Indigenous Australian writer Bruce Pascoe in a field, looking into the camera

Bruce Pascoe: Perennial Soil

The Arthur and Hilda Winch annual lecture in pre-colonial Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture

Bruce Pascoe delivered a lecture on Indigenous farming and land management. The 'Dark Emu' author is also joined in a conversation with agricultural scientist Dr Angela Pattison. 

It has never been more important to be sharing Indigenous knowledge. So many solutions to the problems we face today can be found in that wisdom.

It is impossible to overestimate the powerful contribution of Bruce Pascoe's work, in particular the seminal Dark Emu, which has inspired a number of projects here at the University, including the Indigenous Grasslands for Grain project.

The detail and grace in Pascoe's research and writing has unlocked important conversations and reawakened knowledge. In this public lecture, Uncle Pascoe shared insights into sustainable farming and practices, with a keynote address on the idea of 'Perennial Soil'. 

Pascoe is also joined by Dr Angela Pattison, plant breeder and agricultural scientist from the University of Sydney. Pattinson is the research lead for the Indigenous Grasslands for Grain, a cross-disciplinary project that aims to regenerate the Australian native system for the modern food environment. It is a concept that brings together cultural and scientific knowledge, regional and urban centres, and sustainability with economic viability.

Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver AM, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) chaired the event.

The University of Sydney is pleased to be establishing an annual lecture on pre-colonial Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, made possible by a donation from Ron Winch and the Winch family.



First and foremost as is our way, I pay respect to Traditional Owners of Country. I come to you from the Gadigal land, land that has been known, loved and nurtured for 60 thousand years. 

We are on the Camperdown campus of the University of Sydney, for this Sydney Ideas. I pay respects to all of the countries you are coming from, no matter where you are coming from or who you are. 

There are many, many different mobs of people who belong to this country. And I know each and every one of you who is listening in right now, also belongs to a family and a community and I deeply pay my respects to them as well. 
So, welcome. We're here for a really interesting day. But first I want to give you a tiny bit of background about how this came to be. 

Today we're going to listen as Bruce Pascoe shares insights into sustainable farming and practices. Uncle Bruce will be joined by Dr Angela Pattison, plant breeder and agricultural scientist from Sydney University. 
This is the first Arthur and Hilda Winch annual lecture, in pre-colonial Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. I want to share with you some of the background of the people that this lecture is named after and some of the insightful considerations of its generous benefactor, Mr Ron Winch. 

Mr Winch has a very active and deep connection to our university and I am pleased to have shared some very open and inspiring conversations with him over the years. His parents Arthur and Hilda Winch, he describes them as good and honest and hard-working people. In their day, ordinary folk did not receive much in order of financial remuneration. Things were hard earned, as it is for many of us. 

This lecture series serves to put a spotlight on the Indigenous experience before the arrival of European people in 1788. Mr Winch believes that older peoples and ancient cultures have much to teach us, especially in a land where 60,000 years of habitation has proven that today we have the only continuous culture in the world, just to simply prove that. 

We can find fundamental and original truths by looking deeper into this part of history, and start to understand the ways of being and knowing, designed for us to understand and learn from and go with. 

Today we are going to understand and hear more of Indigenous knowledge and land care, and how this is gaining greater recognition across the mainstream. It is my absolute pleasure to introduce to you our keynote speaker; accomplished author Bruce Pascoe. 
Bruce is a Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian man, and currently lives on his farm in Gippsland, Victoria. Over to you, Bruce Pascoe. 

Thank you very much. I would also like to acknowledge the people of Gadigal land. But I would also like to acknowledge the Yuin people from this land, and all those on whose shoulders we subsequently stand, because we do it every day. We build on their knowledge and their care for this continent. 
There are still people in Australia who can't bear the idea that Aboriginal people had any competence, any interaction with the land, any organised food production. 

