be commitment from both farmers and consumers to make it happen. As Joel Salatin has said “Every time you eat you participate in farming”, so where and what food you buy has an impact on how that food is produced and what type of agriculture prospers. We would like to applaud and thank all those who understand Joel’s insight and choose to support their local producers, without you we could not exist.