Murray Prior and his wife Michelle had been thinking about a tree change for a long time before they finally took the leap and bought a farm. “Inner City Sydney seemed like a very intense place to raise children. And as our two kids got older, it was time to make a decision,” says Murray who purchased a 220 acres property near Gundaroo in the Southern Tablelands of NSW just over 18 months ago.
The mixed-grazing plot ticked a lot of boxes. It had access to a river and the relatively short distance to Sydney made it possible for Murray to continue to work as International Marketing Director at a law firm four days per week before returning to his family and farm life over the weekend.
But the change in surroundings brought about much more than just a lifestyle change for the Priors. Murray and Michelle are now right in the middle of turning their property into a model for regenerative farming practices.
Of mentors and newly minted farmers
It’s a transformation that was set in motion by a colleague’s book recommendation. Call of the Reed Warbler is an urgent call to move to less intensive agricultural practices. The author of the book is 5th generation Australian farmer, Charles Massy. His book is a powerful mix of personal memoir and scientific evidence.
“Reading Charlie’s book changed our lives,” remembers Murray. “His story changed our perspective on the enormity of what we had just done. We started to think about our responsibility as custodians of the land we now owned.”
Having no experience with any form of agriculture – regenerative or otherwise – Murray contacted Charles for advice: “He decided to help us because he was finding it hard to convince established farmers to reevaluate their ways of production.”
Charles saw an opportunity for a collaboration that would prove to others that low intensity and regenerative farming techniques could still yield good results. So, he created a master plan for a model farm that – with a lot of sweat, patience and perseverance – would allow the Priors to grow healthy food on healthy soil.
And with Charles as a mentor, Murray and Michelle learnt a lot more than the practicalities of regenerative farming. He had a profound impact on their general outlook and their responsibilities as a newly minted farmers.
“I remember sitting in our UTE at the top of a hill overlooking our property. Charlie turned to me saying ‘You know, you really don’t own this place.’ I was about to protest and show him our mortgage papers, when he started to point out distinctive features in the landscape that had been there long before humans started to cultivate the land – and they would still be there long after I’m gone. It dawned on me then that we are really just passing through. We might own the land on paper, but our time on this planet is limited.”
Regenerative farming practices help to restore biodiversity
And the Priors are determined to use their limited time to restore the family farm to good health. While their property hadn’t been as badly affected as others by the intensive sheep grazing practices that brought about tremendous economic growth – albeit at a huge environmental cost – to the Southern Tablelands, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“At the moment, we’re first and foremost concerned about landscape improvement,” says Murray. And while it may seem contradictory at first, one of the ‘tools’ the Priors are using to achieve this is cattle. “The difference compared to traditional set stock farming is that we move our grazing animals around a lot. This allows us to manage pasture in a way that is much more drought resistant.”
To establish a profitable farm at this lower level of intensity, Murray and Michelle are developing multiple income streams. They have a big veggie garden, the beginnings of a honey production, beef cattle and chickens for meat and eggs. They are also building a farm stay which will function as a source of income and an educational facility for visitors wanting to learn about biodynamic farming and indigenous land management techniques.
One of the biggest projects in the ongoing regeneration effort is the planting of thousands of trees and shrubs. The aim is to have no more than 70-80 meters between habitats to encourage greater biodiversity and re-hydrate the soil.
Farming, the food industry and the circle of life
Their first beef will also be ready for market soon. That is, if they can figure out an efficient way to get it to consumers. “It’s really been fascinating to learn how the whole industry works,” Murray says.
“I have come to the conclusion that some of the best food in Australia is simply not for sale. It’s grown by super passionate people who struggle to get access to transport and slaughter in a market dominated by big players. Right now the producer has the most work and the lowest margins. But I am hopeful that this will change as people become more focussed on the quality and provenance of their food.”
Murray and Michelle’s first 18 months as farmers also revealed a lot more about the realities of working closely with and in nature. “We learned pretty quickly that things go wrong all the time. You can have the best plans, but what you’re actually going to do on any given day can change completely when you get up in the morning.”
What’s more, there’s an irrepressible element to farm life which extends to farming practices. Especially in landscape that has been severely altered over many decades of intensive agricultural use. “It’s easy to say that we’re chemical free (which we are),” says Murray. “But things can carry far in a landscape that is lacking trees and has windy conditions.”
The constant exposure to the circle of life also proved to be confronting for city people. “If you live on a farm, things are born all the time but they also die all the time. It’s simultaneously awe-inspiring and incredibly challenging.”
Despite all these challenges, the Priors have no regrets about making their tree change dream a reality. “The only recommendation I’d have to anyone who’s considering a similar move, is to stop procrastinating and do it sooner. Rural communities tend to be very vibrant – and they genuinely care about the welfare of their members which is a very lovely thing.”
Follow their regenerative farming journey
If you want to learn more about Murray and Michelle’s progress in transforming their property into a regenerative farm, follow their Instagram account. Their posts are a great mix of project updates, daily observations on farm life and photos that beautifully showcase country life in Australia.