When people ask me what farming experience I had before coming here I joke about farming 50 square metres in Northcote. It is true, it was small, but I did manage to squeeze in a veggie plot, 20 fruit trees and a dozen chooks. Wongarra Farm is about 7,000 times bigger! Fair to say, it’s been a step up.
I’ve always said people are either gypsies or peasants. For a long time I was a gypsy. In the mid-nineties I founded a street theatre company called Strange Fruit. The group performed on top of 4 metre high, very flexible poles. The act became a huge hit and we spent the next 10 years touring the world. We would spend 3 months each year touring Europe, performing for festivals in France, Germany, Italy and further afield. We were also invited to perform in Asia, North America, Latin America and even the West coast of Africa. We toured to over 30 countries. It was a fantastic way to see the world. Performing in other countries is so much more enriching than being a tourist; people really welcomed us into their culture and shared their lives with us.
The constant touring was exhilarating but exhausting. I left Strange Fruit in 2006 and, for a few years, ran some established arts organisations from a desk, but it was never quite as fulfilling.
Buying Wongarra Farm wasn’t exactly an impulse buy, but it was certainly an abrupt and significant change of life; a big swing from gypsy to peasant. I wasn’t familiar with the Otways at all. It was an infatuation with the farm itself which brought me here. Having spent a couple of years in the area, I’ve really started to appreciate how much the Otways has to offer. It really does put on a fantastic show. The ocean is constantly changing, the landscape is spectacular and the animal and bird life is wondrous. I find myself awestruck almost on a daily basis.
Managing the farm has taken me on a precipitous learning curve. I’m now managing a herd of beef cattle, a mob of Suffolk sheep, a flock of pastured chickens, a posse of delightful rare-breed, Wessex Saddleback pigs and one of Victoria’s oldest truffieres, producing Perigord black truffles. This does not leave a lot of time to admire the views and enjoy the natural wonders of the Otways, but it certainly focuses the mind!
In managing Wongarra Farm, I have tried to carry over some approaches from my experience in the performance arts and there are many parallels. Farming requires keeping a lot of balls in the air. A good farmer needs to be able to improvise quickly when things go pear-shaped (and they often do!) There’s a need to balance everyday chores whilst keeping an eye on the bigger picture. I hope that the farm can be not only a functional, productive enterprise, but also one that is a pleasure to visit and experience on every level.
I know you’re not supposed to have favourite children, but of all the animals I really do love our Wessex Saddleback pigs. They are such amiable, cheerful and often mischievous creatures. It’s always a challenge keeping them where you want them, but they are great to be around.
Opening up the farm to visitors is central to its ethos. Ethically, it ensures that I am accountable for how the animals and the land are treated. In an educational sense, it helps people understand the work that goes into great produce. Lastly, I’m probably still a bit of a show-off and love people to experience the beauty of this place.