A journalism professor once wrote, ‘The complexity of the journalist’s ethical situation is only compounded in the case of narrative journalism.’ When Sarah Coles visited Pickle Creek Farm, a farm just outside of Sydney in March, she expected rainbows and kumbaya–what she got was a farmer with attitude and an ethical conundrum.
The first indication that I had pitched a tent in interview hell was when I wandered over to the eggplant patch and asked the farmer a question. The farmer sighed, ‘I’ve answered so many questions in the last 24 hours. Can the interview just wait until tomorrow?’ She sounded like Mercedes Corby on the day Schapelle got let out of Kerobokan prison; like I was the last of a media pack that had been hounding her about key-line farming for days; camped out near her compost toilet to hit her with the difficult questions about soil pH. I looked around the farm. There was no one there. I should have cracked it, said ‘Get stuffed’ and hitched a ride back to the big smoke but I had my project backers to think of, two plane flights using petroleum based fuel to consider, and a book to write. When I asked about the house a cloud of doom brewed above: the farmer lives in a pipe house that won a houses of the future design competition. It looks like something out of the science fiction novel Dune. I said something like, ‘Wow what’s the deal with this house?’ and she sighed, ‘People ask me about it all the time. I don’t want to talk about the house.’ Immersion journalism–the practice by which a writer immerses themselves in a situation with the subjects involved–lost its pep that day.
What makes all of this weird is that the farmer Esther was one of the first people to back this project. She even sent me a supportive email during the crowd-funding stage. Her antipathy toward me when I was on the farm was complicated: How do you write about negative experiences with a farmer who is one of the backers of your project? I went kayaking on the river behind the farm and considered drowning as a way of getting out of writing this chapter. Esther told me that I wasn’t allowed to take her photograph but I managed to talk her round to letting me take a photo of her legs. I couldn’t understand why she told me that I could profile the farm but seemed resistant to answering any questions. The first night–notebooks empty–I laid in my tent thinking: Damn you Lee Gutkind. Damn you Nellie Bly. Damn you Hunter S Thompson. Damn anyone who thinks that the key to understanding your subject is to bury yourself in their lives.
The next day, Sunday morning on the farm, I helped Esther and farm worker Caitlin harvest snake-beans and beetroots for the weekly vegetable boxes and sowed some carrots, turnips, coriander and dill. Caitlin is an upbeat character. When I asked her what her favourite thing to do on the farm was she paused and said, ‘Oh my god I love all the jobs.’ Esther’s friend Lou turned up to help. The previous night she’d been at ‘Oi Gothic’, a punk show in west Sydney. Esther and Lou hoed the leek patch while Caitlin sowed some Autumn crops, brassicas: marathon and gypsy broccoli. When my attempts at in-field interviews were like getting blood from a stone I started recording avant garde soundscapes of Caitlin sowing lettuce. That afternoon I interviewed Esther inside the pipe house while she sorted edamame soybeans.
It has been four months since I went to the farm where the farmer hated me. I have been too scared to listen to the audio recordings until now. I’m hoping that they will be like a Pandora’s Box–all the horrible shit will fly out first but at the end, some redeeming thing; a moth of hope. As I start listening back and reflecting on why the interview was terrible I hear the frayed nerves in my voice. You can tell from the recording that there were no rainbows; I found no pots of gold. Or I thought I hadn’t. But listening back it turns out Esther, despite her prickly exterior, had plenty of gold things to say.
Sunday afternoon, March 15 2015
ES: Good chin stroking face there.
SC: I wanted to know if you think what you are doing is useful.
Yeah for sure. People need food so growing food is always useful.
What’s the worst thing that has happened so far?
Earlier this year when we had a big hailstorm come through, just when all the summer crops were still young. That was quite upsetting although I guess the damage in the end turned out to be largely psychological. I was pleased to see that a lot of farming advisory services said that was a major factor but a lot of the plants did recover. Plants are amazing things. Even though they got smashed to pieces by balls of ice flying at them they mostly managed to pull through.
Who are your farming idols?
I’m generally pretty anti-idolatry, but I do have one farming idol. She’s a farmer called Pam Dorling who is the author of a book Sustainable Market Farming and she grows vegetables for the community she lives on which is 100 people who all share all the income and labour in Virginia in the US. She is an amazing source of knowledge and inspiration.
Last night you were talking about how you feel frustrated when you read something by twenty-something white middle-class people who move from the city to start a farm. You sounded like you think it’s over-represented or…?
