Having pedaled across the Yarra one Saturday morning in October 2011, I found my friend amongst a cluster of people waiting in the foyer of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. A few weeks prior, Julie had forwarded me an email invite to an art field trip to ‘investigate the influence of Australian farmer Percival Alfred Yeomans’. Having heard Yeomans’ name bandied about through my previous work in sustainable food systems, I agreed to go.
Our bus was called ‘Driver’ and the artists, Ian Milliss and Lucas Ihlein, hovered near its entrance when it was time to board. As the driver drove Driver through a tangle of highways and out of Melbourne to Taranaki Farm, Ihlein and Milliss made sense of the microphone system and presented something of an artists’ talk — personal introductions, confirming destinations and the context of this field trip.
Milliss had previously planned to present the work of the farmer Yeomans at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in the mid-1970s. The AGNSW Trustees cancelled the exhibition for reasons still unknown to Milliss — it is assumed the trustees concluded the exhibition was more suited to an agricultural trade show.
Thirty years later, Ihlein approached Milliss with the suggestion of collaborating on a version of the project for inclusion in Power to the People: Contemporary Conceptualism and the Object in Art at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 6 October – 20 November 2011. The exhibition was the culmination of a six-month collaborative investigation, documented on the artists’ blog and represented in the exhibition by several prints, a Yeomans plow and a vitrine of Yeomans’ publications. Ihlein’s and Milliss’ work examines how this Australian farmer and his sustainable agriculture systems can be considered ‘a model for the radical re-interpretation of the role of the artist’.1
Yeomans brought design thinking to farming in the 1940s by drawing attention to the importance of water conservation. He did this by observing how water flowed across a landscape in the rain, and noticed the band of water that would form where the land’s shape shifted from convex to concave. This band he called the ‘keyline’, the place where the water table was closest to the surface, and the easiest place to collect water to irrigate the land below. He began experiments in keeping water on a piece of land for as long as possible by using a series of channels and dams.
In essence, the keyline method involves observation of a landscape in order to facilitate design that considers the shape of the land and the natural course of water across its contours. It then further incorporates a variety of holistic land management techniques to nourish the soil for whatever is intended to be cultivated or bred upon it. Through these techniques, Yeomans was able to build topsoil and bring degraded landscape to life at a rate unimaginable at the time; he revolutionised agriculture.
Upon arriving at Taranaki Farm, farmer Ben Falloon, his partner Nina, and their daughter Maya, greeted and introduced us to the principles of keyline design and their interest in practicing it. For much of the day, we squelched through mud and sidestepped cowpats, listening to Falloon’s excited explanations of his rotational grazing and dam systems, and his admission that when it rained, just like Yeomans before him, Falloon would race outside to watch the water flow across his property. His enthusiasm for keyline was contagious and we all lined up on the wall of the top dam, squinting to see the keylines as he pointed across the fields.
While walking around Taranaki, learning about keyline and Yeomans, I kept puzzling what any of this had to do with art. On returning home, I found many of the answers I was looking for in the Yeomans Project blog, in which Ihlein and Milliss documented their research and preparation for the exhibition.2 In this blog — one in a series of Ihlein’s ‘blogging as art’ projects — they discuss the role of the artist in questioning and influencing culture, and highlight the far-reaching influences of Yeomans, not only in farming but also across wider social issues.
While few who aren’t actively engaged with sustainable agriculture would have heard of Yeomans, more will have heard of permaculture, which was inspired by Yeomans’ theories and practices. Permaculture principles are no longer contained in the realm of agriculture, but are used across all aspects of culture (permaculture being a design system which aims to develop permanent or sustainable culture). The Transition Towns phenomenon, which has swept across the UK and has since dotted itself around the world, was founded by Rob Hopkins in 2006, a permaculture teacher who saw the applications of these principles as a practical cultural response to climate change and peak oil. The main gist of Transition Towns is to localise our economies and lifestyles, in order to reduce our demand on fossil fuels and other increasingly scarce global resources and to in turn reduce our carbon emissions.
The ripples of Yeomans’ influence reached me personally when I was commissioned by Hopkins in 2008 to write a book about how the _Transition Towns _model can be translated to an urban context. My research into how urban communities have harnessed the opportunities existing within their urban environments and fostering the development of local resources (environmental, human, and technical) pointed to one of Yeomans’ basic principles. Just as the basic keyline concept is about keeping water on a tract of land for as long as possible, my research explored how urban communities are working to decrease the fast and linear flow of resources into cities and waste out of them.
Through Yeomans’ practical, aesthetic, and passionate development of sustainable farming, he shifted his role as farmer into one of observer, designer and educator. Having known very little about Yeomans and his keyline system prior to Ihlein’s and Milliss’ field trip, I now understand his critical work in raising awareness about the value of utilising perception in farming, and questioning the norms of both his field and wider culture. Likewise, through the subject and form of their work, Ihlein and Milliss have questioned the norms of their own field through their reinterpretation of the labels artist and art. Art, they write, ‘is action which changes the culture. This action can be undertaken by anyone’ — encouragement enough for me to head outside and watch the rain fall on my vegie garden.3
Asha Bee Abraham is a writer and human ecologist working in Melbourne’s sustainability sector.