And some of those people try to drag red herrings across the trail in order to distract people from the truth of this country's history. I'm not talking about the truth as I see it, I'm talking about the truth as the explorers recorded and wrote it down. 
If you read the journals of Lieutenant Grey, in a part of Western Australia, that typically dry and hot country, being the first European to cross it, came across fields of Warran grass that had been so deeply turned that he could not walk across it. 

And looking in both directions, he couldn't see the end of these fields. Day after day, he came across more of these, and each time he couldn't see the ends of the fields. This is a vast contribution of labour to the production of food. 
Who did it? Pixies? It is obvious that Aboriginal people were engaged in an interaction with the soil. I have called it farming and agriculture in 'Dark Emu', but you could find other names for it if those words offend you, because the words agriculture and horticulture are the words of Europeans. 
And things like the term 'hunter gatherer' are also terms invented by Europeans. And it doesn't really worry me whether you call Aboriginal people farmers or hunters and gatherers, as long as you recognise the Aboriginal people were engaged in an intricate and sustained interaction with the soil. 

And it's that soil that is so important to us today. It is that soil that we saw last November on the news blowing out to the Pacific Ocean, and some of it landing in the New Zealand highlands. If we are good farmers, we don't allow that. 
So Australians need to read their history, as reported by the first European entrants into country. You don't have to believe Aboriginal people if you don't want to, just read what the first European said about that country. 

And we need to accommodate that in our lives, and consider that Aboriginal people have been on this continent for at least 100,000 years, some archaeology is saying 120,000. And you can argue the toss about that. But even if it were 80,000 years, it is a very long time to practice any kind of plant relationship and food production. 
And much can be learnt in that time. But also if you manage to deliver a country after the enormous length of time that is fertile, productive, wonderfully beautiful, then you have done a lot of things right. Australia needs to look at that rightness, that relationship with the soil. 
What I am doing with the local Yuin people here, four of whom are working on the farm here today, we have been trying to grow the old, domesticated plants of Aboriginal people. 

When you say 'domestication', some Australians get upset because they think Aboriginal people are incapable of any kind of horticulture.

If you begin to harvest a plant at particular times of the year, and handling that plant in a particular way, and you do that over a period of 10 years, you have begun to domesticate the plant. If you do it over 80,000 years, you have domesticated the plant. 

And what we see now in our fields and paddocks in the countryside, is an inheritance from those old Aboriginal people. So we are trying to grow those grains and the tubers; Murnong, the Bulbine Lily, as many of these plants as we can, so we can demonstrate that it is possible to grow them, that Aboriginal people remain in contact with this knowledge, and that we can make commercial products out of these to deliver to the Australian people. 
And Australian people are clamouring for this food. Ever since we have begun talking about it, we are getting emails and phone calls, letters every day. From people wanting Murnong tubers or seed, kangaroo grass flowers and seed. 

We are struggling to supply because what Aboriginal people lack is land. We have labour, we have 140 acres here, which I was able to buy, with no assistance from any government, that is not very much ground. We need more. 

We need Aboriginal people to be trained to work that land. The people who work here learn something every day about these grains and tubers. But we need assistance to do it. 

We don't need an intervention. We just need assistance, and we certainly don't need resistance. And occasionally you come across that. But it is the young people of Australia who are driving this enthusiasm, and we have got to be proud that our young Australians both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal are interested in these things. But the benefit for Australia is that the plants we are talking about are perennial, not annual. 
The yield per acre is much lower than it is for annuals. But you don't plough the land, so therefore you don't have those dust storms that we saw last November. There are some parts of Australia that have lost 18m of topsoil. It is common for there to be 3-4m of topsoil loss. 
Farmers should be astounded, shocked, dismayed, by the loss of topsoil, because that is Australian capital. And that Australian capital was inherited from Aboriginal people, and it must have been so distressing for those old Aboriginal agriculturalists to watch the damage being done to their soil, their water and plants. 
But today, the benefits of these plants, apart from being a perennial, is that they have massive root systems. Kangaroo grass is an amazing grass. And it is difficult to harvest, winnow and turn into flour, I don't deny that. 

