Tom Melville 00:00
It's broadly accepted that pre-colonial Australia was wild and untamed, and that its population was a largely itinerant and hunter gatherer society, entirely subject to the whims of nature, and that agriculture was first introduced by Europeans.
Tom Melville 00:15
There's a growing body of evidence, though, that this was not the case. And the First Nations Australians actually cultivated the land for 1000s of years -- a relationship upended by colonisation. Fast forward two and a half centuries, agriculture has largely been left to the descendants of Europeans, with little space for Aboriginal Australians.
Latarnie McDonald 00:35
I bought milk I don't have sugar though.
Tom Melville 00:38
Tom Melville 00:41
But with land degradation and climate change ramping up. There's a growing movement to include indigenous people in the next chapters of Australia's agricultural history.
Latarnie McDonald 00:50
Yeah, so welcome along. This is the southernmost point of Dja Dja Warrung country.
Tom Melville 00:58
Thank you for having me.
Latarnie McDonald 01:00
Lovely red volcanic basalt soil. This site is to see what kangaroo grass does when it's given luxurious conditions.
Tom Melville 01:10
Latarnie McDonald 01:10
So great soil, high rainfall, and we also add irrigation if we need to.
Tom Melville 01:12
Latarnie MacDonald is tall, her weatherbeaten akubra tells of a life spent outdoors, a life in the bush. She's an agro-ecologist specialising in biodiversity. We're on Dja Dja Warrung Country, in Central Victoria, at one of two kangaroo grass research sites.
Latarnie McDonald 01:34
So I wanted to take you to the top. First, this is our kangaroo grass cropping.And we've got our research, started last year and will be sort of taking over the rest of the paddock. this coming year. we're comparing what we call eco types or bio types.
Tom Melville 01:55
It's a hot day south of Bendigo, tall stands of kangaroo grass dance in the breeze. The grass comes up to my shoulder, fat seeds bending stalks back towards the earth. The paddock, about a hectare, is on a gentle slope. There are rows of kangaroo grass with different labels - they're being grown in different conditions, more or less water, some from tube stock, some from seeds. The soft shimmer of grass stalks in the wind is a classic rural scene, one replicated in paddocks across the country. But it's actually cutting edge science here.
Latarnie McDonald 02:26
As you know, it's perennial you don't have to sow whenever you like wheat, you plant it is there for a good 10 years of productive life. And we're going to look at methods to how to stimulate its production to keep it there even longer. So it's a far cry from farmers out there every year on the tractor sowing wheat. If we can create a cropping system like that, I think a lot of farmers will enjoy a break as well.
Tom Melville 02:57
The Dja Dja Warrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation received a 1.8 million dollar grant from the federal government to work out a cropping system for kangaroo grass. The corporation's commercial arm, Djandak, wants to market that to farmers, providing opportunities to other groups to apply it all over the country. They're in charge of the programme with involvement from Latrobe university.
Latarnie McDonald 03:17
Yeah, there's so much to native grasses. And this one gets called the trickiest one of all, kangaroo grass.
Tom Melville 03:24
Kangaroo grass can be found across the country so the species has adapted for all sorts of conditions. It's a wild grass, and compared to a staple crop like wheat it still has a huge amount of variability.
Latarnie McDonald 03:34
It's really well adapted to every possible climate scenario you can throw at it so it can seed twice a year if it wants to. The seed can germinate anywhere from within a week to seven years have a high dormancy in some seed types. The grain size varies hugely, how much seed and yield plant puts up can vary tremendously. So the way I put it was starting with wheat when wheat was just a grass. So we're starting from scratch.
Tom Melville 04:09
So that's a that kind of variability. That's a headache for a farmer who wants to consistency, I guess, right?
Latarnie McDonald 04:16
We want it to be its natural self, the plant, but we're just trying to make it so it can be a modernized crop.
Tom Melville 04:23
Kangaroo Grass is a grain the Dja Dja Warrung would have ground into a flour to make dough. It's prolific all over the country, but was actually difficult to find in Dja Dja Warrung country.
Latarnie McDonald 04:33
It's almost a rare plant because it's confined to roadsides and very vulnerable. Like people can just spray your slash the roadside or cultivate for firebreak and that takes the plant out. And in our search for kangaroo grass across 150 square kilometers of Dja Dja Warrung country then there's so few remnants, and so it's vital that we really bring plant that to life across the landscape where it was once prolific you know that's a real healing process.
Tom Melville 05:07
Latarnie is trying to figure out the best way to grow the grass. The thinking is that as it's a native grass, it requires a lot less water and human intervention than introduced species do. It's meant to be here, which Latarnie hopes will make it far easier to farm.
