Article from The West Australian - Katherine fleming, May 4th, 2018.
Chris Ferreira was sitting on the porch of his parents’ farmhouse, looking out over the land he brought back from the brink, when the phone rang. He put down the wire he was shaping into tree guards for the saplings he’d planted and went inside. When he came back, he said to his friend “I think I just got my first landcare job”.
It was the early 1990s and that phone call changed Chris’s life. On the other end was Rosanne Scott. Then, she was just someone offering him a job teaching kids about sustainable land use. Now, that job has led to the career that still fills him with white-hot purpose and that stranger on the line is his mentor and business partner — as well as his mother-in-law and grandmother to his son.
“All this from that one phone call,” Chris says. “It’s really been the most incredibly rich experience.”
It was fitting his life should take such a turn on that porch, in that house he grew up in, on that property that taught him the fundamental truth at the core of everything he has done since — that if we don’t care for our land, air and water, it cannot care for us. And without it, everything is truly lost.
The small farm was pristine when Chris’ parents bought it in 1973. Kwinana was well and truly the sticks — “Perth was a cut lunch and a water bag away,” Chris remembers — and his father was looking forward to fulfilling his dream of owning a riding school.
Soon, 30 horses were galloping across the property — destroying the green pasture and ring-barking the trees. Chris’ father, who had been a restaurateur and a car salesman but never a farmer, soon found himself having to buy in feed and pay vet bills for colic.
Chris Ferreira’s parents’ farm in Kwinana, 12 years after he intervened with landcare strategies. Credit: Chris Ferreira
For seven-year-old Chris — now one of Perth’s foremost experts on landcare and sustainability — it was a formative experience. Even as he relished playing in the bush, exploring the swamp and building forts in the trees, he was acutely aware something wasn’t right.
“As I got stronger and healthier, as I fell in love with this land, I could see it getting more and more degraded,” Chris says. “It just etched into my head that we are nothing without healthy landscapes.”
At 12, he decided to act, planting seedlings he germinated and putting up guards to stop the horses from damaging them.
“I just loved it,” Chris remembers. “I went to Kwinana High, which was a real working-class industrial area. I was lucky to have the farm but I was also the only one who milked a cow in the morning and loved trees.
“I remember the guidance officer saying ‘OK, you need to do work experience, so where do you want to work? Western Mining? Alcoa?’ I said that I wanted to plant trees and learn about that. She was like ‘Whaaat?’”
Chris ended up studying forestry at Canberra’s Australian National University, before backpacking through India, Nepal, Bangladesh and parts of Africa.
“I was really keen on seeing environmental action in other parts of the world but it really reinforced that where the most degraded landscapes were, civilisation was on its knees,” he says. “When I came home, I wanted to resurrect our farm.”
Chris spent years planning, designing and reshaping his parents’ land — sometimes whether they liked it or not.
“I loved my dad, he’s been dead nearly 10 years but he was so supportive, in a tacit way,” Chris says. “He just let me do whatever I liked. We had this cross-country course scattered through the property... It was pretty arrogant but I just basically said ‘landcare is the most important thing’, and carved up and dislocated his course and put fences up and planted trees.
“I remember him walking out to inspect what I had done and saying ‘Chris ... my cross-country course ...’ That was as angry as he ever got. It was his way of saying ‘I have to trust you and let you do this’.”
His mum, however, was a natural “greenie”. “You had it ingrained in you that you didn’t throw rubbish on the ground and we always commented when people cleared trees,” Chris remembers.
“Dad went along with it and picked it up later but Mum really educated me from her own principles ... My mum is 88 and the most incredible bohemian artist; she sold her first stuff when she was 85. She has been an amazing inspiration to me. Persisting — that’s what I learnt.”
The farm, meanwhile, became the veritable Phoenix from the ashes. “We reduced our feed bills by 30 per cent and our vet bills for colic went down, the horses were healthier and happier,” Chris says. “And it was just a more beautiful place to be, so when we sold, it was for a higher price.”
Meanwhile, Chris had looked across the road at his neighbours. “I could see all the other farms had the same problems so I said to the farmers ‘Do you want to form a landcare group?’ They said ‘What the hell is that’,” Chris says with a laugh. “I told them that it basically meant I could get funding to plant trees on their property. It was a calling, really. I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
One day, on the hunt for cheap seedlings, Chris paid a visit to the community group Men of the Trees, now Trillion Trees.
“I didn’t know who they were but I asked if there were any bargain, discount trees because I didn’t have much money,” Chris says. “I introduced myself to the nursery manager and she thought ‘this guy is just a tight arse trying to get money out of a community group’, like ‘mate, come on!’ I gave her my name in case they ever needed anyone and she rolled her eyes like ‘Yeah, great’.
