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The Call of the Wild: Couple leaves Sydney academia to farm & conserve in the Australian Bush

David Bray and Louise Freckelton, Owners of Highfield Farm & Woodland in Mount Adrah NSW, Australia 

Photography by: Louise Freckelton, Lean Timms, and Stephanie Hunter

Before moving to the deep wilds of New South Wales, Australia, Louise and David lived in cities all over the world - Sydney to Melbourne, Beijing to Shanghai, and many others in-between. Now their home is 27 km away from the nearest town (albeit a very small one), and they run HighField Farm and Woodland - a working farm, conservation site, and an eco-stay and campground.

 

While living in Sydney, David and Louise both worked at the University of Sydney. David as a professor, and Louise as an international relations manager. Although they loved working in academia, they spent nearly every weekend and holiday escaping the city and bushwalking in the High Plains of the Kosciuszko National Park. They dreamed of one day running away to live permanently in the country. They yearned to live a more peaceful existence, grow their own food and tune into the natural rhythms of their region. In their youth, they often felt like they had been born in the wrong place - like their destiny was to live connected to and surround by the natural world, they just needed a push to get there.

 

One day, the push arrived. A newspaper ad caught David’s interest - a voluntary residency in the country opened up, allowing them a structured opportunity to leave their city lives behind. It gave them the courage to take a leap into this new chapter. Eventually that led them to plant permanent roots near Kosciusko, the area they fell in love from so many visits. They were a little trepidatious, fearing they were making a decision too quickly on where to move. However, after exploring a few other rural locations they decided to go with their gut and trust the instinct that led them to be near Kosciusko in the first place.

 

Louise and David had no farming background before deciding to be farmers, but had a drive that led them to want to learn as much as they could. They discovered their own version of self-sufficiency - based on their values and what worked for them. Rather than ship their products all over the country, their passion for sustainability led them to decide to sell all of their produce, meat, eggs, and preserved goods locally. They participate in a local producer’s cooperative, in addition to fulfilling orders via direct delivery.  

 

David and Louise have found tremendous joy and fulfillment feeding their community. They have met many locals who truly value their growing methods, conservation practices, and appreciate buying direct from the farm. Although they no longer enjoy the conveniences city life affords, there are so many benefits to how they live now. Nothing can compare to the quiet, the merits of working for themselves, living in alignment with their values, growing their own food, and deriving true meaning and purpose from their work.


www.highfieldfarmwoodland.com

 

 

Q & A

Tell us about your journey into farming professionally. How has the farm evolved/changed to become a sustainable operation?

 

I’d always had a vegetable garden so it was a matter of scaling that up. The challenges came with deciding to raise sheep and cattle and chickens. 

 

We started with  a commitment to animal welfare, low food miles, the management of pasture and a concern for the environment. Later we learnt more about wildlife friendly farming, grazing management and the importance of native grasses.

 

No experience is actually a great advantage. It means you can start with a blank slate - you can fashion your farming to match your ethics. It is a different approach than the more conventional agriculture approach - that focuses more on the efficiency and productivity per hectare, fertilizer use and the best chemical to sprays for highest yields. It's harder to break from convention if you inherited your dad’s machinery packed shed, you might feel like you have to use it.

 

We started with our acknowledgement of climate change, our interest in great food, low-food mile and ethically produced food, and our environmentalist interest from all our bushwalking. Once you have worked out your ethics, how you farm is self-evident. Then all you need to do is learn the practicalities - like fencing, basic first aid for animals, how to handle sheep… It sounds easy but the learning curve has been steep (but we have enjoyed learning).

What do love most about your community and the land you are farming on?

The inclusiveness and welcoming nature of the locals. Contrary to many of the myths, we felt accepted and welcomed immediately into the community just because we lived here. The other thing we love is the great sense of just mucking in, getting things done. The practical attitude. 

 

We were also enchanted by the quiet creativity that lurked in unexpected places. The innovative cafe owners, the makers of great produce, the artists and photographers.

 

Have you noticed a shift in your values system - career, quality of life, etc. since starting the farm?

Value system - No – BUT what our move has allowed is a fuller and more meaningful expression of all the things that are important to us: living in nature, living with a smaller footprint, having the ability in owning a large piece of land to be active in countering the extinction crisis, growing and raising great quality food with low food miles and with great animal welfare practices.

 

Do you have any farming mentors, books, podcasts, etc. that have helped educate, guide and inspire you?

So many things, but not one guru to name. We think there are so many informative and useful and challenging concepts out there. We respond to a whole menu of ideas and practices that inform what we are doing here. We start big picture and then drill down.