It’s like all of those things, people baking or embroidering or whatever, as if it’s like new or they’ve discovered it or whatever. I find that pretty boring and also it often manages to displace the people who actually do that stuff, or have always done that stuff or have the knowledge about that stuff by making it seem like some cool, new thing that certain people can gets lots of praise for doing.
So do you want to fly under the radar?
Yeah I just want to grow my vegetables and sell my vegetables. I don’t need a media profile to do that. It doesn’t help me feed people.
Is there anything in particular that you want me to write about in the book that you want to know about?
I think that question about labour and Australian farms would be really interesting. I think there is a lot of people talking about that stuff without really actually knowing anything. For instance, there is a perception that Chinese farmers in Australia have cheap labour which just seems weird because we’re all living in the same place with the same costs. Obviously there are some people who have to work for less because they don’t have very many job opportunities but other than that. I’ve heard that said about farmers in the Sydney region so obviously whoever is working on their farms still needs to pay rent and eat so I don’t see why they would be paying their workers less? I just think there is a lot of misinformation around. It would be cool to know what the deal is with farms.
What about people who want to do what you did? So they want to hear from you how you did it? Do you take on interns or anything?
Not really. Caitlin came here as a friend but then ended up being an intern and I’ve had some part-time interns who have come out to learn but I think if people want to learn how to farm there are plenty of farms out there to learn from so I don’t feel that I need to.
You just want to grow food?
Yeah. I just think if people want to start a farm then that is cool but I don’t think the most media about farmers is helpful. It’s just like you said:it is just puff pieces.
What should I include in this thing for it not to be a puff piece?
That’s your problem mate! You’re the journalist. [laughs]
I guess I was interested in what…I’d never thought about it before… last night you were talking about how permaculture isn’t a sustainable method because you have to teach alongside growing food. It seems like there is not any independent permaculture farm that is just growing food. I find that interesting… What were you doing before you were doing this? Adam Grubb said that you were a nerd?
That is nice of him to say that, obviously he is a nerd. The job that I had before I was a farmer was working in community development. I did a few different jobs in the community sector over a few years.
What do you want to happen here?
On the farm? Pretty much what is happening. Everything is running pretty well. I just want to get better at growing, learn better growing methods and then grow more food.
Is this a type of soybean?
Yeah edamame are a soybean that has been bred for eating as a green vegetable instead of a dry soybean so they are bred to be sweet and stuff when they’re young.
Do they have thinner skin?
I don’t really know. You pod them anyway when you’re eating them.
Is there anything that you haven’t grown yet that you want to next time? Are you often trying out new plants?
Yeah we grow a fair bit of stuff just for fun just to try it out.
What are you growing at the moment just for fun?
Yeah I saw that. I thought that they grow on trees!
Yeah it’s pretty mind-blowing for a lot of people the old ground nut…We’re growing popcorn.
I thought popcorn was just corn.
It is a special variety.
Is it starchier?
It is to do with how it dries so there is moisture inside the kernel so it can pop.
So you’ve got 20 people getting a box this week. What do they get?
They get a mixed box, whatever is seasonal. People can say that there is a vegetable or two that they don’t want and then they just get more of something else.
You’ve got an eggplant tattoo. Is that your favourite vegetable?
Nah I don’t have favourites. That would be like having a favourite child.
Everyone always does they just hide it!
The tattoo pre-dates my vegetable farming life.
What about, you mentioned that you think that Salatin is the Pink of farming. Would you like to expand on that?
No, I said he might be because someone, maybe it was even you, said, ‘Is he as popular in America as he is here?’ I was just curious as to whether he came here all of the time because he can sell out all of his stuff and make lots of good, hard Aussie currency like Pink.
Yeah like when people that used to be on Home and Away went to London straight after because it was better over there. Is that happening?
Is that happening with [soap opera] stars these days?
Alf is a wasabi farmer.
Is that right?
Nup. Not at all but I would like it if he was. And Madge.
My landlord was trying to tell me to grow wasabi because you can make a lot of money.
Don’t you need running water?
Probably. You can make a lot of money. It’s very hard.
You don’t seem driven by the dollar.
Well, I’m lucky. I don’t need to be but also I think the idea of getting rich quick off farming is pretty stupid. I don’t think that that’s a smart way to farm.
What do you mean that you don’t need to be rich?
