The acclaimed author is learning to grow native grains and tubers the way First Australians did.
Writer Bruce Pascoe is an unlikely but committed late-life convert to agricultural science, even though his reasons to take up the plough – not quite literally – are clear.
“I’ve been a farmer before, and so it wasn’t such a huge decision,” he says. “But the fact that I was the age I am – I certainly didn’t want to do it.”
Pascoe was born in Melbourne just after World War II; one could argue that he qualifies as a prototype modern Australian. He’s a descendant of Aboriginal Australians from the Yuin, Bunurong and Palawa (Tasmanian) Peoples, as well colonial Europeans, notably the Cornish.
His shift from writing full time to buying a farm he’s named Yumburra (Yuin for “black duck”) near Mallacoota, eastern Victoria, flows from his best-known work, published in 2014: Dark Emu: Black seeds: agriculture or accident? (A second edition, Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture was published four years later.)
“Because there’s been a lot of excitement around many of those foods, I thought that people were going to adopt them and use them and make money from them without ever recognising Aboriginal people.”
In Dark Emu, Pascoe examines the historical records of explorers and settlers to build a picture of Aboriginal economies in pre-invasion times, with particular reference to agriculture, aquaculture and housing. He also draws on the earlier work of several scholars – including Rupert Gerritson and Bill Gammage – en route to a clear resolution: that modern Australia can learn from Indigenous culture to better care for the nation’s lands, for instance by growing native grains instead of wheat.
Turns out he pretty much topped the list of people who took his message most to heart.
“Because there’s been a lot of excitement around many of those foods, I thought that people were going to adopt them and use them and make money from them without ever recognising Aboriginal people,” he says. “So I decided that we would make sure that we had a foot in the door, and that we would show the government that you didn’t need employment schemes for Aboriginal people, just needed to create jobs, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Pascoe had this clear intent when he sold a property that he’d bought with his mother in the 1980s to enable the purchase of Yumburra and establishment of not-for-profit Black Duck Foods.
“Once I found a farm that I could afford, we would begin production of the grains and the tubers,” he says. “I’d been harvesting grain for a few years beforehand just as an experiment, and I’d been growing the tubers. I realised I needed more room, and I needed a place where other people could visit and learn about the production methods.”
“We’ve expanded since into finding foods that we haven’t described anywhere, or haven’t found described anywhere, and to growing those as well.”
So he had the ideas and the land. From there, everything’s turned on what he and his colleagues have learned, and continue to learn. It’s classic observational science: experiment, consider results, shift approach as required, try again.
The species he started with include mamadyan nalluk (“dancing grass” in Yuin) and kangaroo grass. “It was pretty obvious that there was a food product in those grasses so that’s why I concentrated on them,” he says. “But we’ve expanded since into finding foods that we haven’t described anywhere, or haven’t found described anywhere, and to growing those as well.”
When Cosmos spoke to Pascoe earlier this year the Black Duck team had just completed their first harvest, over three days, of spear grass, which they call garrara nalluk.
“We’ve had a really terrific result, and so we’re really looking forward to threshing it, and then milling it into flour – because we had a whole bunch of kids hanging around the harvest while we were working. And these kids were saying, jeez, it just makes you feel hungry.
“The aroma’s like your best memories of walking into a baker shop in the old days, you know, when baking was done on-site. And Australians will be familiar with it because on a really hot evening in the grasslands that’s what you’re smelling – the smell in these grasses that are converted into flour.”
The harvest brought in grass from about 250 acres (just over 100 hectares) using a machine designed for purpose. “A brush harvester is a good description of it,” Pascoe says. “It works really well, and we were just talking yesterday about how we need another one or we need a bigger one. And how when we build the next one we’ve got all these little improvements that we can build into it that the old one doesn’t have. It’s just like a Model T against a Subaru. The more you learn, the more refined the product becomes.”
“On a really hot evening in the grasslands that’s what you’re smelling – the smell in these grasses that are converted into flour.”
Because it’s the first garrara nalluk harvest, Pascoe has no idea of the likely grain yield. He’s beguilingly calm about the pace at which they’re acquiring knowledge. “This spear grass, we’ve never really processed before, so we don’t know that answer. But it looks better than kangaroo grass per weight of harvest. If you can imagine, measuring the amount of seed per the amount of heads that you get in the harvester, it looks like it’s going to be more productive than kangaroo grass to us.”
The first harvests of kangaroo grass provided another opportunity to learn. How do you know when it’s ready to harvest?
“You can usually smell it,” says Pascoe. “But the problem with kangaroo grass in particular, it’ll drop its seed overnight. So you’ve got to be really vigilant. The test, particularly for kangaroo grass, is to smear the seed onto a glass plate or something like that, and if it’s waxy it’s too unripe, but if it’s nutty, that’s perfect. The trouble is it’ll go from one to the other in a day. And if you’re not there you’re going to miss it.”
This has all the hallmarks of novel work, but it decidedly isn’t. Black Duck’s harvests of mamadyan nalluk in 2020 were thought to be the first time in 200 years it had been brought in. But how many years before that had Aboriginal Peoples cultivated it?
As seasons pass at Yumburra the knowledge base grows. The grasses, Pascoe says, tend to grow as dominant species in different locations. “But they also have a tendency to grow together. So sometimes we’re harvesting all three. But you’ll get a preponderance of one over the other, depending on the type of soil, and which side of the hill it’s on. If it faces north, you know we’ll get more kangaroo grass.”
“We suspect that we’re noticing the same thing that Aboriginal people have noticed.”
