Day’s Walk Farm is one day’s walk from the city of Melbourne. Paul Miragliotta began farming there four months ago and has hit the disturbed earth running. Sarah Coles spent an afternoon at the farm eating peanut butter and watching Paul and the great nettle experiment unfold.
The Boy and the Nettle: Aesop’s Fable
A Boy, stung by a Nettle, ran home crying, to get his mother to blow on the hurt and kiss it.
“Son,” said the Boy’s mother, when she had comforted him, “the next time you come near a Nettle, grasp it firmly, and it will be as soft as silk.”
Whatever you do, do with all your might.
I arrive at Day’s Walk Farm before the farmer is back from deliveries. I walk along rows of crops behind the caravan where Paul lives. Each mound of dirt is covered with tiny beginnings. The soil has personality here. I walk over to a body of water at the back of the property; the Maribyrnong River. The air is still and the light plays on the water. There is a big dead tree and I think about how maybe traditional owners played on that tree once. It is hard to look at the river without thinking about such things. It is hard to believe how close to the city this farm is.
Paul appears in a ute and directs me to a massive shed. He makes toast and I poke around, ‘Look in that filing cabinet,’ he yells. I open the drawer and it is full of an alphabetised organic seed collection. ‘So many types of carrots. Who knew?’. There is a fridge Paul has converted in to the biggest worm farm I have ever seen and a freezer donated by the beekeeper Carey Priest. We sit down and with a mouth gluey with peanut butter we start the interview.
SC: Can you please tell me about this place?
This was a very good find. Much better than I could have ever anticipated. We’re on 16 acres, quite close to the city, 22km from the Melbourne CBD. The soils are alluvial and volcanic from the Maribyrnong River. It has a 42 meg irrigation licence. There is a dam there, two sheds with lots of power, 3 phase power, you can run stuff like cool rooms. And a lot of infrastructure. Add it all up who knows what it would have cost.
What was here before you?
Ladybird Organics. Their business got very, very big and they told me it is not what they wanted. He was eventually managing this big machine that was ten different farms, 250 acres of market gardens, supplying Coles and Woolworths at the same time, and expensive equipment that you’re just farming to pay for and a lot of stress. They ended it and sold the stuff and now they’re a little produce store in Moonee Ponds and I supply them.
You said you wanted to be a farmer from 2008. What happened?
In 2008 I took an overseas trip to Italy putting my Italian in to practice and exploring organic agriculture via WOOFING.
What were you doing before that?
My main profession was a radiographer, taking xrays and scans.
Do you know any other radiographers that have become farmers?
I know some who are radiographer/farmers but they are still both.
How come you’re not both?
I wanted to end that profession because I would have become one of those bitter radiographers who growl if you don’t breathe correctly. It was good for a little while but not forever.
So what did you do at uni?
Bachelor of Science.
Oh that’s good. Is that a good background for being a farmer?
So then you decided seven years ago you wanted to be a farmer? So then what happened?
I did other jobs. I worked a bit in social enterprise, managing the South Melbourne Commons (a community hub) with Friends of the Earth and Father Bob Maguire so that was good exposure. Gradually I gained experience through working as a farmhand for a couple of seasons on a market garden, through doing courses in tractors and fencing, permaculture and longer courses in carpentry, building and construction. This helped to lessen the really steep learning curve that you encounter when you enter farming because you have to do everything.
Do you ever have trouble sleeping because you’re worried about the farm?
If I wake up in the night, say at 4am, I’ll get up because I’ll think ‘I can propagate more soil blocks’.
So you haven’t had anything go horribly wrong?
Yes I have.
What has gone wrong?
The first lot of seedlings we planted were eaten by rabbits. I organised a big busy bee and got a lot of friends to put in thousands of seedlings, and they were eaten. It happened on Easter Sunday. I lost about 2000 seedlings that day and the following Easter Monday. There were rabbits around and I didn’t respect them. In Seymour where I was a farm hand rabbits weren’t a problem, we didn’t really have a fence, they would just be cute and doing their own thing. However here they went feral. There had been no rain for 8 weeks and they went for my brassicas which they really like as a sweet seedling. The rabbits wiped everything out. That was the first thing that went wrong.
