Bringing back Aboriginal industries
By 2030, nobody was surprised that the farm machinery sector was holding up. Demand was through the roof from farmers who needed smaller, more flexible harvesters and threshing machines suited for differential seed sizes. Those in the know had seen this shift before when the chemical industry had seamlessly moved away from artificial fertilisers towards more organic supplies.
But it was a surprise to see a pop-up furniture industry built around recycled fence posts. The hipsters, now known as chipsters, couldn’t get enough of the new, rugged furniture made from 70-year-old timber, with that distinctive grain of age and gravitas. The second income helped marginal farmers regroup while they converted their operation to different grains.
Yes, the farmers were pulling down their fences. Those on marginal lands with remnant bush were selling their cattle and sheep and moving into high-return indigenous grain production. No chemicals, no ploughing, no irrigation, no pesticide; for the first time in 30 years they were making a profit and could see the prospect of keeping the family on the land. The local football club could rely on fielding teams. The grocer smiled, the publican bought a new ute, an Aboriginal woman became the mayor.
The blackfellas were back. The government had been dragged kicking and screaming into taking global warming seriously, but it happened. Some members even sold the coal shares that had been gifted to them by the industry to keep them somnolent.
The children who had lectured their dairy farmer dads on recycling soft plastics were now the dairy farmers and, having seen the foreign milk companies and supermarkets milk their parents of everything but the skimpiest return, were now selling their cattle and growing grain instead.
The farmers were making up their own minds and big business found they had to speak a different, more conciliatory language. And now there were blackfellas on the land too.
No sooner had the government done a mea culpa on climate change and environmental protection than they were confronted by an electorate that believed a different history to the one the government had learnt at Carey and Kings. Some of those electorates were in country Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales and they were prepared to boot out National senators.
Marginal farms that were being foreclosed by the banks – farms ruined by irrigation and salination, and properties where clear-felling had rendered them unproductive – were up for sale. And the cranky electorate, the same electorate that now believed a different history, insisted that many of them were sold cheap to Aboriginal families and co-operatives. The electorate was sick of the waste and inequity present in how Aboriginal employment schemes were managed, and they were scandalised by the outright corruption in the water privatisation that had turned Swiss bankers into billionaires and driven Australian farmers to the dole.
With the electorate voting differently, defiantly, no one in the Greens, Liberals or Labor was going to be able to pull the wool again. And despite the protests of banks and politicians, it was finally seen as possible to change economic direction without damaging the economy itself.
But back to the present day.
In the wake of the year that was, maybe this all sounds impossible, like a mad fantasy, a utopia, but the seeds of 2030 are there. In fact, they’ve germinated in the fires of 2020.
We’ve had an exciting summer on Yumburra, our farm near Mallacoota. Last year we were burnt from fence to fence. But in June we were able to harvest a grass, mamadyang ngalluk, dancing grass, because the fire had allowed it to become the dominant grass species once again. This place has been growing grain for Aboriginal people for centuries. This is not black armband agricultural zeal – it is soil science; cold, hard scientific analysis.
In January of 2020, the canopy of the forest was obliterated and it was hard on the heart to drive through those burnt forests, to live among their silence. But Mother Earth had a message for us, not just in the miracle of bronze and pink epicormic shoots bursting from the branches as if an overexcited florist had been on the rampage, not just in the triumphant eruption of vivid green tree-fern fronds, not just in the best orchid season anyone has ever seen – but the grasses returned too.
Now that sunlight could reach the ground of the forest and carbon was plentiful, the original grasses returned. How had they done that? Was the seed always there, waiting? We don’t know the answer to that yet because we’ve been too busy harvesting.
Red leg and garrara ngalluk returned in abundance. The forest was unrecognisable. We towed our little harvester, named Mandy after the bandicoot, through the bush and around the trees, working as quickly as we could before the seeds dropped. Kids following our harvester were getting excited about the aroma. The heat from the engine was lightly roasting the grain and the smell was intoxicating. The kids wanted lunch. Now.