Latarnie McDonald 05:22
It's lived through every drought australia's thrown in it for tens of thousands of years and here it is it's like you almost should have a statue to it you know all these native plants
Tom Melville 05:33
It almost it's a statue to it.
Latarnie McDonald 05:34
Very statuesque yeah and so we really need to look to all our native plants and see what uses do we have for them and how can we involve the local aboriginal people in that area you're in to be the center and the driver for those so we're not dispossessing again that's what i've probably the biggest thing that i've really learned and that's instilled within me now is that real drive to support that journey.
Tom Melville 06:07
There are lots of reasons this project in Central Victoria is so important. For Rodney Carter, CEO of the Dja Dja Warrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, it's part of the healing process. He's a good natured man, with an easy laugh and a smile which never leaves his eyes. Rodney says it's about creating healthy country and healthy people.
Rodney Carter 06:25
How do you measure success? So for us to see kangaroo grass across altered landscapes is a massive positive for us as people to see to visualize the colors and then to be able to use farming systems to make that efficient and commercially viable for people to enjoy the product itself so i think what drives this is you know for cultural reasons i think that's really important gives us a good foundation and then the jobs, it's like, that's part of you know this project.
Tom Melville 07:04
There are countless examples around Australia of pre-colonial First Nations people working hard, in historian Bruce Gammage's words, to make "plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable." Fire was applied to the landscape in a controlled manner, plants were cultivated for food and in such a way as to encourage growth and attract animals. Australia was, Gammage called it, the Biggest Estate on earth. These were systems developed over thousands of years in harmony with the land. But with the arrival of Europeans that thread to the past was cut and those gentle and pleasant "parklands" early European explorers described were lost. First nations people have been involved with western style agriculture on this continent almost since the beginning and in all manner of ways ... but in terms of owning land, and profiting from it, they remain underrepresented. Josh Gilbert is a Worrimi man from the Gloucester region of New South Wales, a couple of hours north of Newcastle. His family have been farming cattle near Nabiac for generations. He tells me how his Indigenous ancestors were dispossessed of their land and then became farmers themselves.
Tom Melville 08:16
What river is this?
Josh Gilbert 08:18
This is the Wallamba river so this flows into the oceans at Forster. It's a brackish water so freshwater further up with pilot ports and other incredible creatures and flows down through here into you know salt water countries so for me this is a perfect blend of fresh and salt which is pretty incredible.
Tom Melville 08:35
He takes me on a walk around his property. Over the generations the land has been split up amongst the family -- although many of his neighbours are still Gilberts. Josh has European ancestors, convicts who were granted sheep farming land here in 1825. In the early days Josh's Worimi ancestors raided that property and injured the shepherd. But his two cultures later came together.
Josh Gilbert 08:56
They have two children and the daughter Mary Ann Bugg a pretty strong aboriginal lady gets told she has to learn for white ways to be an asset to the company gets packed up sent to boarding school and comes back uses her indigenous knowledge and her newly found white knowledge to marry a bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, so his was a bushranger up along this area though it's quite a gentle bushranger would pull people out take their money give them some back and go off on its merry way but Mary Ann using her indigenous and non indigenous knowledge was really the brains of the outfit and she could listen to the ground and hear horses galloping from miles away was able to read and write as well as so became quite an asset to him and that's where our our indigenous heritage met white culture and has been used to really be the foundation of both principles coming together.
Tom Melville 09:56
Josh is 29, so he's a rarity for a few reasons. The age of farmers is increasing across the board, and Indigenous people are underrepresented in broad areas of Australian society, including agriculture. We sit down on his deck overlooking bright green pasture in parts over a metre tall. This was dry and dusty a couple of years ago, but after some good seasons the landscape has been transformed. He tells me it has been a particularly good one for his bee hives. I ask him what the term "Indigenous Agriculture" means to him.
Josh Gilbert 10:27
There isn't a overarching definition of indigenous agriculture in Australia. But essentially I say it in two streams, there is a pre colonial phase that is before colonization, and that looks at bush foods and growing native food. And that has been adapted over time it's kind of a process farming method that has been refined over 60,000 years and is still practiced today. On the other side of that is a post colonial phase of where our mob are engaged in western agricultural systems. So cattle sheep, you know, a range of other broadacre farming as well. So we're engaged in that sector as well. And we have our own narrative there. So for me, indigenous agribusiness, sort of both of those, and also actually broadens up into what the future of agriculture might be as well. So we have by fellas talking about making fake meat or processed meat, it kind of spans that whole length.
