A good place to start

A conversation with a charming, passionate, informed and intelligent woman friend, is hard to beat. 

Talking with Patrice Newell is inspiring, depressing, challenging, informative, engaging. But above all educating. She doesn’t lecture, but shares knowledge from experience.

And when we’re talking climate change, farmers, politicians, local councils, and agriculturalists she speaks truth to power. She’s knee deep in it. As a concerned citizen, a communicator, a writer, a farmer. A dirt farmer, as she calls herself. 

Our subject is primarily soil and Agriculture; how it functions, where we’re going wrong, where we need to be going, it’s history and its future. 

As a wife, mother, farmer, and stimulating public speaker, she speaks from experience. And also having  studied, and earned a degree in Environmental Science:  “A strategic assessment of the potential for a new pyrolysis industry in the Hunter Valley.” 

Patrice is thoughtful, informed and, if considered by some who’ve always done it their way, as a reactionary, well, that’s good. 

Time is running out in this climate emergency. Her call to arms is urgent. And it’s spelled out in her most recent book, “Who’s Minding the Farm”.

Organic Farm is Home 

The farm is Elmswood in the Hunter Valley she shares with husband, broadcaster and writer, Phillip Adams, who also chronicles the vagaries of farm life on occasion in his magazine column.  They moved there in 1987 and Patrice has earned her stripes as an organic farmer through trial and error, success and failure, hard work and persistence.

To back up, Patrice moved there known as a TV identity, having read the news on SBS several years, worked for Channel 7 and hosted the Today Show on 9. It seemed to outsiders a radical change. But there’s a sense of achievement in walking out the door of a TV station to pursue a dream.  For a moment or two our conversation departs from her new book, to our shared history. 

There is also a sense of urgency, when, as a former communicator you absorb information and can see where we’re going wrong and what needs to be done from what you’ve learned, studied and experienced.

‘This is my fifth book and as I’ve got older and learnt more about agriculture. I have skin in the game. My identity is as someone committed to agriculture,’ she says. ‘Though when I first got into agriculture it was almost a given that in the organic food industry you just didn’t criticise traditional agriculture. The idea was we talk about the good things we do and I did adhere to that for quite a number of years.  And then I began to wonder when are we going to get to the nitty gritty and have a truthful conversation?

‘A lot of people don’t know what’s going on with bio-security and what that means, how it works. Also, the importance of  bio-energy, and biochar. I wanted to give people information that relates directly to agriculture plus a lot of things I’ve been pretty cheesed off about for a long time.’ 

Plastic Pollution

‘The whole nation is having a conversation about plastics in water, yet plastics in soil is a major issue. On our farm plastic is wrapped in silage bales, pipes, the bags everything comes in, like grain, the baling twine is plastic. Even in garlic production I use underground plastic pipe as it’s more water efficient. 

At the time I was writing we were starting a good conversation about plastics in water, so I didn’t want another bad news story and didn’t go deep into plastics in soil.’ She adds, ‘Most of the farmers around us still have on-farm rubbish tips where they chuck it all in or burn it, including plastics, so its embedded in the soil.’ Hence her passion to regenerate the soil. 

We move onto the
current drought. 

‘Australia is the driest continent, with huge areas of mono crops and over grazing where we see the topsoil blowing away leaving giant dust bowls. We have to see that as a criminal act. Yet not one government department person or politician, local, state or federal, will call it out. 

‘In this drought there’s empathy for the farmer who’s doing it tough that just overrides everything. And at the heart of the problem is everyone plays on this narrative …my grandfather settled here, my great great grandmother lived in a humpy, didn’t own a pair of shoes, fought off snakes with a hoe, and here I am a product of their determination. 

Fatal Effects From Pioneers

‘We can never accept that tough ole grandpa and grandma were responsible for the stark environmental and cultural damage in those early pioneer days which we’re still paying for.  We can’t maintain that tired narrative where their perception of themselves is as the hero… they won’t let that go and you can’t have a conversation with them. That you’re a brave pioneer but you’ve stuffed the water, the soil, the trees, wrecked the bio diversity and so on. To say something negative like, our 61 million dollar agriculture sector sits alongside  98 percent biodiversity loss in Victoria, the biggest kill of mammals ever, the destruction of nearly every water course in the country, the destruction of soils and  tree loss, soil function not happening, a dependence on chemicals, all the things that are bad alongside the romantic narrative.’

Another issue Patrice discusses in her book, which is riveting reading which should send alarms bells ringing everywhere, is the notion we can’t feed ourselves. 

‘That really gets up my goat. Because the world can feed itself. It can. We waste all this food in all different sections while half the world is fat and half the world is starving. So the idea we have to keep doing this crap agriculture because the world needs it, is a lie! We’re making people sick, the effects of the mono culture crops are a disaster. We grow them for cash most are exported and go into making junk food.

Supermarkets Rule

‘The thing that matters the most to us, is that it’s cheap. With this thinking then the dairy industry will die.  So when people say what can we do… our shopping cart and political narrative needs to get louder, because it will just go on and increase. If foreign ownership continues to grow and consolidate the export market it will become, who needs agriculture? Why destroy our ecology for 70 percent of products to be exported? We Aussie taxpayers are going to pay for the environmental repair of what we actually don’t need – a bigger agricultural sector. We need a better environmentally engaged agriculture sector. People thinking I’m doing my little bit and it’s all going to change, well no, it won’t. 

Feedlots at Fault

‘Politics needs to change.  We need every council and state government saying NO to feedlots. If we continue to build feedlots we will continue to grow the beef industry and we shouldn’t. Its wrecking the land everywhere now. It’s not sustainable so why approve more of those disgusting animal prison camps? I eat meat but I think what we’ve done to domesticated animals is disgraceful. We grow the animals that go into the feedlots and most people in the grazing sector support feedlots. Yet the meat industry says feedlot meat is better than naturally grown beef, which is just a marketing ploy.

Better Planning

‘We talk of the destruction of the environment and loss of habit and wild life (especially koalas.) It’s a tragedy that prime ag land is disappearing under home estates and life style villages rather than community gardens and small farm enterprises. Everyone in your area should buy all their fruit and vegies from local market gardeners to support them and keep it going. Most of the small scale vegie farmers I know aren’t doing it for very long because they can’t make enough money selling the produce in their local area.

‘New towns being built in regional areas are planned with big houses on small blocks reducing gardens and greenery, built around the large supermarket. Why don’t they design environmentally, socially hospitable and interactive towns with community gardens, shops and small businesses strategically placed, landscaped, social child friendly areas and community areas should be the focal point of the town.’

I mention how hard it is to convince our MidCoast Council of this kind of forward and socially responsible thinking.

‘Yes, it’s backward thinking. I wanted to write about well, facts…I mean you become informed when you try to understand things. And you learn things when you’re ready to learn things. But you need the information and facts first.’

So what’s the solution Patrice? 

‘I don’t know for sure. But we have to have more people understand the problem first. And then step up.’

A good start is to read “Who’s Minding the Farm.’  And hope a few good and informed men and women in our area decide to step up. 


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