It was a relatively easy harvest and now the threshing is going well too. If the bread baked from our mamadyang ngalluk and buru ngalluk is dark and flavourful enough to make bakers think of buying a new car, then garrara ngalluk will have them moving to a bigger house.
This new industry is happening. No one anticipated three different shelves of coconut water or five of chai in the supermarket, but they are there. No one thought that Australians would be eating bread from anything but Egyptian and European grasses either, but that is about to happen.
Very few people know much about murnong and lily tubers at the moment but they too will be in the supermarket vegetable section. Friends of mine have just had a meal of potato orchid tubers.
Orchid fanciers are a more extreme version of the twitcher and as a collective they are a serious and nervy bunch. The thought of people eating their fascination will cause palpitations in their sensible shirts. But quiet oh beating breasts, it is not the eating of the orchid that is a danger – it is how we have harmed the land.
When Europeans first invaded Melbourne, the whole district was dominated by a white orchid. It wasn’t there for floral arrangements or still-life opportunities but for the bounty of its food source. Aboriginal people appreciated that beauty but thrived on its nutrition. The arrival of sheep has almost completely eradicated this food plant. It will come back because hipsters will insist on it, just as their less manicured forebears saved the whale.
Yes, these new foods will happen, and they will produce a truly Australian cuisine that overseas visitors will travel here to experience.
Not only that, the shift to these products is not in doubt because people will see the agricultural sense in farming not just delicious products but growing things that need no fertiliser or extra water. There is an economic imperative in land care.
The production and sale of these foods is not in question – it is the understanding that all the foods mentioned are Aboriginal domesticates. These are plants that Aboriginal people harvested for thousands of years with diligent horticultural and environmental control. That continual seasonal harvest is exactly how wheat became wheat and strawberries became strawberries – human intervention.
Back on the farm, we are under siege from industry to provide them with our foods. We have about $7000 worth of second-hand equipment and are lucky to have a couple of philanthropists backing us with modest funding. We live on a rag; it’s not even oily.
We employ three to eight local Aboriginal people thanks to that philanthropy and the sales of Dark Emu, and we have been allowed to harvest the Mallacoota airport for the past six years. But we are a tiny operation and the only way for us to be able to meet market expectations is to receive the warmth of the Australian heart.
And that’s where we need to start talking about radical intervention to kick ventures like ours into something that could start to resemble that 2030 vision.
The hard part will be to acknowledge and respect Aboriginal provenance. If it was hard to recognise the Aboriginal landscape as a field of provision, then this acknowledgement will be like pulling teeth. After 250 years of colonisation, we think we’ve solved a crisis by changing one word in the national anthem.
Without spending one extra dollar the government could include Aboriginal people in the food market through the agency of Supply Nation, favouring Aboriginal farmers. But the thing Aboriginal people need most is land.
Bureaucratically it will be easy to bring land share to Aboriginal communities. Begin by not selling the old missions off as housing estates. Begin by allowing us to revive the farms scorched by salination and the millions of central Australian hectares stamped and denuded by cattle. That cattle industry survives on myth as much as meat. The sunburnt Aussie out there at the whim of a savage man with nothing to cheer him but the Flying Doctor and the Todd River races.
Fly over that country in a small aircraft and count the cattle. The country is stripped, it is bare, full of weeds and not much else. Aboriginal grasslands were destroyed by the hoofs of those cattle but more dramatically by the mouths of voracious sheep whose dental architecture has done more to ruin Australian soils than overploughing. And that is a big claim.
The lands of Aboriginal people were stolen for an industry that is highly destructive of soil health but whose economies are largely mythical and propped up by government with a welter of compensation schemes.
Once again those farms can be productive enterprises with different management. The white population of Broome laughed up their short sleeves when the local Aboriginal people bought one of the big stations, halved the stocking rate and fenced off the water courses and dams.
The grass came back, the cattle flourished and Aboriginal people were employed on their traditional land – but that wasn’t all. The totemic brolga and whistling duck returned too. A country where hardly a budgerigar could be seen – but which had been described by explorers as a place almost carpeted by their opal flocks – saw their return.
