A guest letter from Australia
Author and farmer Sam Vincent opens up about his father, his farm, and (you guessed it) compost.
I met Sam on the internet at some point during COVID because we had an almost disturbing proclivity to be reading the same obscure books at the same random times. Later on, our interests further aligned as I fell into a wormhole (no pun intended) of community composting —a subject Sam has been deeply familiar with since practically birth. Sam was one of the earliest advocates of my interest in this area and wrote me many letters in which he kindly explained things to me about soil management, farming, compost, and more. For this, I am forever grateful to him.
Since we’ve been corresponding, Sam has had two kinds of babies: one, the real kind (named Orly, short for “Orlando” after Virginia Woolf), and two, a book, “My Father & Other Animals: How I Took on the Family Farm.” Both are wonderful. One thing he talks about in the book, but doesn’t mention in his letter (below) to me, is that he recently worked alongside Australia’s Aboriginal community to designate part of his land as a historic Aboriginal landmark and open it up to the community. It’s one of just 13 such designations that exist on private property in the country.
This letter is based on a chapter which was, tragically!, cut from Sam’s book, but that I read at some early stage of his writing and became attached to. Today, I am glad to share it with all of you. I hope you like it. You can also order your own copy of “My Father & Other Animals” here.
In the seven years we worked together on our family’s farm, before I took over its management in 2021, my father taught me how to compost, without ever calling it that.
“Feeding the microbes” was what Dad said by way of explanation as he tossed cardboard boxes out the back of his pickup into the grass, and the time we towed a dead cow onto a patch of bare ground; it was what he said as we sprayed compost tea on our pastures from an old fire truck, and as we shovelled solid compost around our fruit trees.
Microbes, especially fungi, drive the ability of soil to produce biomass; for 180 million years, since Australia broke away from the supercontinent Gondwana, its soils have been leaching nutrients. By feeding microbes – by composting – you can speed up the cycling of nutrients between the soil, the plants that grow in the soil, and the animals that eat those plants.
My family’s farm, which is called Gollion, is in New South Wales, roughly 30 kilometres north of Canberra, and 300 kilometres southwest of Sydney. It has a temperate climate, characterised by hot, dry summers and cool winters, with the wettest periods of the year usually in spring and autumn, though this is subject to extreme variability, accelerated by climate change. The average annual rainfall is 620 millimetres, which compares to 350 millimetres for Los Angeles. The farm is largely rangeland and looks like parts of Spain and Portugal, and I suspect like parts of California*—although the eucalypts are native here.
*Editors note: It definitely looks like parts of California.
Since European settlement of this district began in the 1820s, sheep ranching has been the predominant agricultural activity, but since the 1990s Gollion has been primarily a black Angus cattle ranch. I run 140 animals over the farm’s 650 acres, with a few acres planted with fruit trees, mainly figs.
At Gollion, microbes feed from a wide menu. Managing cattle “holistically” is part of it, by which they are moved frequently through a circuit of paddocks, ensuring they spread manure evenly over the pastures as they graze, herded tightly together so they trample the grass they don’t eat, putting it in contact with creatures on top of the soil (ants, lizards, spiders), to take it below ground for the worms and microscopic beings – the microbes – to continue decomposing it.
So too is the planting of deciduous trees. Industrial agriculture holds that grass and trees are in competition; my father taught me the opposite is true: trees provide shade to grasses, and their deep roots harbour microbes essential to grass health. A deciduous tree brings nutrients up through its roots and fixes nitrogen and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere. When the tree sheds its leaves, they decompose into the soil, taking the nutrients with them – an automated composting service.
Then there is hot compost, the alchemy whereby the natural decaying process is accelerated by commandeering microbes to break down the carbon and nitrogen, spurred on by moisture, aeration, and friction between the elements. I make it several times a year, still with my dad.
Ours is made primarily from the woodchips of two trees: tagasaste (Cytisus proliferus); and Cootamundra wattle (Acacia baileyana), which have been planted across Gollion in plantations as a fodder crop, nitrogen fixer, and pollinator attractor. We use these species because they naturally comprise the recommended ratio of carbon to nitrogen to achieve fast decomposition.
I first use a pitchfork to form a mound of freshly-made woodchips as deep and wide as a fancy bathtub. Dad holds a hose, dousing the growing pile with water. We build the mound in layers: after a few inches of woodchips have formed, I next fork on the "browns" (dry oak leaves, grass clippings, old hay), then back to the “greens” (the chips). Every third or fourth layer I also add ingredients grown at Gollion specifically for compost (nettles, yarrow, comfrey, borage), hauled off the beach (seaweed) or opportunistically gathered from the farm (dead animals, either domesticated, native or feral). Sometimes we sprinkle on blood and bone instead. We alternate these layers until we've run out of woodchips, then keep hosing the mound until it is fully soaked. At this stage, it is a light green colour and smells like a reed from a woodwind instrument.
Over the next few days, I'll check the mound, poking my hand in to see how hot it is. When it's steaming, and noticeably shrunken in size, I will turn the whole pile, from top to bottom, with a pitchfork. The end product is dark, rich and used as fertiliser on my vegetable garden, sprinkled in the holes I make before planting trees, and spread in the orchards each autumn and spring. We also sometimes aerate it in a tank of water and spray the brew, combined with worm juice and fish hydrolysate, throughout Gollion. Australian microbes, like Australian farmers, enjoy tea with their meals.
You had me at “the time we towed a dead cow onto a patch of bare ground”!