But its attraction to Aboriginal people was its nutritional values, but also the fact that its roots system was so vast that it was holding the soil together, and tapping both moisture and nutrition way down in the soil and bringing that up to the surface. 

This is a farmer's dream of fertility. Our Australian soils are very infertile, traditionally, because of the age of this continent. So we have to protect soil, and we have to look at its composition and care for it like we would our own child. 

Because in fact the soil is all we have. We need to look at all the fungi that helped these plants grow. We know little about these at the moment. We know that it is important, we know that it is important for our health. 

So all of these things are really important for Australia. This is not a gimick. This is not good blackfella and bad whitefella. It is not about some revisionist idea of history. It is just about history. Just about the history of the continent, and involves black people, and in the last 250 years white people. 
And no-one is going away, no-one is going to leave the continent, so we have to get on with it together, we have to look after our country and there are ways we can do it, and we can learn from people who had such vast knowledge. 
And now that humans are changing the climate, we need to learn from people who had great experience of changes in climate. Because the world's climate has been changing ever since it began. 

But what we are doing now is humans are changing climate. And that is something that we can change, we can get involved in that. And we can look at ways of mitigating the deleterious effects of our living on the planet, so that we can save it. 
I don't want to go to another planet. I will wave goodbye to anyone who wishes to leave. I think our most important job as humans is to look after this home. Aboriginal people would call her Mother Earth, and celebrate the great resources that she gives us, and her willingness to support us, her willingness to love and support us. 
And if we think we are God and that we can create any chemical to do our bidding, then I think the last 20 years have proven us incorrect. In fact Rachel Carson in 1974 wrote a book that is very relevant to today's societies around the world. 

And the thing about perennial plants is they sequester carbon. So if we wanted to meet our Tokyo carbon emission reduction target, one of the best things we could do is to convert some of our farmlands to perennial grasslands. Take them back, to perennial grasslands. 

And a soil analysis on this property here shows us that over the last 250 years, there have been frequent wildfires on the property, as evidenced by a large cubes of carbon in the soil profile. 

But before 250 years, those carbon deposits are fine. They are minuscule. They just look gray in the soil, rather than black.

And that is because in those days it was grass being burnt, not trees. And it was being deliberately burnt by Aboriginal people to support the grasses to renew the nutrition in the soil, for those grasses to grow. 

And our last bushfires in Victoria, in January 2020, we lost all our fences and we also lost a crop of kangaroo grass that we were about to harvest. We had the tractor in the paddock with the harvester attached, and within hours, I had to detach the harvester and put on the firefighting trailer and do a completely different job. 
We were dismayed, and I felt really terrible for all the people, all the Yuin people who had worked on this farm over a year, to get us to the point where we were about to harvest, and we lost it in hours. 

But when the fire stopped, and that didn't happen until the first week in March, we got a new grass growing. It had been a minor grass in our landscape prior to the fire but it became the dominant species after the fire. We call it mandadyan nalluk - dancing grass, because that is what it does in the breeze.  

We harvested that in May. The fires went through in January and February, and we harvested another grass in May and turned it into flour. 

During COVID, my daughter's family had to stay here for three months, my daughter made a loaf of bread every two days using the dancing grass combined with other flours, and it was beautiful. In the end you forgot what you are eating, you just enjoyed your bread more.  

I had three grandchildren then, so the bread they were eating was better for them than they had had before. So it proved to us that Mother Earth really wanted to recover. And despite all the damage we have done to her, there is time for us to change our habits, look after our and our people. 

But the hardest thing of all, Australia, is making sure Aboriginal people are included in these things. 
It is not rocket science, but it seems to defy Australians time and time again. Today is a new day. I reckon we can do it. 

Bruce is coming to us from country, and you are hearing some additional noises in his background. That is because he has got people working on his home. 

So just to let you know, we can't really do anything much about the screwdrivers and the power tools in the background. But I think we are doing quite well. So thank you very much for that. Over to you, Angela. 