Tom Melville 11:22
Josh works for Price Waterhouse Cooper in their Indigenous consulting unit. A few years ago they released a report into the Kakadu plum, a fruit native to the top end. There's a huge amount of potential for cultivation. Josh sees it as Australia's native superfood.
Josh Gilbert 11:36
It's a very small product that has the highest vitamin C content of any natural plant in the world. And it also has all these other incredible properties that are still being investigated by scientists really. So it's got really strong cultural application, but also kind of strong as a medicinal plant. And the fact of science kind of reaffirming what indigenous people already knew that this is a really great cracking product. We use that as a case study to look at what the future business models might be.
Tom Melville 12:07
Josh identified six and a half thousand species native to Australia that could be cultivated -- like the kakadu plum, but also kangaroo grass, yam daisies, dancing grass, and all sorts of tubers, fruits, nuts, grasses, and herbs. And Josh wants to ensure these new crops are cultivated ethically and responsibly, with clear benefits to Indigenous people, which hasn't always happened in the past.
Josh Gilbert 12:29
So I mean, it's kind of incredible, really to say that the six and a half thousand different native foods, the ones that people might be able to relate more to that have been commercialized the macadamia is kind of the perfect case study of what goes wrong when somebody takes indigenous knowledge indigenous plants and takes them overseas. And some of them will common examples in Australia that that's been commercialized here, mostly by non indigenous people, actually, you know, things like finger limes and lemons, or macadamia nuts are a hugely popular native Australian food and are an important agricultural product. They're one of only a handful of foods native to Australia that are traded internationally. But First Nations people barely see any of the profits. Unfortunately, that's reflected across the board. If we have a look at the bush food space, for instance, an area which have done a fair bit of work, we know of all the opportunity of native food farming across Australia, indigenous people, and they make up 1% of the farmers in that space, and they receive 1% of the benefit.
Tom Melville 13:28
That's pretty that's pretty shocking.
Josh Gilbert 13:29
Yeah, it's terrible. So certainly, in certain parts of native foods, there's more representation than that, which there certainly should be. But when you actually look at the amount of money that's coming in to the native food space, that disproportionately 99% goes to white farmers. That's because of a range of different things in my eyes. That's because of the way in which white people can engage in kind of a broader marketplace and access to capital.
Tom Melville 13:55
Josh's goal is to develop an Indigenous Certification -- something producers can put on their products which let consumers know that it's been produced by an Indigenous farmer and that the profits are going to Indigenous people. That'll help make sure there are viable employment pathways in the industry for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and that it's being lead by the traditional owners themselves.
Josh Gilbert 14:16
So it's not uncommon for a non indigenous farmer to say, I want to get into the Kakadu Plum game, I can get X number of millions of dollars from the bank, I'm going to plant 20,000 trees, and all of a sudden, they're the biggest producer in that space. It's not surprising, but it is really heartbreaking that our more of our cultural IP, or the knowledge is kind of built up into these products has been taken.
Tom Melville 14:47
Black Duck foods is the commercial arm of historian and novelist Bruce Pascoe's farm in Mallacoota, on the Victorian border with New South Wales. Bruce's bestselling book Dark Emu explores Indigenous agriculture, engineering and construction over the millenia. The 2014 book helped dispel the myth that cultivation of Australia's landscape only began a couple of hundred years ago.
Chris Andrew 15:08
Chris Andrew, I'm the general manager at Black duck foods limited, which is a new social enterprise. Looking at bringing back traditional agricultural practices and helping encourage greater indigenous economic development.
Tom Melville 15:22
Chris and I meet on Gadigal country, in the suburb of Redfern in inner-city Sydney. The bustling streets of a humming metropolis are a world apart from the quiet sea of dancing grass on Bruce Pascoe's farm, where Chris spends a lot of his time. Chris Says part of the goal is to heal country, but it goes deeper than that.
Chris Andrew 15:38
By healing country. By reinstating traditional agricultural practices. we're restoring a lot of the damage over the last 250 years. That damage manifests itself not only in things like the soil and invasive species, but the damage done to people, the loss of culture, loss of connection to culture, the loss of continuity, the racism, that trauma over a number of generations builds up and part of reengaging the validity of somebody's culture back on a farm and making it core to what we do, and creating a safe space plays out every day on the farm.
Tom Melville 16:17
At this early stage, Black Duck Foods hasn't produced anything on a commercial scale -- they've largely on a small scale to just see what's possible. But their goals are ambitious.
