I THINK it was my regular visits to my grandparents' farm at Wollombi when I was a child that got me interested in food, farming and caring for the land.
The farm was a magical place for a kid.
Everything seemed to be imbued with a special quality of beauty, perhaps due to its authenticity.
Everything was made of wood or metal, and mostly made by hand.
There was a wood-burning stove where all the cooking was done, a scrubbed pine table in the kitchen, an open fire, a tack room for bridles and whips, rifles (if you knew where to look), water tanks, a dairy, a slab-built milking shed, a stone wheel for sharpening tools, chickens, pigs, a shed full of corn, a blacksmith's forge, a horse to ride, a very strange toilet that was just a large can, lots of space to run around, a big creek down the bottom of the hill, big fields of crops, and the best roast potatoes imaginable.
I couldn't work out why everyone didn't have a farm like this.
Now I know that farming in those days was a tremendous amount of work for just a subsistence lifestyle.
But my father's family had been farming at Wollombi since the 1830s and that was the only life they knew.
My grandfather began his working life making bullock yokes out of she-oak that grew along the stream banks.
He didn't own the trees, but they were there for the taking.
He only need three tools: an axe, an adze and a drawknife.
Eventually he bought a bullock and, with himself in harness, he sort of had a bullock team.
He kept buying bullocks and he was in the transport business.
When he eventually bought a house, his brother helped him move the house on a bullock dray because it kept getting flooded in its position next to St John's church.
There wasn't much you couldn't move with a good team of 10 or 12 bullocks if you knew how to work them.
They even moved a schoolhouse from Singleton to down Laguna way with bullocks.
I think it took a week, going via Broke.
My grandparents didn't have electricity at Wollombi for most of their lives there.
No one on farms did.
As far as I can recall, my grandfather never had a car. You travelled by horse or shanks's pony.
You milked 30 Jersey cows by hand twice a day every day - or you got your children to do it. Then you separated the cream from the skim milk - by hand of course - and the cream lorry would pick up your cans, left in their own cubby house by the roadside.
It would not be uncommon to be up until midnight at harvest time dealing with all the corn or whatever, just using the light of a kerosene lantern.
Then, of course, up at 5am to do the milking again.
The milking shed is still there on the main road from Wollombi to Paynes Crossing, but it is now completely flat on the ground, just a pile of old timbers and corrugated iron.
The house is still there and looks good, although a lot smaller than I remember it.
It has a nice verandah with bullnose roof, and french doors into the house.
I would think about buying it if it came up for sale.
That's because some of my best childhood memories are of time spent at the farm.
As a child it was another world where everything was at least a little but mysterious - even nanna's cups and saucers seemed incredibly special.
But looking back now with an adult's understanding, I can see why my father couldn't wait to get off the farm.
He had milked a few thousand too many cows.
Stephen Williams, email email@example.com
TOP TEN GOOD FOOD GARDENING TIPS
IT occurs to me that I have never listed my top 10 tips for food gardening, so here goes.
1. Get organic matter into your soil. This won’t happen overnight, but if you follow my other tips the worms will eventually take anything on the surface down below.
2. Mulch well. It is worth growing your own mulch if you can. Sugar cane or the smaller bamboos work well. Fine mulches can stop water penetration, so a coarse mulch is best.
3. Raised beds are good. Don’t spend too much money on this, and be prepared to improvise. Beware of timber with preservatives in it.
4. Grow what you like to eat. You are more likely to give the garden the attention it deserves if you are harvesting really tasty produce. But I like everything.
5. Grow a diverse range of plants. This will make your gardening more interesting and reduce losses due to insects, dud seeds, bad timing of planting and other problems.
6. On the same theme, keep experimenting with new crops and new varieties. I grew okra for the first time this year and I love trying out new varieties of tomatoes and watermelons.
7. Walk around your neighbourhood and see what other people are growing. You might be surprised what can be grown locally. You could make a new friend and swap seeds, plants and know-how.
8. Make compost. I like compost tumblers for a suburban garden as the compost is made fairly fast and doesn’t attract vermin. A good one is not cheap but you might find a bargain second-hand.
9. Be observant. This means looking at your plants very closely as often as possible. You will learn more than you can imagine if you make a habit of close observation.
10. Turn your weeds into liquid fertiliser by making a weed tea. Drown the weeds in a large bucket of water. Wait a few weeks then dilute the tea a bit before use.