Thank you, Professor Jackson Pulver. Thank you for having me at this Sydney Ideas yarn, I feel very honoured, and thank you to Uncle Bruce.

I am here representing a small part of a really big project. I would like to acknowledge the Gomeroi people, where this project is based, and pay my deepest respects to the people and the knowledge they are sharing. 

And in particular the community members in Narrabri, Wee Waa and the other women that I work with up on country who are sharing their knowledge and donating their time and resources to this work we're doing together, which is so much fun. 

I would also like to acknowledge and thank the non-Aboriginal people who are contributing time and resources to the project as well. There is a lot of land and equipment and volunteer time that people are putting in, which is really wonderful. 
So I’m going to talk a little about ‘what’s next’? Because like many people, I read the 'Dark Emu' book a few years ago, and I was excited but frustrated asking why was I not told about this, why is no-one doing anything about it? 

I thought maybe I should do something about it. So I humbled myself and with the university's blessing I went out and talked to the community members in Narrabri and Wee Waa. 
I said if we were going to do something about the foods that come from grasslands on Gomeroi country, what should we do? Who should we speak to, and what would be of the most benefit in the long term? 

That started off this amazing project, which brought together traditional knowledge and more modern knowledges & technologies to tell us, to figure out how can we make the system of food production – Uncle Bruce said is it agriculture, or whatever – how can we bring this sustainable system into a modern food production chain, into modern markets - and doing this on Gomeroi country. 
We learnt that we can't just do a few practice loaves or glasshouse or lab test. We had to do this for real on a hectare scale. Because to have an impact, we had to do it for real at a big scale.

To sequester enough carbon to make a difference, it has to be over thousands of hectares. To produce enough grain so that people can eat it regularly, not just once a year at a fancy restaurant, but eventually eat it regularly, to make an improvement in gut and heart health, we need quite a lot. 
And to have the economic impacts for remote communities that people have talked about, employment opportunities and things like that, you need to do it at scale. So with that, I would like to show a few photos. 
We have got a lot of partners that we work with up on Gomeroi country that have donated land. This includes the TAFE at Moree. They have 10 ha set aside for teaching and research.

There are several private landholders that have set aside hectares for this. There are at least 3 Aboriginal Land Councils that have set aside land for growing grasses as well. 
The photo I have got here is the university's research plot, about 10 hectares. From the air it looks bare, because just before we took this photo, we put a cool burn across it. 

The burning rejuvenates the land and get ready for planting. We are going to revegetate it with the target species which are the ones that we think used to be used for food and the ones we think will have the most market value. 
You cannot really see it from the photo, but the land is put into three sections. Because we are going to try to do it three slightly different ways and see which one works best. 

When I say works best, that's looking at the economics of the system, the environmental benefits of the system and also the cultural and social benefits of the system. So it is the three pronged sustainability we're going to look at. 

 Grass takes time to grow. So while we're waiting for our research plot to grow, we are working with private and other landholders as well. 

The photo on the left is my technician, Callum, doing a great job harvesting button grass. And on the right the Rosedale Reaper which is basically a big vacuum. 

The yellow thing at the front is just a set of paddles. As it drives forward through the field, it taps the heads of the grain, and if it is ripe, it falls off and is sucked into the big receptacles at the back. And if it is not ripe, it stays in the field and we can come through again. That is how perennial grasses differ from annual grasses like wheat, sorghum and others like that. 
There are many different species of grains that can be eaten. Here are just a few of the examples we have collected from Gomeroi country and similar areas. 

There is diversity of size, shape and colour. Different nutritional properties. Of those flours on the right, the darker one is not a grass species, but it grows in grassland, which is Dhamu, or purslane or pig weed. That is one of the highest plant-based sources of omega three fatty acid that you can get, right up with linseed. 
And the bottom is acacia, which is very high in protein and the plants are very important in the ecosystem because they increase the nitrogen content of the soil. But all the others are grasses. You can see the colour differences and imagine the flavour and aroma differences too. 
Of course, a science project that involves food also means eating, which is great. On the left is Callum with Uncle Bruce and his wife doing some johnnycake cooking on the barbecue. In the middle is my two-year-old daughter being taught how to make johnnycakes by the women at Wee Waa and making a lot of mess in the office. 
And the third photo is cooking johnnycakes on country. That is that Tulladunna Reserve, which is on the road towards Walgett and Bourke. 

