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The way of the ancients

Just as the ancient Egyptians used the appearance of the star Sirius to predict the flooding of the Nile. Rob Bryans knows it doesn’t do to bale hay on a full moon. “That is when the moisture content is highest, so we might cut the hay, but we will pick another time to bale it,” the Elmore farmer says.

For 20 years Rob, his wife Pauline and son Shaun have been following moon shadows and star charts as natural tools to manage their 300-acre property north of Bendigo.

Today, Avonmore Estate is widely regarded as the pioneering pin-up for Bio-dynamic farming in central Victoria, producing award-winning wines and raising sleek, glossy red Angus cattle entirely without chemicals.

Bio-dynamics is a buzzword coined to describe the farming philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, a 20th century Austrian intellectual who also gave rise to the eponymous education movement. While some regard Dr Steiner’s ‘spiritual science’ with scepticism, the central tenet of bio-dynamic agriculture to treat farms as a whole organism subject to the pulls of time and tide can be traced back to the earliest Mayan civilisatiobs, which had no less than 17 cosmological calendars.

Support for farming by lunar phases can also be found in the writings of Pliny the Elder, Plato and even in the Bible, but for the Bryans it just makes sense. As Pauline puts it; “Women have cycles, so why wouldn’t the land? For us it is about getting in time with the earth’s cycle, which is why we pick on certain days, plant on certain days.”

The farm is designed as a self-sustaining system, producing grain and hay to feed the cattle which, having never been drenched or vaccinated, are snapped up faster than you can say moo by organic butchers in Melbourne. The only fertiliser used is cow manure, which is packed into cow horns, buried to ferment over winter and unearthed in spring, by which time it has transformed into a rich odourless compost. This, in turn, is diluted and sprayed over the property in autumn and spring.

“We are not supporting Monanto – we are just supporting ourselves, so not a lot comes in from outside,” Rob explains. “I guess really we are closest to peasant farmers. This was how they survived. Most lived and died in the same house and village. they would never leave it, so it was a case of having to make the best of what you have.” The main exception is fuel, which must be brought from outside. “We have converted our farm machinery to use a canola biofuel, so now when you get off the tractor it smells like fish and chips, ” Rob laughs.

But the pride of Avonmore is its vineyard, which looks like few others with it’s extra wide rows grazed down by sheep and lambs in winter, with seasonal splashes of white lupins and yellow peas to put nitrogen back into the soil.

“A lot of poeple ask how we get rid of the pests and disease,” Pauline says. “The secret is if you have a really good healthy soil structure i gives you healthy vines. Our aim was to put light into the vineyard and aerate it with really good wide space so you don’t need the chemicals. It is like washing on the line airs out naturally and the vines do exactly the same.”

From vine to bottle the Bryans regard themselves as shepards rather than manufacturers of wine. “Most winemakers buy their yeast, but we start ours from scratch, using wild yeast naturally produced in the vineyard, which is not always predictable, ” Pauline explains. So this form of organic wine-making also involves taking risks, but isn’t that just what makes life worth bottling?

– Sarah Harris

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