“A week later, the woman she was working with, Rosanne, got LEAP funding (Landcare Environment Action Program) and needed someone to teach landcare.”
The nursery manager gave Rosanne three names and numbers — including that tight arse she didn’t like from last week.
“The first guy didn’t answer and I was the second call. She employed me right there on the phone. We taught eight programs and it was an amazing experience, because some of those kids did not want to be there. Basically, work for the dole is a very poor version of what LEAP was — we had them five days a week and taught them landcare and permaculture ... One of the students, who was 17 but became a good friend, told me ‘When you came out and started banging on about trees, we were just going ‘who is this d...head?’ But you kept passionately talking until we went ‘OK, that makes sense’.”
When that nursery manager — “she came around on me eventually,” Chris says with a laugh — suggested they start a program for small landholders, it was a natural fit for Chris. To date, he has taught 18,000 of them.
Chris Ferreira at City Farm. Credit: Iain Gillespie
That experience also helped inspire his latest book, A Place in the Country, published next month. It is a comprehensive guide for hobby farmers, offering practical advice on everything from selecting a property to fencing, weed suppression, soil management and animal care.
In all his dealings with small landholders, Chris says one theme is consistent — many like the idea of the rural life but have little idea of what they’re actually in for.
“About a third will sell within three years because they just don’t know what they’re doing,” he says. “They go out in spring and see this beautiful place, the city is behind them and they look at their partner in a new light and say ‘let’s buy this property, all our problems will be solved’.
“It can work but in all likelihood, it doesn’t. There is a lack of appreciation for the amount of work required, the skills, the machinery, the planning, the ability to do the right things at the right time ... You have to think like a farmer.”
The book will be launched at a Food Theatre event, through Chris’s umbrella business, The Forever Project. The dinner is part of his latest mission — to get the sustainability message to those who might not normally be open to it.
Using the lure of a four-course gourmet meal and a beautifully festooned room, the aim is to get the audience to think more deeply about the food they’re eating and the land that produced it.
“The 20th century god is the chef and we will have a great chef, who has worked for George Calombaris, Neil Perry and Heston ... He will be on stage but so will we,” he says. “There will be four recipes; two are his amazing ways to make the food and the other two are ours, on how to turn sand into soil and how to grow organic food at home.
“When you get the chef saying ‘Yes, I only buy this’ or ‘I grow organic food’ or ‘I ferment now’, people think ‘Well, OK, the hippy is saying it and of course he would, but now the chef is saying it too’.
“It becomes an amazing way to get through to people, to get them to think differently, perhaps for the first time. To think that farmland is important and about the political support, financial support and backing that is needed.”
Once one of the city’s most polluted landscapes, Perth City Farm is now a certified organic farm. Credit: Perth City Farm
The event will take place somewhere close to Chris’s heart — Perth City Farm. He was one of the four founders, led by Rosanne, who turned one of Perth’s most contaminated sites into a much-loved organic farm.
In 1993, when they wanted to teach their students about urban renewal, they began “pestering” a contact at the East Perth Redevelopment Authority, who offered them half a hectare next to the train line.
“Picture the most toxic, awful place — there was a massive pit full of oil and diesel, and congealed oil all over the place. The building was locked up and full of some bloke’s hoarded crap; old Formica kitchen stuff, bar tops, cash registers, just skips full of crazy stuff. Out where they have the gardens now is where they used to do the lead recycling,” Chris says.
Sitting among the greenery, where volunteers tend to seedlings and the farm’s chickens and workers from nearby offices sit in the cafe, it is hard to imagine how such a transformation was possible.
“The architect of all of this was Rosanne: four foot 10, Indian and feisty, she just outmanoeuvred and persevered and persisted, dodged and weaved all the people who wanted to turn this into a carpark,” Chris says.
“Eventually the government came on board with the peppercorn lease but it’s actually a great model because it gets almost no funding. We always knew we needed an urban centre to demonstrate to people that farmland is really what separates us from destruction. If we don’t have viable farmland, we will be just like any dust-choked remnant of a civilisation. We can have the shiniest buildings and the best NBN — or the worst — and it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have good air, water and soil.”
The importance of setting an example — walking the talk — has also shaped Chris’s home life. His house in Hamilton Hill, a typical postwar cottage when he bought it, has been retrofitted as a sustainable home, open twice a year for people to look through and take inspiration from — an offer an astonishing 8000 have taken up.