 

Firstly - we acknowledge the science of climate change and accept our responsibility as landholders to do whatever we can to avert the extinction crisis and lessen our personal and farm produce footprint.

 

Secondly  - we are informed by the Sustainable Development Goals. These 17 goals were developed by the United Nations as a  blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all people and the world by 2030.

 

The 5 freedoms help to inform our animal welfare - these are freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury, and disease; freedom to express normal and natural behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.

 

The 12 Permaculture Principles are also a useful framework.

 

The work of the Fenner School at the Australian National University is an under-utilized tool. Their evidence-based research looks at best practice in wildlife-friendly farming and the enhancement of biodiversity on farms.

 

We are also informed by holistic grazing and use this way of reading grass and reading your grazing animals to graze to maintain full cover and to restore our native grass pastures and enhance soil health.

 

We are also right at the beginning of learning about First Nation’s  land management through the strategic management of cool burning and we are looking forward to exploring this  more, guided by the local Wiradjuri people.

 

Have you noticed the effects of climate change since you began your farming journey? Has it affected your growing operation?

Well we have only been here for 9 years. - I expect you’d need greater history to be able to document the changes.  However we acknowledge the science of climate change. And we have had quite a wild ride here. We have been thru a 3-year drought with blistering summers and very high temperatures.  That was followed by the devastating Black Summer Fires that raged thru so much of Australia in the summers of  2019-2020. Two-thirds of our property burnt. And then we also experienced massive rain events. Just as climate change predicts - major extremes in weather.

 

How are you able to balance your farming, conservation efforts, and guests on the property? Are there conflicts between the three ventures or do they help sustain one another?

We see these things as being mutually beneficial but that is because of the way we farm. We don't see the farm as separate to our conservation area; let me explain:

 

We see our efforts in our paddocks as extension of our conservation efforts. In our paddocks we are farming to include wildlife and enhance the habitat for them. We farm to restore native grasslands. The Australian Museum states that 99% of temperate grasslands in Australia have been destroyed or degraded by human intervention. Of course many native birds and insects are highly depended on those native grasslands. Something like 9 different butterflies rely on Themeda australis ( Kangaroo Grass) which we are having great success in restoring.

 

Also we are protecting an endangered ecological communities like Carex Sedgelands in the floors of our valleys in our paddocks. This provides great habitat for birds, protects the valley floor from erosion. These are just some examples of our conservation efforts in our paddocks. 

 

Our animals benefit from this too. More paddock trees and protected Carex Sedges provide shade and shelter to our animals.

 

Our guest accommodation - Kestrel Nest EcoHut - has been designed to be low impact and eco-conscious. We have used timber gown and milled on the property and recycled building materials from a ruin on the property. It is powered entirely by solar panels and battery storage. It provides guests an opportunity to turn off their screens and re-connect with nature. And we know that connection with nature is so important to helping people want to protect nature. Vital income from Kestrel nest helps us fund ecological projects on our property. Guests also have the opportunity to undertake tours that we offer.

 

What is the most challenging part of living in such a rural location?

Distance - its a long way to the shops so you need to make sure you have 4 or 5 things that need to be done when you go into town. Services to rural and remote communities are not to the standard that city people expect.

 

What are some common misperceptions about life in the country?

That it is easy. These myths are often perpetuated by Instagram Farmers that give the impression that you can wear a pretty dress, maintain your finger nail grooming and walk barefoot while picking flowers. And that nothing ever get wrong -  that no animals die, that no vegetables get eaten by rats. (If we walked barefoot around here in summer we would be leaving ourselves open to snake bites.)

 

We hope to offer a more realistic perspective - that it is hard (and sometimes easy), always challenging in a good way, AND extremely satisfying. And that we wouldn’t want to do anything else!

What are your plans and goals for the coming year?

Oh so many…Finish the fencing destroyed by the fires is a big one -  4 km!

 

We will be planting 40 more paddock trees in the paddocks -  these will be placed to provide stepping stones for small birds and bats and insects to move through the valleys and into our conservation area. We have already planted about 100. Research has estimated that all the ancient paddock trees in farming land will be dead in 40 years. What we are doing is planting a succession plan for them so vital ‘in-paddock’ biodiversity isn’t lost when those trees die.

 

And we have received some funding to help us enhance the environment for the Turquoise Parrot. This will take place in a remnant of unburnt bushland. It will involve the planting of suitable plants and the installation of nesting boxes. The Turquoise Parrot is listed as Vulnerable. It lives on our property year round.

 

We are also looking at how we can establish a great water system -  more research needed first!

 

That’s for starters!

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