It is possible to produce this economic and environmental restoration – but the hard part is to value the Aboriginal heritage and insist on Aboriginal people being a natural part of the economy, education and the constitutional law.
Change to economic management is not the end of civilisation. When Dark Emu came out, a backlash began. Conservatives seemed to fear a resurgent black population and the support they were garnering from the electorate, young voters in particular. The fact that Aboriginal people had an agriculture fitted to the soils and climate of the continent sent some curmudgeons into vapours. The leader of this push runs an agricultural chemical supply company.
To reduce the amount of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides being flung in to our environment does not mean the sky will fall in. The industry will survive but will be making other products.
Why do we eat wheat? Because our grandfather did. Why do we eat sheep? Because the English did. We will always eat meat and wheat, but we will eat other things as well. Australian things. Kangaroos and kangaroo grass being just two of them.
What has stopped us from harvesting kangaroos before? Because they jump? Aboriginal people solved that problem by driving mobs of kangaroos gently up a slope into holding pens and then selecting the young males. This was a common practice, but the species was abundant when the colonists arrived.
The country had been made friendly for kangaroos. Grasslands were positioned between forests so that the animals could be easily located and harvested.
The indigenous grasses and tubers were cultivated over huge areas. Many explorers came across fields of these crops that were so vast they could see neither the beginning nor the end. Lieutenant Grey couldn’t walk across the Western Australian yam fields because they were so deeply tilled. Thomas Mitchell rode through 9.5 miles of stooked grain – harvested grass gathered in haycocks ready for threshing.
What happened to that abundant grassland where the heads of the grass came up to Mitchell’s saddle, the horse barely able to see where it was going? They are mostly gone. You can follow Mitchell’s journey, but your footsteps will raise dust. The light soil is being ploughed so multinational entities can plant cotton, a plant so thirsty it would be impossible to grow, unless of course, our government co-operated with those companies to steal water from other Australian towns and farmers.
Farmers will soon rebel against this theft from which their preferred political parties have failed to protect them, and the public will rebel against the fish kills every summer, which they are told are the result of drought but which are, in fact, a result of corruption in the water market.
All this logic is being pursued by younger people around the world, alarmed by the profligate waste and environmental banditry of their parents and grandparents. It will move very quickly from kids lecturing parents about recycling soft plastics to adults abandoning the Big Australian miners who destroy Indigenous lands for profit under the assumption that no one cares.
Those kids might only represent 25 per cent of the market, but no company can afford to ignore that kind of market share. This argument and subsequent change will not see capitalism disappear, but its morality may be unrecognisable in 30 years’ time.
The indications of that change are that the world’s biggest car companies are ceasing the production of petrol engines in a few years and the world’s financial market has already deserted coal.
I see these mad kids with their funny haircuts and funny food tastes volunteering on the farm and my eyes are opened by their dedication and enthusiasm. But what really swells my heart is to sit at a table with three young Aboriginal people at the end of the day as we share some chilled cans of Dark Emu (produced from our own grain) and have them tell me of their pride and excitement at working on their sacred Yuin land. One talks about replacing the engine in his old ute because he is now earning a reliable wage, another tells of how he is newly engaged to the girl he loves.
We sip our own beer as we look over the river and lakes and the softening evening sky and follow the flight of yumburra, the black duck, as it returns to its home in the bulrush.
Which gets us talking about cumbungi, the bulrush – the best source of fibre that Australia has refused to use for 250 years and the most beautiful salad vegetable the colonists have never eaten. Just one more example of a food source and an environmental boon. Instead of spending billions on poisoning or grubbing out bulrush, why not turn it into a key ingredient to supply the new Australian cuisine?
It will be a different Australia, but it will not have taken one economic step backwards. Brave Old World.
Bruce Pascoe will discuss this essay at the upcoming Di Gribble Argument on March 28.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 6, 2021 as "Brave old world".
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