AN 8 FAMILIES GROUP FOCUS PRODUCER CASE STUDY
Working as a journalist in Sydney, Rebecca Gorman became increasingly concerned about climate change and other big issues facing our society. Wanting to do something concrete to help, and remembering her rural childhood, Rebecca decided to return to the land. Rebecca and her partner John Sevior purchased ‘Yabtree West’, a property in Mundarlo, NSW, near where she grew up. With the support of the 8 families group, Rebecca studied Holistic Management and introduced and experimented with various methods of ecological improvement including Natural Sequence Farming. With manager Dean Hann, they have increased vegetation cover, are halting erosion and survived drought conditions in 2018 through a healthy functioning ecosystem. This case study shares the transformation experience of Rebecca Gorman and her family on Yabtree West.
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Motivation for change
The desire to do something practical to address climate change
Re-connect her family with their farming heritage and offer a place of sanctuary and connection to nature to friends, family and community
The need to find decision-making support, frameworks and guidance
Practices and innovations
Undertook ‘whole of farm’ planning through Holistic Management
Introducing Natural Sequence Farming to slow the flow of water
Uses time-controlled rotational grazing and water contours across the property
Applies Holistic Management decision-making to landscape, enterprise and lifestyle planning
Uses ‘Land to Market’ Ecological Outcomes Verification™ (EOV) monitoring to know if actions are leading to ecological improvement.
Joined the 8 families peer support group to connect with other landholders taking a similar approach
Consistently high levels of vegetation cover
Observed reduction of active erosion due to an increase of stabilising ground cover
A demonstrated ecological recovery after the 2018 drought
High levels of accountability and access to a “brains trust”, through participation in the 8 families
Preparation of the next generation for succession, through holistic decision-making, especially the use of the Holistic Management ‘testing questions’ framework
A strong level of confidence to make and adjust decisions and cope with difficult conditions on the farm
High satisfaction with life as a whole
The Yabtree West story
Returning to the land
As a journalist, Rebecca became increasingly concerned about climate change and other big issues facing society. During regular catch ups with Martin Royds, an old family friend and another Soils for Life case study farmer, Rebecca realised that there were approaches to farming that did not rely on big machinery and chemical use and even had the potential to help mitigate climate change. Growing up on a farm near Yerong Creek, NSW, Rebecca had often dreamed of returning to the land and realised that, with her children growing up fast, it was a case of ‘now or never’.
Rebecca searched for a property near Sydney without success. Taking one of the family’s regular visits to Rebecca’s old farm, then operating as a farm stay, she realised that the whole area felt like home, and that she needed to return to the land she grew up on. Within weeks they discovered Yabtree West.
According to Rebecca, Yabtree West had been ‘really well run by conventional standards, but historically it had been worked pretty hard’ as a sheep and cattle enterprise, especially in the hill country where after long years of set stocking there was significant gully erosion.
Rebecca was well-aware that, although she grew up on a farm, she had never carried responsibility for the land. She had to ‘play a lot of catch up’ on how to manage an enterprise. She continued to employ the existing farm manager of 17 years, Dean Hann who, with his considerable experience, shared her interest in seeking alternative farming approaches. She read widely and they both took Holistic Management (HM) and Natural Sequence Farming (NSF) training courses.
Making holistic decisions
Rebecca discovered that the key part of Holistic Management is writing out a ‘Holistic Context’ which outlined her existing social, economic and environmental situation as well as her hopes for the future. Every decision she made could be tested against that context – using a set of 7 testing questions.
Before long, Rebecca discovered that two of her neighbours were also managing holistically and belonged to a Holistic Management focused peer support group called the ‘8 families’. Rebecca was ‘keen to connect’ as she had so many questions, especially on understanding the how the soils and grasses responded to varying lengths of grazing and recovery. She believes it’s her great fortune to have been welcomed into the group and mentored so generously.
Designing the system
Rebecca and Dean worked together, using ‘whole of farm’ planning techniques to overlay new design ideas onto the existing property maps. Between their training and a visit from Natural Sequence Farming founder Peter Andrews and friend Martin Royds, Rebecca and Dean began experimenting with contours, intended to slow the passage of water through the landscape.
As part of the shared Holistic Context for the farm, it was agreed that the enterprise and farm infrastructure should be ‘smooth running, simple and easy to use.’ Semi-permanent electric fencing was built for subdivisions with temporary electric tape used within those smaller paddocks. A solar pump and irrigation specialist installed a solar pumping system to one of the hills, which then gravity fed through pipes to troughs in the new subdivisions. They began planning their grazing – matching how much grass was ahead with how many animals they could feed. All the animals were joined in one large mob to achieve both better grazing density and allow for longer recovery time between grazes. This process, known as time-controlled rotational grazing, has continued with Rebecca noting that although it sounds simple, there is a lot of observation, reflection and questioning to get it right and it can unfortunately never be a set and forget system.
Reading the landscape
Over time, in relation to many things, Rebecca has relaxed from the early impatience and excitement of new knowledge. For example the initial attempt at slowing the water resulted in a structure more like a dam than the intended ‘leaky weir’. Local grader drivers Tony and James Mooney both underwent Natural Sequence Farming training and between them all they are now building ever more subtle structures to reach the same water-slowing outcomes. As well, it became clear just how important plant cover and a good litter layer was for helping water infiltrate into the soil rather than running off it. As Holistic Management consultant, Mark Gardener had said in the very first training Rebecca attended, ‘get your ground cover right through your grazing and so many problems disappear’. Now when the rains come through, the water moves out around the hillsides rather than rushing down the gullies. Rebecca reflects that she “imagined clear water trickling through the landscape – and amazingly we now see that occurring’.
Too hard and too soon
Letting go of things that don’t work
Staying on track
Over time, Rebecca found that she needed a level of accountability and feedback to keep her motivated and to inform her ongoing decision-making. The 8 families group kept her on track with frank reminders not to get distracted. The group also acted as a ‘brains trust’ of like-minded people with whom to work through decisions.
In 2018, Rebecca also became a member of ‘Land to Market Australia’. Land to Market began conducting Ecological Outcome Verification™ (EOV) monitoring to assess landscape function (via native perennials, water infiltration, groundcover percentage etc) at paddock sites across the property each year. This monitoring helped her to prioritise management adjustments and allowed her to feel confident navigating challenges such as the 2018 drought.
Investing in the future
Outcomes1 The outcomes described in this section are based on best available data from remote monitoring or monitoring undertaken by the producer. Economic outcomes are based on financial data provided by the producer, while social outcomes are based on a wellbeing survey. More detail will be provided in the full reports, to be published in early 2022
Delve deeper into the 8 families’ soil and landscape regeneration practices,
and the results for landscape function, production, economics and well-being.