A beautiful day pre-COVID, so we could get a couple of hundred people and we made johnnycakes from a whole different species to see which ones taste best and how it is cook over hot coals. I think everything tastes better cooked over hot coals. 

On the left is one of the johnnycakes that we made. It is pure native millet flour, and then the red in the middle is a quandong that was baked into the cake. Way too many of them, I had forgotten how high in fibre they are, and I was stuffed full before I could eat anything else. Absolutely delicious. 
We are also doing some science as well. The other photo are some loaves that were baked in the lab. The two on the outside are 15% warrego grass, the middle loaf is made from quinoa and the rest is wheat. We are doing not just to look at native grains on their own, but in context to see how they might work in a food production chain. 
And this is Callum in the glasshouse. Part of working with the community has not just been doing science experiments for us but also getting involved with the school kids. 

So a whole lot of those plants were donated to Narrabri and Wee Waa high schools for their agriculture plots, and for them hopefully once they grow up to use in their home economics food classes as well. 

The photo beside that is some Mitchell grass seed, showing the ways you can use it for planting. When you coat the seed it’s a lot more expensive. The coating is not a fancy chemical, it is just a dye added to a clay mineral, and it helps the seed to germinate. 

Part of the economics is working out whether it is worth coating the seed or whether we put it in without any coating. 
So with that, I would like to say thank you for having me, and it really is a community effort to bring these grains back. It will be a confluence of knowledge. 

It is like we have two different streams and they come together to make one river. At the point at which they mix, it can get abit up and down, but it is well worth it in the end. Because it is a stronger river going forward. I feel honoured to be here and to be eating bread together. 
I did bring a few loaves to show. I am not a baker, full disclosure, I am terrible at baking and cooking. My husband is the chef in our house. 

This was done in a breadmaker where I just had to push the buttons. But it also shows the resilience of these grains and how even non-chef people can do it. 

This is a normal bread mix that I have added acacia and native grain kibble. So I smashed it up and popped it in as kibble into a normal bread mix. It is an easy way to put some of these grains into your diet. 
This is made with about 1/6 of button grass flower. You can see the loaf is slightly smaller but it is still delicious, but it still has a good crumb structure and much and fibre. 

And then this one is the dancing grass. Even there, there are differences between the dancing grass and button grass loaves, both made with about 1/6 flours in there. Different tastes, textures and flavours, but they are all really healthy and delicious. 
So with that, maybe we can hand back and start having more of a conversation, with some questions. 

Fantastic! Who is hungry? Hands up! It is wonderful to see an output of some of the work that is happening on country. 

Bruce, you are in a position to make some comments about what Angela has just shared, and then we will open up to some audience questions. 


The bread that Angela showed is so exciting. It is a kind of bread my daughter and myself are cooking here, from the flour made from grain off our own country. 

And to Yuin people, that was really important. It just proves that it is possible and commercially viable. Our harvest has to increase, so we need broad acres. We hope to get access to more land, like Angela has showed, where we are doing thousands of hectares. 
Some Aboriginal communities have that kind of acreage, and we need to work with those communities so that Aboriginal people can get the benefit of this culinary revolution which is going to happen. 

Because these breads are flavours that Australian people haven't tasted. Aboriginal people used to have this every day. And now Australia is going to taste them, but it is so important that in consuming the food, which is the inheritance delivered by Aboriginal people, that people don't forget that it is an inheritance, and that this is Aboriginal land, and the benefits have to be delivered to Aboriginal people, as well as to the rest of Australia. 

Australia will benefit from this commercially, environmentally, nutritionally and health wise. There is no doubt about it; that this is going to be good for Australia.