Chris Andrew 16:27
The opportunity is to look at how do we replace 5% of the wheat market with native grains. And similarly, on the tuber side, there's plenty of opportunities to extend those into the food market. Because this whole endeavor is about not only building the breadth of coverage, but the vertical stack of opportunities in employment, not only the farm person, but the baker, the miller, the graphic designer, the accountant, they can all be involved in the whole food story job story from an indigenous employment perspective. So these are durable employment outcomes that can stay regional. And so how do we retain jobs on country? How do we create regional economic development around a history and a culture that's the world's oldest one? And so this is an opportunity for everybody to participate in a lot of ways.
Tom Melville 17:17
Bruce Pascoe's book argued that the style of agriculture practiced in much of Australia today just isn't suited to the landscape -- introduced livestock compact and erodes the soil and require a huge amount of water, while the crops are far less drought resistant than natives. Chris says healing the harm we've done to the country and even combating climate change are important aspects of Indigenous agriculture today.
Chris Andrew 17:38
You've got a food system that's lasted 65,000 plus years. It's client resilient, because it's been through different changes. And this is the opportunity. We've got systems where you've got perennial grasses, they absorb more carbon, they've got longer rooted, they're better for healing the soil that we've lost. 200 years ago, we had soil that was a metre deep. Now we think we can grow food on porcelain. So these are systems that not only produce food, they heal country, they heal the soils, they sequester carbon, they build resilience to drought, they build an opportunity to engage in the fire story. So in terms of building resilient systems for our food system, putting things that have lasted 65,000 years back in the soil makes an awful lot of sense.
Tom Melville 18:27
That's something Josh Gilbert is conscious of too. For Josh, Indigenous agriculture is as much about having a positive, regenerative relationship with the landscape as it is a set of crops or techniques. He points to evidence from around the world that Indigenous custodians preserve more diverse landscapes. He says 80% of the world's biodiversity is in Indigenous owned land.
Josh Gilbert 18:48
You know, in my little theme, fighting games with indigenous people who are the true custodians of the land, generally across the world are the holders of that 80% of biodiversity. And that's a really incredible kind of statistic to start from. When you combine that on the farm level, just the idea of sustainability is so different, where farmers are putting 10 years sustainability farm practices and or trying to plant trees to bandaid and patch up the environment. Were thinking what's the next 60,000 years look like? What does a connection for a Worimi I person, even in the next 200 or 300 years look like on this place. And that will certainly be done best by indigenous people who have got 60,000 plus years of knowledge kind of pushing us along to try and work out what the next 60,000 plus years is.
Tom Melville 19:35
Chris believes that underrepresentation of Indigenous people in agriculture is part of wider, systemic issues in Australian society.
Chris Andrew 19:42
When we've got under representation of indigenous people in Australia, full stop, across everything. We're a racist country. I'm not talking on behalf of indigenous people because I'm non indigenous. I'm talking about half of white fellas saying white fellas were racist. So the barriers to entry in all sector is because we're fundamentally racist. And whether we like to swallow that pill or not, that's a true fact. And when it comes from the top that we deny history, we don't speak truth in anything. So there's about acknowledging that it's not an indigenous problem. It's a white fella problem. And white fellas have gotta change the way we operate. And we can't keep forcing indigenous people into a white construct, we've actually got allow them to operate within an indigenous construct. And we get invited into that space.
Tom Melville 20:31
You mentioned that we've got 250 years of, I guess, entrenched ways of doing things, the way to break through that or break beyond that, does that require a policy level change from the top or is grassroots going to cut it?
Chris Andrew 20:45
It does require change at a policy level change at a corporate level, at a societal level, and at a grassroots community individual level. So all these actions combined and policy level, it's often takes time out to reflect upon the good intents of some policies, but the perverse outcomes that come from setting policy within a non indigenous framework about what those policies mean within a indigenous framework. And they're completely different things because we might well set laws and that work well within a Western system. But that's not an indigenous system. You're causing problems. And you're in fact, enforcing racism by forcing Indigenous Australians to abide by the colonisers rules. And we're not willing to shift and understand frameworks that effectively work. At a more holistic level.
Tom Melville 21:35
There is movement at a policy level, for one the Victorian Federation of Traditional Owner Corporations alongside the Victorian government is about to announce a strategy to encourage the growth of the bush foods sector, and to make sure First Nations people are leading it. They're working closely with Rodney Carter and other traditional owner groups.
Chris Andrew 21:53
So there's got to be greater policy education and policy thought in terms of the implications this has within a cultural framework. There is some progress and I'm heartened at some of the engagement that we've had at certain areas, and senior levels of some of these sorts of discussions so whilst we might be at a small organisation, we seem to be having a big voice, which is powerful.
