Indigenous agriculture uses ancient knowledge and native plants to farm with the land not against it

Latarnie McDonald and Rodney Carter want to see kangaroo grass become a viable crop. Picture: Tom Melville
Latarnie McDonald and Rodney Carter want to see kangaroo grass become a viable crop. Picture: Tom Melville

Before wheat was wheat, it was a grass. It was introduced to Australia, and every year it struggles against our dry and fickle climate.

But we do have native grasses that First Nations Australians have cultivated for years, like kangaroo grass. Over millennia its grain was ground to make dough for damper. It's a hardy, resilient grass found all over the country.

There are experiments taking place around the country, led by First Nations people, to test the viability of native plants as a sustainable, desirable and profitable crop.

With land degradation and climate change front of mind, there's a growing movement toward more regenerative and sustainable farming.

But the challenge is ensuring cultural intellectual property is respected and that First Nations people play a central role in the native foods industry.

Latarnie McDonald is tall, her weather-beaten Akubra tells of a life spent outdoors, a life in the bush. She's an agro-ecologist specialising in biodiversity. We're on Dja Dja Warrung Country in Central Victoria, at one of two kangaroo grass research sites managed by the Dja Dja Warrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation's commercial arm, Djandak.

Rodney Carter showing the fat seed heads of healthy kangaroo grass. Picture: Tom Melville

Rodney Carter showing the fat seed heads of healthy kangaroo grass. Picture: Tom Melville

The group received a $1.8 million grant from the federal government a few years ago to develop a cropping system for kangaroo grass. Djandak wants to then market that to farmers, providing opportunities to other groups to apply it all over the country. They're in charge of the programme with involvement from La Trobe University.

Latarnie manages the project for Djandak, she calls Kangaroo Grass "the trickiest one of all".

"It's really well adapted to every possible climate scenario you can throw at it," Latarnie says, "it can seed twice a year, if it wants to. The seed can germinate anywhere from within a week to seven years."

Latarnie is trying to figure out the best way to cultivate the grass. The thinking is that as it's a native grass, it requires a lot less water and human intervention than introduced species do. It's a perennial grass that can live over 50 years.

It's meant to be here, which Latarnie hopes will make it far easier to farm.

Latarnie McDonald and Rodney Carter assess a kangaroo grass stand on Dja Dja Warrung Country in Central Victoria. Picture: Tom Melville

Latarnie McDonald and Rodney Carter assess a kangaroo grass stand on Dja Dja Warrung Country in Central Victoria. Picture: Tom Melville

"It's lived through every drought Australia's thrown in it for tens of thousands of years. And here it is," she tells me.

For Rodney Carter, CEO of the Dja Dja Warrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, this project is part of his people's healing process. He's a good natured man, with an easy laugh and a smile which never leaves his eyes. Rodney says it's about creating healthy country and healthy people.

"So for us to see kangaroo grass across altered landscapes is a massive positive, to visualise the colours, and then to be able to use farming systems to make that efficient and commercially viable for people to enjoy the product itself," he says.

There are countless examples around Australia of pre-colonial First Nations people working hard, in historian Bruce Gammage's words, to make "plants and animals abundant, convenient and predictable."

It [kangaroo grass] is really well adapted to every possible climate scenario you can throw at it.

Latarnie McDonald, agro-economist

Fire was applied to the landscape in a controlled manner, plants were cultivated for food and in such a way as to encourage growth and attract animals. Australia was, Gammage called it, the Biggest Estate on earth.

These were systems developed over thousands of years in harmony with the land. But with the arrival of Europeans that thread to the past was cut and those gentle and pleasant "parklands" early European explorers described were lost.

First Nations people have been involved with western style agriculture on this continent almost since the beginning and in all manner of ways, but in terms of owning land, and profiting from it, they remain underrepresented.

Worimi farmer Josh Gilbert with his cattle in Nabiac, NSW. Picture: Tom Melville

Worimi farmer Josh Gilbert with his cattle in Nabiac, NSW. Picture: Tom Melville

Josh Gilbert is a Worimi man from the Gloucester region of New South Wales, a couple of hours north of Newcastle. His family have been farming cattle near Nabiac for generations.