How couldn't you, under those circumstances, then consider making sure that Aboriginal people benefited as well? 

Otherwise it is another disposition, another callous disposition, more callous than the first one. This is a really exciting time. I think Australia is capable of it. 

There are some commentators who don't want us to go there, but we can make our own minds up. Read the explorers' journals, have a look at the fields that young Callum is sowing and harvesting and make up your own mind. 

I have just come back from talking to farmers about these very things, farmers who have been progressively discouraged by the falling fertility of their soils and the changing climate which threatens the crops they have been growing. 

And their willingness to try new things. Not everyone in those audiences wanted to hear the news of Aboriginal excellence. I have got a few vivid examples of conversations which I would rather not have had. 

But 99% of all conversations I have these days are positive. This is coming from non-Aboriginal Australians, who want to do the best thing by Mother Earth. 
So I believe the future is very exciting. But I would like it to be exciting for all of us, black and white. 

That is a very good point. I agree there is an absolute hunger and thirst and desire for people to know more about this country. 

There is a lot to learn and a lot to know. At the top of the list Sophie asks, "How can Australia incorporate Aboriginal agricultural knowledge to ensure Australia's food security into the future? Are you concerned about global and national food productivity as climate change worsens?" 


I think people only need to look at what Angela has done, or come down to our area where Black Duck Foods is growing these foods. 

That will show you it is possible to do. Yes I am concerned about the future, because Australian soil fertility is plummeting. It has been decreasing subsequent to the use of things like superphosphate. 

Superphosphate will give you a bounce there are some very green paddocks around here as a result of using superphosphate, but the soil content is very poor. The things that are growing there are not as nutritious for cattle and humans as they could be. 
So this is an area where we have to put a lot of resources in maintaining the quality of soil. Not giving up on it and thinking that a brand-new chemical will do it for us. 

One of the things that farmers have found is that in growing perennial grains, they don't need a lot of water, they only need as much water as falls at the sky. 

And they don't need any chemicals. No fertilisers, poisons, pesticides. So that is where these farmers are making a profit. They are not making as much money, but they are making a profit, because the top line item in their expenditure was chemicals. And they are virtually not spending that any more. 
They are saving on diesel, saving on compaction from tractors, because they are not using those things as much because the perennial pasture will look after itself. It is possible now, other farmers have begun doing it, and they are profiting from it. 

I think Australia is going to profit from it. There will be doomsayers and sceptics, but do the research for yourself, don't rely on me, don't rely on the commentariat, who are opposed to Aboriginal achievement. We will all be eating these foods, breads, tubers very soon. The future is very exciting. 

It is indeed, and the recognition for a very long time people have been able to thrive on theis country, says something way beyond what we can share today. 

Next question is from Eric "Angela, what Indigenous plants do you recommend to grow on our nature strips? Is there a handbook to growing grasses so that we can ditch our lawnmowers?" 

I would like to ditch my lawnmower too. I live and work on Gomeroi country which is inland, one comment I might make about the general principles, this whole project I'm trying to work towards is figuring out what practices we need to do. 

But what I am learning is before we try to change the species that we use to produce food and change the practices on that species or change our land management practices, I have learnt that I personally have to take a step back and realise where those practices came from.

What were the underlying reasons people chose to burn, or to use perennial plants? What were the reasons underlying it? Because when I was growing up, I was taught that you have got to care for the environment and manage the land. 

But the way it was explained to me by my own culture and ancestors because I'm not an Aboriginal person was, this is and this is us and we live on Earth and we only have one Earth, unless you want to live on Mars. So we have got to look after it. 

We are responsible for it and we had to make sure we pass on a sustainable healthy Earth to our kids and grandkids. This is us and we live on Earth. 
But something one of the Elders said on Gomeroi country that really struck me, is that we are part of country and country is part of us. So the underlying philosophy is a bit different. 