What do people do around here to stop rabbits?
Next door grows things that rabbits don’t preference and they farm at a scale where they can write off the crops rabbits eat as a small loss. But I was starting so that was a big hit. Then I just went to war with them. Shotgun. Fences. Asphyxiating them with carbon monoxide in to the burrows.
Because this land hadn’t been farmed for 3½ years the bunnies just moved in and had a party.
So you killed them?
I did. Now it is just a matter of maintenance, checking the fences, shooting the odd bunny. The fences elbow out at the bottom, they are rabbit fences, keeps the vegies in and the rabbits out.
What else has gone wrong?
Overall it is more challenging than I thought. The volume of work that needs to be done setting up is quite outrageous. I hope it just for the beginning of a business and a farm that it is like this. I’ve taken too much on. I’m trying to cut things out of my life. We’ve got the Farmer Incubator going and I’m still studying a Diploma of Organic Production by correspondence.
Can you tell me about Farmer Incubator?
We aim to grow farmers who are the sort who want a better food system and want to do regenerative practices and be mindful farmers, engaged in the community. So it is about empowering young people, usually, getting them in to the adventure of agriculture and getting them to incubate their businesses. So it’s not overwhelming to start up and there is less risk. In what is our public course there are 12 students. There are 4 locations, Coburg, Mornington, Ballan and this is one. Their garlic is just outside.
How did you choose all your areas?
We were lucky to meet people through different networks and get them on side. The first harvest is November/December. I think they will have no problem selling it. They get to sell, if everything goes well, about 500 plants each. That should be enough to make back their investment in the course.
It’s tricky trying. For this farm I’ve decided to sell to retailers first and I’m finding it tricky matching what I’m growing and producing with their demand.
Who are you selling to?
Wild Things, Ladybird Organics and Ceres Market. I started with rocket, nettles that just grew everywhere, then added in coriander and radish, all this quick growing stuff. Then it will be dill and broad beans and silver beet.
You’re close enough to the city. Are you going to have a CSA or something?
I would like to if one of the farm hands Angus starts it. A CSA would be a lot of administrative work that I just can’t take on at the moment, maybe in a couple of years. Start small.
Do you feel excited when you wake up?
I’m in work mode. Sometimes it feels really special, really good, to be out there doing it, to be farming. It can be a big rush of ‘This Feels Right’. And sometimes despair, say with the rabbits, that was humbling as well to know that is what other farmers have endured, on the TV in the form of rabbit plagues. Sometimes I think too much and try to do too much at once.
Halfway through the interview a car turns up. It is one of the Farmer Incubator Pop Up Garlic students, Lauren Holst and her partner Dean. When Paul recognises his student he asks, ‘Are you here to weed?’ I get the impression Paul spends a large part of his time in battle with the nettle.
Lauren works full time in community development and has a background in sustainability. She holds a Bachelor of Sustainable Development and works with The Good Seeds, a group of residents from the city of Maribyrnong who are working at spreading community gardens. She was drawn to the pop up garlic project because it ‘brings people closer to the origins of their food.’ Lauren explains that garlic is the perfect crop to learn farming with because it doesn’t attract many pests and has a long storage time. When I ask Lauren if she plans to be a farmer she says, ‘I’d really like to. That’s why I’m in it- to see how viable it is and the kind of skills that I need to be able to pursue it.’
[We go outside and the interview continues while Paul hoes the nettle]
Paul Miragliotta: The weed seed bed is full. This land wasn’t farmed for 3½ years so there’s much more weed seed than you’d ordinarily have. So this is probably wave number 5 of nettles. I sold a few to Ceres and to Ladybird Organics and Wild Things put them in bouquets. I can make you one before you go.
This is the row I got in after the rabbits were under control. This is the only row that survived out of five rows. It included cauliflower and cabbages and other brassicas.
