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Fig Tree Farm_8

The Policeman and the Farmer

Beatrice Smith

IN A TIME WHEN MANY YOUNG PEOPLE ARE TURNING THEIR BACK ON ‘LIFE ON THE LAND’, WE FIND ONE MAN FOR WHOM FARMING WASN’T JUST A SECOND CAREER, BUT A CHANCE TO HEAL.

Ninety minutes from Canberra, Kashmir’s boundaries are wide, stretching across acres of yellow grassland and lush lucerne. A deep river cuts through the Wee Jasper valley, forming the western border of the farm and the eastern border disappears over steep hills dotted with sheep, some 6000 of them in total.

Standing tall in a field of cherry tomatoes, sixth-generation farmer Rich Carey is telling me about
his heritage.

“The Careys were working in the valley and after the [First World] War my great grandfather was given a soldier settlement block in the valley, which is the block that we’re currently farming now.”

While Rich didn’t grow up in Wee Jasper, his dad recalls taking him out to the farm every weekend from when he was six months old. Rich and his younger sister grew up with weekends spent rounding up and shearing sheep, picking blackberries and swimming in the Goodradigbee River.

In the current economic landscape, where many of the country’s young people are choosing to move to urban centres and leave the family farm, it’s warming to know that Kashmir has seen a sixth generation and will perhaps even see a seventh, with Rich’s first child with wife Liz on the way. But this wasn’t always the plan.

Rich’s first calling was to the police force, starting as an officer with the ACT division of the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

“I was 23 when I applied to the AFP and 25 when I was sworn as an officer,” he says. “I loved it. It’s an amazing career full of amazing people. The teamwork there…” he trails off for a moment. “You live for your teammates – they know you’ve got their back and they’ve got yours.”

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Rich clearly treasured this camaraderie and there’s a quiet pride in his voice as he tells me about it.

“We had some big jobs where it was good to get out the back end of them knowing we’d achieved things,” he says with a slow smile.

“To be honest, the highlight was the day-to-day. I worked in retail and hotels beforehand – [both] team environments but just not the same. The stakes are much higher in the police force and the highlight was definitely the people.”

The energy in Rich’s voice when he speaks of the Force is real
– so what’s he doing in a field 
of tomatoes?

“Early in 2015 I had several very intense jobs come up close to each other,” explains Rich.

It was a challenging time for the AFP. In addition to the cases Rich was involved with, this was a time that saw the brutal murders of Tara Costigan, Sabah Al-Mdwali and Neal Keith Wilkinson happen within three weeks of each other, and the beginning of an extensive historical enquiry by the AFP into child sex abuse in the ACT.

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Newspaper articles from those weeks were quick to suggest that the AFP was under-resourced to deal with these consecutive—not to mention mentally taxing— crimes, and as the ACT averages 2.3 homicides per year they may have been right.

“I started to struggle,” says Rich. “It was probably a fortnight after these culminated before I went 
to my Sergeant and said that I needed help. I asked for some time off and I went and saw a GP. They diagnosed me with Anxiety and PTSD.”

This is significant in light of a recent leak to news.com.au by an AFP whistleblower who said they view struggling officers as “ticking time bombs”. The officer claimed that AFP branches outside the ACT don’t have in-house support staff and that those affected don’t actively seek support because of how they may be perceived by their colleagues.

“Day to day I’d go from waking up in the morning thinking ‘Right! Let’s go! Can’t wait to get to work!’ to the next day I’d wake up and think ‘I never want to see that place again’,” says Rich.

In total, Rich took eight months of leave from the AFP.

“In my time off, the doctor didn’t want me sitting at home, twiddling my thumbs, harking back to things,” Rich explains. “So he was really happy that I had Wee Jasper.”

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The relationship between humans and the land is a deep and symbiotic one.

It’s not just the ‘give and take’ – it’s the spiritual, the emotional and the cathartic relationships that we develop over time. But in an era where urban careers hold greater attraction for many young people, the link between self and country is becoming less apparent.

