Head west out of St Arnaud on the Wimmera Highway and you’ll come across a stretch of 951 hectares that comprise Steve and Tania Walter’s broadacre grain and pulse farm. At first glance there’s little discernible difference between the paddocks that stretch out to the horizon on the Walters’ side of the road, and those that sit on the opposite side of the highway – or indeed, along many of the roads that crisscross the flat and dry landscape of Wotjobaluk country in Victoria’s north west.
But take a closer look at the soil on their property, and you’ll start to notice the difference.
There’s life in it.
Steve has been on this land – living in the same home – for 57 years now. As a fifth generation farmer he first inherited a passion for the land, and then eventually the property itself, purchasing additional paddocks with his wife Tania as the opportunities came up over the years. But along with the land, Steve had also inherited a way of farming – with heavy machinery, synthetic fertilisers and chemical sprays – that by the turn of the millennium had started to make less and less sense.
A slow transition
Towards the end of the 90s, conventional farming was failing the Walters. “We were monitoring the soil using soil tests, and they had really plateaued,” says Tania. “So if we were going to start building more organic matter [in the soil] we were really going to have to do something pretty drastic.”
“We wanted to get off the chemical treadmill,” she says. “We’d visited a few biodynamic farms and we liked the look of their soil. We liked that you could feel the difference underfoot.”
“The soil was inspiring, and our growing chemical and fertiliser bill was increasing by the year. We could see that that wasn’t going to end well.”
Steve was also starting to feel unwell from the sustained exposure to chemicals – so the Walters’ decided it was time to try another way: organic and biodynamic. A visit to the farm from the father of Australian Demeter Biodynamics, Alex Podolinsky, gave the Walters the final push of hope that they could successfully make the shift.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
“For us the transition was a really scary and slow transition,” says Tania. “It took us a longer period of time to get enough confidence to shift out of conventional, because we were very reliant on chemicals and superphosphates for many years.”
The sheer scale of the property also made it difficult – 951 hectares is the equivalent of around 500 MCGs – meaning that conventional methods were far more efficient when it came to farming the land. But inspired by others, the Walters persevered – and learned to take things slower.
“We’re really lucky, we’ve got two other local farmers in the area and having that support is just essential, particularly in the early days,” says Tania. “We wouldn’t have had the confidence to do what we did, because it was such a big shift. Often organic farms have been organic farms all their life, but for us to shift from conventional to organic was pretty huge.”
The process ended up taking the Walters eight years, finally receiving full bio-dynamic certification in 2008 for their farm and business, Burrum Biodynamics.
Now as Tania reflects back on the transition more than 20 years later, she doesn’t see that there were any particular challenges or regrets – “just a lot of unfounded fear.” And when asked for advice she might have for farmers considering a shift towards organic farming, Tania thinks for a moment: “You’ll never miss paying your chemical bill,” she says.
A life on the land
After growing up locally, and spending school holidays helping out on her grandparents’ farm, Tania landed exactly where she wanted to when she started a life with Steve. “Marrying a farmer was like landing in heaven for me!” she says. Today, their three adult children Alicia, Carly and Thomas help out around the farm when they can, but it’s the strong partnership that Steve and Tania have built between them that really drives the farm and business’ prosperity.
“It’s been good, we’ve been on the same page with this and I think that’s helped us get us to where we are today” she says. “We bounce stuff off each other all the time – sometimes it’s good to get an opinion with fresh eyes, even just looking at the soil.”
To that end, it’s not all about food production at Burrum Biodynamics. Demeter-certified farms like Steve and Tania’s undergo a rigorous audit process each year to ensure that bio-dynamic processes are being adhered to across the entirety of the farm – confirming the farm is considered and managed as a single organism.
“As a part of our organic certification we actually have to have ongoing revegetation plans,” says Tania. “That’s really important – people forget about those little things that come with a well-recognised standard.” Having completed a Bachelor of Environmental Practice, the Walters’ daughter Alicia recently joined forces with farmhand Morgan to plant 1790 trees as part of intensive revegetation efforts, and the family run around 500 sheep each year to help manage weeds and feed the nutrients back into the soil, across the paddocks. A few years ago, the Walters assembled their own on-site seed sorting and splitting facility from secondhand parts and a bit of good old-fashioned backyard tinkering – meaning they now have complete control over the authenticity and provenance of their product through its entire lifecycle, from seed to plant and back to seed again.
A new era of provenance appreciation and food security
For Mount Zero, Burrum Biodynamics supply our pearl barley and soup mix. The plants are grown in soils that are fertilised with cover crops, which are either cut down and used as mulch – like lawn clippings – or as a last resort, tilled (dug) into the ground if the rainfall doesn’t come as hoped.
While disturbing the soil structure through tilling is less ideal than simply letting nature take its slow and steady course, either way the result is beautifully healthy organic plants, which produce the excellent quality grains and legumes that we’re treated to through the Mount Zero range.
Steve and Tania have been working with us for almost a decade now. “They’re [Mount Zero] one of our longest relationships that we’ve had,” says Tania, “and it’s been a terrific relationship.”
“They had great faith that our product would have good qualities, good flavour,” she says. “We do very much enjoy our visits from Rich and the staff from Mount Zero, and we look forward to lots more visits from them in the future when we can.”
As Tania reflects, it’s clear that a life in organic and biodynamic food production is ever-changing. Where once some of their annual production was destined to become stock feed for organic animal farmers, in recent years Tania and Steve have shifted their focus towards entirely supplying food for human consumption – and the prospect of feeding others is something that really gets Tania out of bed in the morning. “It gives us great purpose,” she says.
Processing the grains and seeds on site means the Walters can keep a constant flow of food available for their customers, which has proven especially important during the pandemic. Alongside this, the rise of interest in sourdough baking and a greater consideration of provenance in grains and flours have seen an equivalent rise in interest of the work of Burrum Biodynamics.
“The provenance of these grains and pulses is adding a new dimension to taste and texture, and people are noticing that. It’s a little bit like wine,” says Tania.
“It’s exciting, and it’s been nice for us – I’ve seen our farm in a whole new, different lens now that we are concentrating on the human food market. People like to see what’s going on at the farm and I enjoy keeping them up to date!”
And we enjoy following along, Tania! Thank you for your and Steve’s exceptionally hard work to create such beautiful grains and legumes for us here at Mount Zero, and for all of our customers. We’re so glad you made the decision to transition away from conventional farming all those years ago, and hope others are also inspired by your story.
You can follow Tania, Steve and farm dogs Billie and Barney on Instagram at @burrumbiodynamics