I mean that I have some money so I don’t need to be fully focused on the money side of things; saves me from becoming a wasabi farmer. I think only rich people would try to become wasabi farmers, to be honest.
Do you grow any grains here?
What do you do with the amaranth? Does that go in to the boxes or?
Yeah. It’s just leaf amaranth. It is just another leafy veg for people to eat.
Cool. So you have been here a year and a half, so did you start selling stuff almost straight away and how?
I started selling stuff about two months after we got here.
What was the first thing?
First crops were radishes. There was something else in that first harvest. I can’t quite remember what it was.
Marijuana? [I laugh. Esther seems disappointed. This makes me nervous and I turn into Sean Penn’s character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and say] Wow you could grow a lot of dope here [I regain composure] Radishes? And now you’re at the stage that you like?
Yeah. I’m comfortable at this size for this amount of skills. I think it probably would be good to have a farm that is slightly bigger but not until I get better at managing a farm at this size.
Do you work six days and have one day off?
Yeah I probably work five and a half days.
And you mentioned that lady before. Pam Dorling. You think she is a good farmer. How come?
I think she is inspiring. She is a very good grower. She is very research focused, she will record everything and trial everything and see what works. Her methods are very…
Yeah, based on experience.
Are you doing that here?
We try. We try and record a lot of info for what we are doing but not a **** yet [inaudible recording because of gust of wind through pipe house]
I found last night really interesting what you were talking about.
I don’t mean to be someone who hates on everything. I just think that the level of dialogue in this country about food issues is very, very basic. So it is frustrating.
What is an example of that?
I guess what I was talking about yesterday of the example of farmers thinking it’s okay to just go around saying, ‘Food is too cheap.’
Is it too middle-class? Is that what you mean?
I just mean it is too basic. There is no critical thinking about different things that intersect in food. You know you were saying about people who can’t afford to eat. [I had been telling Esther about what I had learned from speaking with Russell Sheilds about food sovereignty] Poverty intersects with food, health intersects with food, race intersects with food, class intersects with food. There’s a lot of shit that goes on.
And then there’s the massive organic mono-crops: a really shitty business model often. It seems like there are people who have blind faith in organics and don’t question anything.
Yeah. Probably there would be a lot of people who would say, ‘Monocultures are bad, big farms are bad.’ I don’t even think it is about any of those binary debates. I just think it is about the standard of debate itself being very low. People get patted on the back for saying really obvious stupid stuff. There isn’t much of a diversity of perspectives. Things like, you were talking about, the labour conditions on farms are never talked about.
I’m just really drawn to scientists because they can back up what they are saying.
If you were just really drawn to scientists why are you so anti-Monsanto? They have a million scientists who can back up what they’re saying. Science is pretty subjective as well.
I should try and talk to someone from Monsanto. Wonder if I would get put through?
You should talk to a farmer who is into GMOs or something.
Shouldn’t be hard to find in WA. They love it.
[Kaitlin the intern who has been a bit sick appears. They briefly discuss eggplants and pruning. ]
What do you like in the movement?
I don’t know.
Well you did a PDC [permaculture design certificate] didn’t you? Did you like it?
That was like ten years ago. Did I like it? Not really.
The teaching was really crap, bad teaching, didn’t manage the classroom well. A lot of white saviour bullshit. Their visits to various impoverished communities and how they taught them how to feed themselves. I am sure every PDC is different but that was my experience. Obviously I picked up some useful things as well.
What about this place–you found it through Landshare. What is Landshare?
It is a website connected to an English website. It is mostly designed for backyard growers, people that want to have a vegie patch and don’t have enough room and other people who have more space than they want. I think it is really good. I think that there is obviously challenges in Australia in terms of access to land and real estate prices, especially around the cities, but I think there is a lot of potential because there is a lot of underutilised land. Stuff like Landshare seems like a good…there are a lot of opportunities for growers in that sense but it is kind of fucked if you want to buy a farm.
What about growing food in the city? What do you think about urban gardening? Why did you move out here?
