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Down on the farm with Antonia Murphy and Paul West

The conversation between Antonia Murphy and Paul West was certainly a humorous and engaging first session for the early birds at The Saturday Paper Marquee.

“I think this is one you’re going to catch worms at,” said Jane Adams of Australian Farmers’ Markets Association, who chaired the conversation with Paul West of River Cottage Australia and an San Franciscan writer, “a self-confessed boat vagrant”, Antonia Murphy.

Her memoir Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer recounts her troubled agricultural baptism by sheep/alpaca/goat/chicken/duck/vegetable – well, you name it.

The mother-of-two now lives on a 12-acre farm in Purua, a district of Whangarei in New Zealand and was the inspiration for her book.

The conversation started by discussing what a cloaca is and if anyone in the audience knew what one was. Only a scattering of hands were raised to say yes, and mine was not one of them.

So clearly there was some learning to do.

“Technically speaking a cloaca is a chicken super vagina,” Murphy explained.

“They do everything, they urinate, they lay eggs, they have sex, they do everything with their cloaca and I’m envious of them, it’s very efficient.”

Funnily enough, roosters also have a cloaca and “the cloaca kiss” was used by Murphy to describe the mating rituals of chickens.

From chortling chooks the conversation turned to scrumptious sheep.

Murphy slaughters sheep on her farm and is comfortable with meat production. But growing vegetables had been a slower learning curve. She has recently discovered the straw-bale garden bed technique giving her a lot more success.

Murphy said that her best advice for anyone taking the leap into small-scale farming would be to learn from the community and to rent first, don’t commit straight away because the reality is quite different from the fantasy.

Murphy said she was only able to find time to write her memoir while farming by using WWOOFers.

Willing Workers on Organic Farms is a loose network of thousands of volunteers, known as WWOOFers, who trade labour for food, accommodation and experience.

The economic viability of many small-scale farms around the world relies on this workforce.

Something Paul West knows firsthand.

Paul West is, the star of River Cottage Australia on Foxtel’s Lifestyle Channel and as Adams put it, “the personification of paddock to plate lifestyle”.

River Cottage Australia took a highly successful UK show and added some down under flavours to present viewers with the trials, tribulations and successes of farming life.

West said he would not be where he is if not for WWOOFing, saying it was a fantastic way to see how farms work and see if it is the type of lifestyle you would want for yourself.

WWOOFing ignited West’s passion for cooking and farming, while work as a chef – with its long days and 80+ hour weeks – prepared him for the TV industry.

When first applying for the job West was extremely worried that he would be known as “the guy that stuffed up River Cottage” making a comparison with Top Gear Australia as an example of what he did not want to become.

“Farming is this long game,” West said. “It’s multi-generational and it’s looking decades into the future.”

This is in contrast, he pointed out, to reality television, which is based in creating instant narratives.

“The most powerful means of communication the show facilitates is educating children about where their food comes from,” West said.

Murphy agreed and said her daughter has been exposed to the slaughter of animals ever since she was born.

“The first time that we killed turkeys we thought she’d be terrified, but not at all, she was fascinated… there is no taboo or horror around it, it’s just interest.”

Murphy’s son who suffers from a rare condition that affects his speech and was the main reason they moved into farming. They were searching for a small school for him to attend where he could be nurtured and receive more one-on-one attention.

The conversation concluded after one more question from an audience member asking how the panellists felt about killing animals they have raised from birth.

“It’s never something you really get over,” West said. “There is no joy in it whatsoever, it’s not a celebration, it’s not something that should be taken lightly.”

He describes the animals as livestock whose intended destiny was always to end up on the dinner plate.

West believes that in killing your own animals, you develop an incredible amount of respect for the meat, which leads to less waste as you want to utilise every part of the animal possible.

Murphy added that knowing that the animals get to live a good and happy life and as painless a death as possible helps.

Thomas Dutton is a Bachelor of Media student at Southern Cross University. He is also a banana farmer in the back hills of Byron Shire and a passionate permaculturalist.

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