Do you think in a way that it’s good that the rabbits happened to you?
Yes. I’ve learned how to manage rabbits so that’s one thing, but more importantly, how to be a farmer, I believe. Really paying attention to these elements in nature, it was a really unknown quantity how much they would impact and to really pay attention to what’s going on and not underestimate anything. It helped me to engage in what I was doing better as a farmer, to really get in to the correct mindset. You know it’s not like another job where you’re an employee or worker doing what you’re told- as a farmer you don’t have to do what you’re told. You don’t have to do what anyone tells you to do, that’s a beautiful thing, but you do have to do what the rabbits are telling you.
Do you have any favourite books about farming that have impacted you?
The One-Straw Revolution impacted me. You’ve gotta see my experimental row just behind you. I put in a green manure of oats, pod vetch and fenugreek. This is at the very beginning, before the nettles came, I never knew the nettles would come like this. So that is meant to grow faster than weeds because it competes and shades them out, but it didn’t especially because the rabbits grazed the oats, slowing them down so they were on par with the nettles. So as the nettles set seed I cut the whole lot down as mulch, right, and then it dropped a mulch, and there was no soil disturbance so very few nettles regrew.
What I then did in the experimental row is I sprouted oats and broadcast them over the top. They are growing and you’ll see baby oats in amongst the regrowth of these oats. These oats are dominating now. Over there you can see what it would have been like before I slashed it because I put another green manure in. So what I’m working towards is seeing if I can make little clay balls or sprout productive crops that I can sew onto this right? So what I’ve effectively done is grown a green manure and I’ve slashed it instead of tilled it so it saved a till and then all the roots are in there from all the nettles, so that’s carbon, but I haven’t really put in the nitrogen as I would have if I’d tilled it.
It hasn’t been tilled. It hasn’t killed all the fungal hyphae, the worms, the houses of the bacteria and all the soil biology and it has saved time on the tractor. So what I’m trying to do is skip two tills, so I wanna grow a crop, say like this right, this broccoli, and then as it comes close to the point of harvest sow a green manure on top, right, sow a crop that should be able to germinate and grow without the new till. Grow that, slash it and then not till again and then either broadcast on top or try to get some seedlings in and then avoid a bunch of tills. Every now and then I’ll probably have to reform the beds but I can do it a little bit like Fukuoka and Colin Seis and those guys who are doing pasture cropping. I’m experimenting. And that’s my exciting row.
I love this row! The One-Straw Revolution. What do you like about it?
Fukuoka was a little bit strange, he’s got that old sensei vibe going for him. You know it’s his life story and it’s science and it’s philosophy and all these things wrapped in together.
Do you think you’re a little bit strange?
No I’m normal. Somehow this year I’ve ended up living in a shed out here in Keilor, with a poly-amorous relationship and all these things but I do have a fence right, in that shed there’s fence pickets so I can make a white picket fence and fix it all! [laughing]
Have you got a martial arts background? You seem kind of aikido-ey but you’re not?
No. [laughs] What haven’t we covered that I would usually crap on about?
I wanna get the things that you wouldn’t normally crap on about. I’m not writing this for a newspaper really. It can be quite left field. The more left field the better I figure.
What’s a left field thing that has happened here? Hmmm. I don’t know. It is early days out here.
Are you religious?
How does that manifest?
Well. In times of heartbreak it can come to the surface and I’m very interested in mysticism. Right? And I’ve read quite a few books that deal with that and I’m fascinated by these mystics. Do you know much about that?
Not much. I know that I like the Gnostics. I know that this land feels like it belongs to Koori people.
I’ve got something left field for you! I’ve gathered some mushrooms. Some subs, psychedelic mushrooms and I would love to use that as a tool in farming or just to get more information on farming this land so that is to ask the mushroom, because you know you can converse with mushrooms so I’m quite scared, trepidation, to do that in this really special piece of land and environment. The mushroom might be very rough but I think that would be a great thing to do.