It’s this relationship that underpins Lockhart’s Spirit of the Land Festival, an event which aims to once again link people with their land and heal them in the process – even if the land is uncooperative.

The festival—held in the Riverina district of New South Wales— was established in an attempt to curb the alarming rate of male suicide during the dark years of the drought over a decade ago; encouraging farmers to “use their skills to enter a farm art sculpture competition” wherein farmers would gather scrap metal from around their farms and use it to create works of art*.

With incredibly low costs and simple parameters, the competition was wildly successful and spawned an entire generation of new artists. One by one, fruitful harvests of metal artwork appeared on the pastures of the Riverina and— gradually—the mood of the farms lifted. So did the drought.

Being healed by the land is such a simple concept – the ability to build something with one’s own hands and see a physical product in front of you.

Back in Wee Jasper, Rich was doing something similar. He admits that even though the AFP had been his dream job, he had always quietly planned to become Kashmir’s sixth generation.

“My uncle grew vegetables in the late 90s and that’s where I think got the idea from,” says Rich.
“I’d been thinking about starting things at Wee Jasper for quite a while and had even been planning while in the force.”

“The Doctor said he wanted me doing productive things while away from the force so I used that time to build a greenhouse.”

It was a turning point for Rich.

“That was a fantastic use of my time cause I wasn’t sitting around watching daytime TV,” he says. “I’d set myself a task with an endpoint and to achieve that was great.”

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After receiving extensive counselling from the AFP, Rich had a decision to make.

“I’d lost a lot of confidence 
in myself in policing,” Rich says. “You’ve got to have your teammates’ backs and I didn’t have the self-confidence that I would…so I definitely think I made the right decision.”

That decision was to leave the Force and channel his energies into the land.

Through “late night Googling”, Rich stumbled upon the idea 
of growing vegetables through aquaponics. The sustainable and environmentally-friendly practice uses the waste from fish to feed and nurture vegetables, which then clean the water that is cycled back to the fish.

But his aspirations for sustainability didn’t end there. Rather than dividing his time between planting, harvesting and selling, Rich decided to look into Community Support Agriculture (CSA), a business model that sees customers ‘buy into’ the crop before it’s even planted and then reap the harvest week by week.

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“The CSA design really jumped out because you sell memberships up front and then what you grow is divided up so there’s absolutely no wastage at the end,” explains Rich. “You’re not wasting half a day at the markets so you’re working on the farm more and you’re getting capital at the start of the season to buy seeds and upgrade equipment.”

“It’s also good from the consumer’s perspective because they get [to establish] a connection with the person who’s growing their food. If they have questions, they can ask me face-to-face.”

After a trial growing year that saw OzHarvest reaping the majority of what was a stellar first run of vegetables, Rich and Liz founded Fig Tree Farm in December 2015 and advertised for their first ever round of customers.

Despite CSA being an exercise 
in faith for both customers and farmer alike, they were happy to find that they were able to reach their 20-customer limit with no difficulty whatsoever and are now hoping to expand to 30 customers this year, as well as establishing their aquaponics system. In a few years, Rich hopes to double their client base.

Perhaps somewhat serendipitously, the first thing you see on the Fig Tree Farm website is the Brenda Schoepp quote: “My grandfather used to say that once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher but every day, three times a day, you need a farmer.” **

As Rich himself says, “I think it’s worked out really well.”

You can find out more
 about Fig Tree Farm at www.figtreefarmweejasper.com.au

References

* www.spiritofthelandlockhart.com.au

** brendaschoepp.com/farmer

Photography by Martin Ollman

This article originally appeared in Magazine: Back to Basics for Autumn 2017, available for free while stocks last. Find out more about Magazine here

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Beatrice Smith

Bea loves that her job as HerCanberra’s Editorial Coordinator involves eating, drinking and interviewing people - sometimes simultaneously. The master of HerCanberra’s publishing schedule, she’s usually found hunched over a huge calendar muttering to herself about content balance. Otherwise you’ll find her at the movies, ordering a cheese board or ordering a cheese board at the movies. More about the Author

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