I wanted more space. Even a half acre like this, in Sydney it would be difficult to find. I was looking at places that were in the suburbs as well, but this turned out to be the one that was available. I think growing food in the cities is good. I think it’s probably easy for people to overestimate the contributions that city gardens make. I certainly have known a lot of backyards that people put a lot into and don’t really harvest much out of. So in terms of efficiency, that is an interesting one. But gardening is awesome, everyone should garden. It makes you feel good and it’s great to grow some food. I’m certainly not anti-gardening. It’s one of the few things I’m not anti. Urban farming seems cool if you can make it happen. I don’t really want to sit in a lot of meetings with council people and be some kind of four year project or something so I decided to go down this route, but if you have the energy for that kind of stuff then that is awesome and those spaces can probably be really meaningful for people.
What was that thing that you mentioned–The Contrarian Gardener or?
That is a website run by a research scientist out of the States where she is into dispelling certain myths that gardeners have. She is not as contrary as me, she is just contrary about science. She might be as contrary as me in real life, it’s hard to know. What do you think about urban gardening?
Mmmm. I just feel like it’s not on a large enough scale. It would work okay if there wasn’t a bureaucratic thing saying you can’t have a pig in the city. I’d like a pig out the back of every restaurant. Things like that. I feel like there is a lot of legislative changes that have to happen. I want more gardens in the city. OzHarvest is this food charity. The CEO made it happen by campaigning for changes to legislation around whether supermarkets can give their excess straight to OzHarvest because previously they couldn’t. So I think when smart people campaign properly changes can occur but it seems like a really arduous process, and I don’t think I’m one of those people.
Do you want to see more people do what you’re doing?
Yeah I think it would be good for more people in the city to have access to good food that is fresh and affordable. However that needs to happen, whether that be existing farmers gain access to the sort of markets that I have or whether new farmers set up. I think it would be cool if there were more farms.
Is this farm organic?
Yeah. We use organic growing practices. We’re not certified yet.
Do you aim to be one day or you don’t care?
Don’t care. There’s no advantage to me at this point in doing it.
Where do you get your seeds from? How do you choose where you’re gonna get them from?
Who has the varieties I want? Whose seeds have performed reliably in the past?
Do you ever seed save here?
Not really. There’s one tomato variety that we saved which is not really available in this country but at this stage…
Too time consuming?
It’s not really time consuming it’s just that it doesn’t really fit with growing food because either you are harvesting and selling the bit with the seed or you have to wait for the seed, the crop would have to stay in the ground for six months, and you need that space for something else, or you’re growing ten varieties that would cross. We save some stuff but it’s not really a focus of the farm. But it would be cool to build it in at some point.
Do you have any deep moral message that you want me to pass on?
No, definitely not.
Deep moral message: food is good.
IT TURNS OUT
Some people labour under the misapprehension that growing food is easy. They go to a couple of talks by well meaning small scale growers and discuss the pitfalls of RoundUp over cups of kombucha; gain an education in permaculture; inherit some money; spend some time on farms learning; read some biology and look up soil testing on youtube. Then they start an organic farm that goes bust a few years later. Esther Singer is not one of those people. I think that the reason Esther was in a foul canker when I went to the farm is because she has no illusions. Pickle Creek has been in operation since September 2013 and Esther already knows how difficult it is to farm. Growing food takes a lifetime to figure out and the odds are stacked against you: Pest plagues. Drought. Floods. An idiotic government approving a coal mine on agricultural land. A public who want a perfectly straight carrot. Shady free trade deals. Bush-fires. The price of irrigation. A neighbour winnowing GE canola on a windy day… Back in March I thought Esther was being obstructive. I lay in the hammock, did some controlled crying, read Tristram Stuart’s Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal and counted the hours until I was back in Melbourne. I see now that perhaps Esther was stressed clean out of her mind by mouse plagues, flooding and petrol prices. Maybe Esther didn’t want to waste time on theories about whether Salatin is the Pink of farming because she was preoccupied by the mouse teeth marks on the snake-bean. Since speaking to Esther, and later on Paul Miragliotta, when I think about farming it is hard not to picture Job in the Bible, bent backward at the waist, railing at the sky, crops destroyed. Several months after I went to the farm I emailed Esther to tell her that I had felt unwelcome. She wrote back straight away to say that she had been feeling really bad about it and was extremely decent in her reply. We arranged to talk a few days later but neither of us ever made the call. Anyway, Esther, if you’re reading this: thank you for teaching me to double dress potato salad and I hope that we can sort it out–but more importantly I hope that people realise how hard it is to grow their dinner.
‘The complexity of the journalists…’ Walt Harrington in ‘Toward an Ethical Code for Narrative Journalists’ in Telling True Stories, a 2007 book published by The Nieman Foundation.