Report from a fire-ravaged farm: The aftermath at Gundooee organic Wagyu farm
Published on 24 February 2017
Main photo: Sunday 12 February. At Gundooee homestead, outside Leadville, watching the fire crest the hill above the homestead before it charged down toward the house.
Rob Lennon surveying the damage to his farm
Baby wombat looking for food
Charred landscape view of the house
Re-building fences destroyed in the fire
Here in Sydney, tucked into our comfortable, well-fed lives, it's hard not to be blasé about the regular supply of high quality food we receive every week from farmers across the country. Particularly here at Feather and Bone where we're privileged to work with some of the best and smartest holistic farmers in NSW.
Occasionally we have to do without; perhaps the season's over or weather conditions force a supply contraction or a farmer just decides they've had enough and it's time to move on - like Mayfield Farm which we wrote about last week. While these situations are difficult, we're used to riding the peaks and troughs of the sustainable production cycle and we do our best to take them as they come.
But every now and then something really monumental occurs that shakes us out of our complacency and brings the reality of farming for a living into stark relief. Like the St Ivan fire that burned more than 54,000 hectares of land east of Dunedoo near Mudgee in NSW last weekend, ripping through Rob Lennon's Gundooee Organic Wagyu Farm on the way.
In Sydney last Sunday, we spent the sweltering afternoon watching the fire race across the map on the NSW Rural Fire Service news feed, our hearts sinking with each update as it became clear that Gundooee was right in the middle of the inferno. Never having experienced fire ourselves, we fretted uselessly about everyone's safety and waited for news.
First, we heard that Rob and the children were safe and, miraculously, the house, large sheds and cattle yard had been saved. Then we heard the wonderful news that all, or most of the cattle were saved because they'd been moved to another property just out of harm's way before the fire really took off. In itself, this is a remarkable story of community support.
On Saturday 11 February, when the St Ivan fire started, Rob was in Newcastle with his daughter. Fearing the worst, he called his neighbours, two of whom rode bikes over to Gundooee, rounded up his cattle and slowly moved them 20 km west over to another farm at Moreton Bay where they joined refugee cattle from two other vulnerable farms.
In the meantime, Rob and his three children rushed home, arriving at Gundooee on Saturday evening to prepare to fight the fire. Throughout Sunday, they worked side by side with NSW Rural Firefighters to save as much as possible. On Monday 13th, the Gundooee cattle were moved again, across the Golden Highway to another farm at Craboon. On Monday 20th, the Gundooee herd was separated from the other refugee cattle and split into three mobs. 13 cattle that are ready for sale and one bull have returned to Gundooee where they're now feeding on organic straw and copra meal with organic Lucerne hay arriving soon. The second mob were trucked to a certified organic farm near Gunnedah where they'll enjoy five kilometres of waterways, a cocktail of Kikuya, blue and red grass and other native pastures. The third mob were trucked to an organic farm an hour from Dubbo where they'll graze on pastures that have been sprayed with compost tea and learn to run with sheep. Critical to all these arrangements is the need to preserve the herd's organic certification.
From our pampered perspective, watching the footage of the fire and imagining the worst, saving the house and cattle with no significant loss of life all seemed like a victory snatched from the jaws of the flaming monster. But, for Rob, staring across his charred landscape, it's clearly not that simple.
The horses are gone, no one knows where. All the grass is burned so there is no feed for his cattle which are now split into three herds with significant additional cost and logistical challenges. 65 kilometres of fencing was destroyed and will need to be replaced along with a long list of other infrastucture equipment before his cattle can return to the farm. The next three or four months will be very taxing as he works to take stock of the damage, re-build the farm and get everything back on track.
Fortunately Rob, sometimes called the Bob Dylan of Australian Beef, is a resilient, pragmatic, intelligent and fiercely optimistic individual and if anyone can turn a catastrophic fire into a positive it will be Bob, er, Rob.
We'll keep you posted on the progress at Gundooee Farm. At this stage, it seems likely that we'll continue to receive our four weekly deliveries of Rob's wonderful Organic Wagyu so, despite the fire, it seems that we won't have to do without.