Peter Andrews at Mulloon Creek
Its not often that you get to meet a living legend everyday and lets face it, the term is bandied around for all sorts of people, sportsmen and even celebrities – all the time. But Peter Andrews is different. Here is a guy not afraid to speak his mind and more importantly – back it up with evidence. We were invited down last year by Tony Coote the owner of Mulloon Creek Natural Farms to look at the possibility of doing a documentary explaining the work done on his farm.
Tony had seen our Water Harvesting DVD that we made with Geoff Lawton and was keen to put in a major network of swales on the surrounding hills of his property.
He had already started work on the creek with Peter Andrews and his Natural Sequence Farming technique to re-hydrate the creek and flood plains during one of the longest periods of drought in living memory. To be honest, we weren’t really that interested in the project as we had seen Peter Andrews already featured on ABC-TV’s Australian Story and felt that his system was well explained already.
But we were wrong.
Walking around the creek in the late afternoon, you couldn’t help but marvel at the network of leaky weirs and the chain of ponds that were restoring a featureless eroded channel into a wetland, complete with reeds, willows and a wide assortment of biodiversity. And yes it even looked beautiful because it looked – well – Natural – the way you would expect a beautiful creek to look. I was hooked. I took a heap of photos. I wanted to know more. How do you build something like this? What is the hydrology like under the soil? How would you explain it all?
So we flew down to Canberra in the winter of 2009 and started filming the Mulloon Creek Project.
Fast forward to the Field Day held here on November 1 2009 and Peter Andrews is the guest speaker. 250 people from all over the country have assembled in the barn to hear him speak.
Its 9am but the day is already warm.
Tony Coote introduces my wife Jane and myself to him around the back of the barn. Peter is sitting under a tree eating a peach and cracking a joke about Tony being the “headmaster” of the show.
He reaches down into the green grass and pulls up a clod of dirt and inspects the mulch in his hand. He explains that his system is quite simple, yet most people fail to understand it.
He points out the gleaming droplets of dew glistening on the grass and explains how the natural system functions.
You suddenly realise that this bloke is actually looking at the landscape like someone with uncanny x-ray vision – he’s pointing things out that we are not even aware of.
Over the course of the day, people are broken into groups and given a guided tour by volunteers who have studied what Peter has accomplished. The next day we meet Sue a tour guide on the farm who describes herself as a “rocket scientist” who studied physics at university but feels that what has seen and learnt at Mulloon Creek is of far more practical value.
She describes one of Peters engineering accomplishments. Diverting rainwater run-off down a steep slope into the creek. In a sudden downpour water is diverted off its course by building a large earth barrier near the creek to turn the rushing torrent and make it turn and hit the stream head-on. Whats the point of that I ask? She explains its elementary physics. When two forces meet they cancel each other out. The end result is that the water is pacified and slows down any removal of precious topsoil. Its simple techniques that looks rudimentary to us but is subtle enough in an elegant solution when applied to the natural system. Like boulders sitting in the middle of the creek. We grill Peter in an extensive interview why they are there. He looks at us like an exhausted parent does with a dumb child.
“Its like a Kayaker rushing down a mountain stream.” he says “Ever seen that on TV?” Apparently nature doesn’t move in a straight lines from A to B – but in elegant arcs and figure eight patterns. Peter harnesses those patterns in his design to mimic nature and divert water to flow naturally and improve the landscape.
Its slowly making sense. You realise how little we really do know.
The next day we meet for our agreed interview but Peter is missing. He’s up the hill above the homestead treating a horse with a foot problem. Mixing a secret ingredient he applies the remedy directly to the hooves of the horse and seals the poultice with a plastic bag wrapped around the foot.
“The vets don’t know about this.” he adds.
By this stage – I’m beginning to believe him.
The man has a love for these horses as he talks to them gently saying they are more sensible than humans.
“Horses were my living laboratory.” he says.”They taught me a lot.”
Later that morning we go down to the creek and record our interview with him. He grabs a thistle and sticks it in one shirt pocket and another weed Paterson’s curse is placed in the other top pocket. Hi knows this action will provoke some farmers who strive to poison these weeds from their property. But Peter sees weeds as fundamental to good pasture management. He looks like something out of a Thomas Hardy novel with those weeds bulging out of his shirt, as he sits perched on a rock grinning at us with good humour ready to reveal all.
And he does. Much more than I can say right now.
In this documentary we travel through much of Peter’s early life and in the course of this story he explains Natural Sequence Farming techniques and how it can be adopted to build fertility back into farm soils. But not before taking a swipe at multinational chemical companies who peddle their herbicides. He describes them as snake-oil salesmen. “We used to tar and feather them and run them out of town years ago!” he grumbles with a wry smile.
We hope to illustrate his theories with animation to show how the NSF process works. In the coming weeks we hope to post small video clips that highlight some of his ideas. His parting comment was “Don’t mix me up with that mob – Permaculture!” He has firm views about where he wants to take Natural Sequence Farming.
As we part, he sits in his car talking on his mobile phone. He winds his window down and extends his hand to me as I walk up to the vehicle. We shake hands.
I say to him. “You know Peter – You’re a living treasure.”
His soft brown eyes turn away and look somewhere else. He doesn’t say anything. He looks embarrassed.
The Peter Andrews documentary on Mulloon Creek will be released in 2010.