Tom Melville 22:18
I'm back on Dja Dja Warrung county with Rodney Carter and Latarnie McDonald. As we speak, Rodney rummages around the kangaroo grass tussocks, pulling out insects and showing them to me - spotting moths and caterpillars. It's clearly satisfying for him to be in charge of a programme like this, one which is fully Aboriginal lead, restoring the landscape, and providing opportunities to Indigenous people. I ask Rodney about the insects, and about some of the other grasses that grow along the kangaroo grass stands. I wonder if in a European style farm the farmer would tolerate that.
Rodney Carter 23:07
I don't think it is that cut and dry. I think what's happened with farmers people of land, there is an element of almost spiritual, to connect, to be with soils, to grow something, maybe. And there's always an economic imperative around stuff, you can't do this and not make money and definitely can't lose money. So agriculture has probably been subject to pressures that consumers have placed upon the person or the land to make this profitable, you know, in a real simplistic argument is, as consumers, if we're prepared to pay a price, that afforded the respect of the land, then the farmer could farm to the best of their ability around what I would think the environment needs. So you know, it's a victim of our own success. But I think going back to an ancient cry, and us now looking at variation agriculture, we're on to something new that's very old.
Tom Melville 23:13
Latarnie says ancestral knowledge is an important part of the project.
Latarnie McDonald 23:59
I know early on, we were laughing at how the use of words like inventing a cropping system and the potential of a cropping system. And if you really think about that phrasing, it's assuming this has not been done before. And that's the Australian mindset shift that we have to look at that this has been done before. We're just trying to slow down, take a breath and acknowledge that this has been done before. And we need to bring this back to life and acknowledge that the Aboriginal ancestors have a big part to play in being acknowledged for this planet.
Tom Melville 24:58
Relearning a lot of knowledge that was last.
Latarnie McDonald 25:02
Yeah, I think if we look at the way, we challenge our assumptions in how we talk about things, I think all of us can have the best intentions. But when we start looking at the words we use, there's a lot of room for improvement. Having our Aboriginal groups lead the way and be the center point. And the anchor point for partnerships and commercialization, I think it's really essential. And if we don't do that, we're just taking away again.
Tom Melville 25:35
But on the commercial side of things, Rodney tells me that there has already been a huge amount of interest from wholesalers trying to get the grain for a variety of purposes. His focus right now though is doing things properly, to build.
Rodney Carter 25:46
What's happening nationally ther's a lot of interest, a lot of goodwill, a lot of experiments, but it's very fractured, the purpose of what we're doing is to try and get the system sorted. So we can command the property rights, the transferability of the system, but so others can enjoy it. And if we weren't doing this, it'd be a jigsaw. And I don't know, how long.
Tom Melville 26:13
Is the plan to commercialize that for corporations, financial gain?
Rodney Carter 26:18
I guess, yeah, yeah. So not to be seen in delivering on the package or the system, that it shouldn't be profitable. And I would say in a commercial context, it has to be profitable, or other people aren't going to want to do this themselves. So with greater profit, and that appropriately applied, you'll expand upon research projects, take informed risks yourself to do other things. Because this is the tip of the iceberg. There's so many native plants that we're yet to really understand.
Tom Melville 26:51
The utopic end goal would be a varied Australian landscape supported by hundreds of different native crops growing in harmony with each other and the land. Instead of homogenising the environment, we'd be working with the landscape for its benefit and ours.
Rodney Carter 27:10
Imagine landscape just covered, again, in paddock structures, potentially, because this is how landscapes been altered. But having mosaics of all these different types of species that will attract certain insects and birds and animals because of that nature. And maybe down the track is you know, I think we'd prefer it as idealistic that you'll have integrated systems, you know, and that might be something in the future that's really sensible and better for ecosystem might be better for yield and production. But we can't at the moment be caught up in that utopian dream. I think you know, you get some of this foundation right? Show it's achievable, and then just keep doing.
Tom Melville 27:32
Despite the hard scientific methods The Dja Dja Warrung Clan's aboriginal corporation's commercial arm is employing, there is a large cultural aspect to the programme too. Rodney is conscious of the weight of history, of picking up the thread lost when his ancestors were dispossessed of their land.
Rodney Carter 28:15
History is written by the powerful and I don't always feel very powerful. Increasingly I feel positive and being able to be constructively influential. I think history is what it is. What's truthful, in terms of my understanding experience, knowledge of my peoples history, that contact, it's safe to say was most traumatic period in time, for my peoples presence in this landscape for Dja Dja Warrung for around 40,000 years. And we do with projects like this is extremely healing. It's healing to my people when they see the achievements they mightn't be in the paddock or directly involved but when they're allowed to come out, and see and talk about it. It's immeasurable the wellness it creates.