It’s a home he shares with his wife, fitness instructor Astrid, six-year-old son River and his stepdaughters Akira, almost 18, and Saritah, 11. He had known Astrid, Rosanne’s daughter, since she was a girl but it was eight years ago, after they had both married and divorced other people, that they fell in love.
River was born almost two months premature, weighing only a kilogram, and later diagnosed with autism. It’s been a difficult journey for their family but having their home, with the space for him to explore and play in nature, in his own way, has been invaluable.
“River’s autism is pretty severe, so it has been an interesting experience learning what that is all about,” Chris says. “I was 44 when he was born and I said ‘I’m not Rupert Murdoch, I can’t just keep having kids’. Having the two girls already, River was my first and my last biological child. I also thought ‘if you’re going to give me autism the first time around, I’m not going to risk what you might give me the next time!’ But he is so beautiful and amazing and having that garden at home, the ability to get him outdoors, is so important.”
Chris with wife Astrid and children River, Saritah and Akira on their front verge. Credit: Mogens Johansen
The other kids love it, too; when West Weekend visits, Saritah barrels in the front door after school and runs out to collect the half a dozen eggs their chickens have laid, and excitedly reports to Chris the progress of the potatoes they planted together a couple of weekends ago.
The house itself has been carefully planned for the lowest possible use of power and water. By the front patio is a low-chill honey locust — a deciduous tree that keeps the sun out in the summer but loses its leaves, even in Perth’s mild winters, letting in warming rays.
The front brick cladding was replaced with three layers of insulation, the roof painted reflective white, the windows double glazed and the patio roof fitted with louvres that can be opened or closed depending on the weather.
The outcome is that the house doesn’t have air-conditioning or heating (in a heatwave, Chris says, they close it up and run all the ceiling fans, but it still doesn’t get above 30C inside). With the solar panels on the roof, they have only spent about $500 on electricity since they moved in.
Under the laundry and bathroom, they have a greywater recycling system that feeds the garden. Almost all their furniture and whitegoods are recycled and the garden provides fresh vegetables for the table.
It would be easy for someone who cares so deeply for the environment to become despondent in a “Kim Kardashian world” where to live is to consume. Chris rails against the lack of foresight from politicians who dilute existing pollution protections, or enact refugee policy without considering landcare in the source countries.
“One thing humanity doesn’t do well as a species is ask why,” he says. “When I was born there were 3.5 billion on the planet and now it’s just clicked over to 7.5 billion. If we are worried about refugees or ‘boat people’ now, what are we going to do when that gets to nine billion or 11 billion? Are we just going to continue to not give them access and not help to make their countries stable? You see it everywhere, people just dealing with the symptoms and not the causes.
“We as a species need to do better with less — less resources, less waste, more thinking. When people ask what I do for a living, it’s hard to put into a sentence but it’s really trying to inform people that there is a problem, that it’s not all negative and then give them the tools to make a difference.”
That’s why, rather than despair, Chris focuses on what he can do.
Chris Ferreira at his Hamilton Hill home. Credit: Iain Gillespie
He still “guerilla plants” in his local parks, taking a certain pleasure in watching council workers look at the rogue tree, then each other — “it’s like ‘I didn’t plant this, did you’,” Chris laughs — before they shrug their shoulders and tend to the new addition.
He still does workshops at Bunnings and if no one turns up, he “busks”. Rolling out a piece of lawn is a sure way to attract blokes, he reckons, and then you can “sneak them some seriously hippy information” about soil health and wetting agents.
Chris feels there is more momentum than ever before behind the sustainable living message, a growing awareness that the health and survival of human beings is intrinsically tied to the environment we live in.
“One of my favourite quotes from the spiritual teacher Wayne Dyer is that there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come,” he says. “Twenty years ago, you did not have health professionals saying that gut health is really important — and gut health is linked to the food you eat. We see the rise in organic farming, which is all about soil health and microbial health. We have educators saying the best thing we can do for kids is to get them outside in nature.
“I’m starting to see all these different disciplines coming together to say that our disconnection from nature, and our destruction of nature, that in that we destroy ourselves. For all the negative stuff that gets media exposure, there is an equal amount of amazing, extraordinary but quiet revolution going on, which has, at its core, common sense. Out of the 130,000 people I have taught, no one has ever stood up or collared me afterwards and said ‘That’s bullshit, as if we need to look after the air we breathe’.
“When you embrace it, it helps you get a better balance in life — you eat healthier, you spend more time in the garden, your family spends more time outside and it just leads you in a more wholesome direction. That might sound weird but it teaches you balance.”