One of Black Duck’s other foods, murrnong (yam daisies), demonstrates the long fetch of Indigenous agricultural wisdom. Pascoe and colleagues are currently having to establish the seasonality and reproductive cycles of murrnong. They’re growing four species, and they’re all different.
“They’re all flowering and seeding at the moment, and we lifted some a week ago and ate them for tea, and they were beautiful. But we know from the Wat Jairo language, for instance, that there’s a specific word, which describes when the yam is bitter. It’s a season called ‘when the yam is bitter’. We suspect – we’ve noticed this ourselves – that sometimes the yam is unpalatable. And that’s late winter. So we suspect that we’re noticing the same thing that Aboriginal people have noticed.”
Of course, says Pascoe, this would that change depending on where they’re grown in Australia. “Murrnong was grown pretty extensively south of the ranges, and in eastern Australia, but it also grew to the north of the ranges in some parts. But the species changes. And by the time you get over Western Australia, you’re looking at a completely different tuber – you’re looking at Dioscorea asteofolia and things like that, so it’s still a tuber, but it’s different. And it’s because the country is different, that the people had domesticated a different plant. And that one I just mentioned is a plant from Arnhem Land. The people in Western Australia had accepted the tuber as a trade item and had deliberately planted and tried to replicate the growing conditions – and with enormous success, as the explorers explained.”
If you’re experimenting with plants you have to start in the dirt. Salinity is a huge problem in Australian soils. Are the plants that Pascoe’s growing coping with their substrate? “Yeah. They’re adapted to it – they’re Australian plants,” he says. “They absolutely love it.”
“Look,” he says, “I think there’s so much to be learnt… but really good farmers have always known that soil health was everything.”
As emphasis Pascoe riffs off on the relationship between soils, their microrganisms, native animals and the crops that Black Duck are growing.
“I’m reading a book at the moment about mycorrhizal fungus. And the fact that, if we use superphosphate and artificial chemicals, artificial fertilisers, we’re actually killing the fungus in the soil. And it’s the fungus in the soil which provides soil health, and also plant health. And bandicoots are one of the agents of spreading mycorrhizal fungus. But because of cats and foxes, we’ve almost eliminated those benefits from our world. So we need to make sure that we bring the bandicoot back.”
“I think there’s so much to be learnt… but really good farmers have always known that soil health was everything.”
Pascoe also notes that the species he’s growing love fire, something that he – a volunteer bushfire fighter – and his neighbours, who live in a part of Australia that was arguably the worst hit during the 2019-20 Black Summer fires, are currently “a tiny bit gun-shy” about.
“We tried [burning off paddocks] in the winter prior to the big fires, and we couldn’t get the fire to burn,” Pascoe says. “So we need to burn in more dangerous seasons using cultural methods. And we’re hoping to do that again. We were [recently] talking about how we might plan for that. So our plan is underway to burn towards the beginning of this autumn, but naturally we’re all a bit nervous of fire at the moment.”
Fire aside, the agricultural practices Pascoe’s seeking to emulate through learning are very, very low on the intervention scale. There’s no irrigation and they don’t use fertiliser – “absolutely not”.
“When we’re growing seed stock, we make sure we keep the young plants damp. But that’s it. We don’t fertilise once the plant is in the ground, and after about a fortnight we don’t water it either, because the whole importance of these plants is they need no fertiliser, no pesticide, no water, other than what the country can provide environmentally and agriculturally. This is incredibly significant, because it will make marginal farmlands viable. Because you’re not ploughing. And you’re not putting in the chemicals, which is the most expensive thing about farming at the moment.”
“The whole importance of these plants is they need no fertiliser, no pesticide, no water, other than what the country can provide environmentally and agriculturally.”
Instead of the intensive intervention you’d expect at an industrialised grain farm, plants at Yumburra are left to self-seed, which they do successfully. “The pollination’s really interesting,” says Pascoe. “What we’re finding is there are special pollinators. Our yam production, for instance, depends on this little tiny fly – I don’t even know its name, but we could recognise it now. And it sleeps in the flower. And this matches up with one of the pioneer’s records, in which he noticed that a little insect was sleeping in the flower. And obviously that’s a very high chance of pollination, if that creature’s there the whole time.
“We can see these things in the field. So the more we can study them, the better off we’re going to be. Our problem is that, you know, we’re trying to harvest as well as do science, so we’re caught in a cleft stick in a way.”
There’s much to do to solve every mystery and achieve the result Pascoe’s aiming for. He’s sanguine about the fact that he’ll likely not live to see it all bear fruit: “You know, this is generational science we’re working on. I’ll be gone. But my son and my granddaughters won’t be.”
He has no hesitation in belief that he’s taken the right path at the right time. “I think Australians are far more interested in diet than they were. And I think the new food fads, if you like to talk about it like that, are based on a desire to eat better, and to be healthier, and to ‘de-McDonaldise’ our diets. People are definitely going to adopt these products.
“This is generational science we’re working on. I’ll be gone. But my son and my granddaughters won’t be.”
“But you know Aboriginal people aren’t in the constitution at the moment, and neither are we in the commercial world. So, this is a hurdle, it’s a hurdle for Australia socially, it’s a hurdle for Australia politically and a hurdle for Australia economically. And it’s a hurdle for Australia in terms of human justice. So I’m confident that we can leap that hurdle. But I wouldn’t bet my own house on it. I’ve already done that.”
Ian Connellan is editor-in-chief of the Royal Institution of Australia.