Then after that I will work toward becoming biodynamic because I really was impressed by the biodynamic farm that my friend visited, Vortex Vegies near Geelong, and all the plants are really, really healthy and it seems like a great farming system. Biodynamics has that thing about it that is the edge that is not quite scientific and it is a bit out there and it is very appealing to me.
Yeah well they make better yoghurt than anyone else anyway.
The kale [Vortex Vegies] was growing was spectacular, so beautiful and healthy.
So what’s the style at the moment? Its organic right?
Yeah so I’m not certified because that is extra administration work and I’ve not been able to keep up because there is so much to do with winter and everything else. It is spray free. With my farming system I’m pretty much copying what the guys at Ladybird Organics did and then I will use that as a platform to go my own way. You know they know the land, they farm in these rows, they use implements which are disca disc and chisel plow and then a hiller. Then they use a really good cultivator that is quite gentle on the soil and a bed former, so pretty good equipment, fairly forward. So I’m just doing what they did and finding my own way from there. That’s a bunny hole.
It’s kind of fresh. They are coming back. So my Dad left, he had the gun. I haven’t got my licence yet!
What about bow and arrow? Not fast enough?
No I think that would work but I don’t have that either. But I am going to get my gun licence some time soon and so will Carey actually.
Oh that is comforting.
It is comforting for me because he will come out here and shoot a couple of bunnies.
Do you see any similarities between you and Carey?
I bet you Carey does.
See there is an odd cabbage right. That was from before and then the rabbits ate everything and then I replanted.
So that is a survivor? Why didn’t they eat that?
They’re just random.
Lauren Holst in adjacent garden bed: Paul what is this?
Calendula. You guys need to put some flowers on your row in Spring. I’m gonna put a lot of flowers in in Spring.
Lauren: For the beneficial stuff?
Yeah and that’s what Ladybird Organics did as well. In all the sprinkler lines they put stuff like Elysium and fennel and cosmos and parsley and all of that and then allowed all the beneficials to grow in there. It would be nice to get bees, maybe Carey could bring some bees after I put in the flowers.
As I’m leaving Day’s Walk Farm something deeply comic arrives in the form of Louie, Paul’s landlord, an elderly gent riding an old red postman’s motorbike being followed by a Pomeranian that looks like Jim Henson thought of it. Paul and Louie speak briefly and then Louie continues to do laps around the perimeter of the farm. Paul says that Louie is a really nice person who loves farming and occasionally tries to talk him into conventional farming (I don’t like his chances)
I arrive home carrying a nettle bouquet and reflect on the Aesop Fable about the boy and nettle; about how Paul Miragliotta is one of those people who does what they say they are going to do and does it well. If any Melbourne chefs are reading this I would suggest going out to the farm to talk to Paul and have a look at the produce you can source there. You just missed out on the shaggy ink cap season but there’s carp and organic produce 22km from the city and come summer there’s going to be a lot of garlic to be had.
I first read about Aesop’s Grasp The Nettle fable in Adam Grubb and Annie Raser-Rowland’s 2012 bestseller The Weed Forager’s Handbook: A Guide to Edible and Medicinal Weeds in Australia.
‘and a freezer donated by the beekeeper Carey Priest…’ Carey Priest is the beekeeper that I interviewed for chapter 2 ‘All The Bees Are Dead’ of this project.
‘exploring organic agriculture via WOOFING…’ Willing Worker on Organic Farms- a volunteer exchange program where people get room and board in exchange for working on a farm.
‘Are you going to have a CSA or something?’ Community Supported Agriculture- a model where people subscribe to farms, cut out the middle man and get their food direct from the farmer.
The One Straw Revolution (1975) is a book by farmer and philosopher Masunobu Fukuoka that advocates a ‘do nothing’ method of farming: no plowing, no chemicals and no tilling. The book is worth a read even if you are not a farmer because it is also a philosophical treatise.
‘I’ve gathered some mushrooms. Some subs…’ Psilocybe subaeruginosa is a potent psychedelic Antipodean mushroom.