We sit down on his deck overlooking bright green pasture in parts over a metre tall. This was dry and dusty a couple of years ago, but after some good seasons the landscape has been transformed. He tells me it has been a particularly good one for his bee hives.

Josh works for Price Waterhouse Cooper in their Indigenous consulting unit. A few years ago they released a report into the Kakadu plum, a fruit native to the Top End. There's a huge amount of potential for cultivation. Josh sees it as Australia's native superfood.

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He helped identify six and a half thousand species native to Australia that could be cultivated - like the Kakadu plum, but also kangaroo grass, yam daisies, dancing grass, and all sorts of tubers, fruits, nuts, grasses, and herbs.

Josh wants to ensure these new crops are cultivated ethically and responsibly, with clear benefits to Indigenous people, which hasn't always happened in the past.

"If we have a look at the bush food space, Indigenous People make up one per cent of the farmers in that space, and they receive one per cent of the benefit," he says. "It's really heart-breaking that our cultural IP [intellectual property], or the knowledge that's built up into these products has been taken."

Josh's goal is to develop an Indigenous Certification -- something producers can put on their products which let consumers know that it's been produced by an Indigenous farmer and that the profits are going to Indigenous people. That'll help make sure there are viable employment pathways in the industry for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and that it's being led by the traditional owners themselves.

A paddock on Josh Gilbert's farm which would have been dry and dusty only a few years ago. Picture: Tom Melville

A paddock on Josh Gilbert's farm which would have been dry and dusty only a few years ago. Picture: Tom Melville

For Josh, Indigenous agriculture is as much about having a positive, regenerative relationship with the landscape as it is a set of crops or techniques. He points to evidence from around the world that Indigenous custodians preserve more diverse landscapes. He says 80 per cent of the world's biodiversity is in Indigenous owned land.

It's really heartbreaking that our cultural IP [intellectual property], or the knowledge that's built up into these products has been taken.

Josh Gilbert, Worimi Farmer

"Here farmers are putting in 10 year sustainability farm practices in place, we're thinking, 'What's the next 60,000 years look like? What does a connection for a Worimi person in the next 200-300 years look like on this place?'"

Back on Dja Dja Warrung Country with Rodney and Latarnie, Rodney rummages around the kangaroo grass tussocks, pulling out insects and showing them to me - spotting moths and caterpillars. It's clearly satisfying for him to be in charge of a programme like this, one which is fully Aboriginal lead, restoring the landscape, and providing opportunities to Indigenous people. I ask Rodney about the insects, and about some of the other grasses that grow along the kangaroo grass stands.

The aim is to make the crop economically viable. To prove it's a worthwhile product.

Agriculture has probably been so subject to pressures that consumers have placed upon the person or the land. As consumers if we're prepared to pay a price that afforded the respect to the land, then the farmer could farm to the best of their ability around what the environment needs."

Latarnie's weatherbeaten akubra tells of a life spent outdoors. Picture: Tom Melville

Latarnie's weatherbeaten akubra tells of a life spent outdoors. Picture: Tom Melville

The utopic end goal would be a varied Australian landscape supported by hundreds of different native crops growing in harmony with each other and the land. Instead of homogenising the environment, we'd be working with the landscape for its benefit and ours .

"Imagine a landscape just covered with all these different types of species that will attract certain insects and birds and animals because of that nature. But we can't at the moment be caught up in that utopian dream. I think if you get some of this foundation right, show it's achievable, then you just keep going."

Despite the hard scientific methods The Dja Dja Warrung Clan's aboriginal corporation's commercial arm is employing, there is a large cultural aspect to the programme too. Rodney is conscious of the weight of history, of picking up the thread lost when his ancestors were dispossessed of their land.

"History is written by the powerful and I don't always feel very powerful, but increasingly I feel positive and able to be constructively influential. What we do in projects like this is extremely healing, and it's healing to more people when they see the achievements."

This story Can native crops heal our country? first appeared on Newcastle Herald.