I was taught that we live on Earth and we are responsible for it, rather than you are part and it is part of you. 
If you come at it with that, it changes the way you incorporate your practice. So, what species you use, and how you integrate it into your diet. Whether you grow monocultures or polycultures, whether you burn or don't burn, the same practice can be applied regardless of the reason. 
For the commons in cities, find some people who are traditional knowledge holders for your city, and try to understand what they did and why. And that will probably inform what species we should be using today. 

It is a great response. A lot of people are asking questions about how to get resources. "Uncle Bruce, where can we access resources to learn more about traditional farming horticultural practices for our own lives?" Lots of you want to hear that response. What you say, Bruce Pascoe? 

At Black Duck Foods, we have been growing a lot in tube stock, which will be available in the future. 

But Peter Cooley at Indigrow in La Perouse is already doing this. Sharon Windsor at Mudgee (IndigiEarth) has a vast knowledge of these foods. There are people around who are doing this. So use Dr Google and have a crack. These things are going to be available to us very soon.  


Fantastic. So there are lots of opportunities for us to learn and no doubt more will become apparent. 

We have another question specifically from the students in the Masters program, "What is the number one most crucial message that we can take out of today's talk to help us understand the biological and cultural diversity and how it can enhance our capacity to face an unprecedented future?" 

That is a tough question, I know. Who would like to take that one? 

I can go first, but would definitely like to hear Uncle Bruce's thoughts. Maybe I will speak about the diversity question, because Uncle Bruce before we came online, we were talking about that. 

The way that current agricultural practices generally work is a monoculture. You have many hectares of one species. 
The reason it is done that way is it is easy to mechanise. That method is not necessarily bad or horrible, and it produces a large amount of yield per hectare which is very important for food security and developing our societies overall. 

But talking about diversity, if we want to go to a more diverse ecosystem like was used in this country over thousands of years, there are implications for the product quality that comes out afterwards. 
If we are going to reintroduce an ecosystem method of production, which in my opinion is the best way to get the environmental benefits and many of the cultural benefits as well, from what I am learning, and my perspective, we need to consider also what happens post-harvest. 
I have some examples here as well. That is Mitchell grass and that one is kangaroo grass. I love you, Zoom. You can see how different they are, though, the structure of the grain and the mess that they come out within the header. 

If you are going to market and sell it, you have to work out how you're going to turn these diverse products into something that consumers can use. It is obviously possible, it has been done for thousands of years, but it is different to the way we do it now.

How can we make it happen? Probably a bit of research and talking. Talking all along the food production chain. Talking to the chefs, the grain millers and the other food processors who might use it as a kibble or a raw grain, how can we take what is a diverse product in the field, into something that can be edible in modern markets


I think it is going to be really exciting to analyse these complex food systems that Aboriginal people had. Because in the western district of Victoria, the first European farmers noticed that there was kangaroo grass, murnong, orchids and lily all growing together through a mass of moss. A really complex system that we are trying... 
We de-stocked this farm on the Wallagaraugh River two years ago, we had the horrible fires of 2020 go through in January, February and March. And we were out in the paddock the other day just analysing what we did have and what the prospects were for our new harvest. 
We saw five grasses, glycines, apple berry, all growing in this paddock, which when I bought it was basically bare. One of the orchids has a circumference like that coming out of the ground. The power of that plant is incredible. 

We know that Aboriginal people ate a huge variety of orchids. And in that paddock we came across six or seven different orchids. 
It is a really complex growing regime. How do you handle it? We harvested that paddock last year for dancing grass. But then in this season, we have got orchids there. 

Can we harvest those as well? I think we can, I think we can do all those things on one plot of land. It is complex and there will be intricate structures and methods that we have to utilise. We don't have to do anything apart from watch it grow and then harvest it. 
The soil structure will be better. People remarkably difference of these paddocks than they were, just by getting rid of hard-hooved animals. We probably have 200 kangaroos, but they are not making any impact on the soil. They are adding to it. 

And they eat the occasional orchid and a lot of grass, but I'm happy to share that with them. We should be harvesting kangaroos as well. 
It's really important for us, I think, to look at complexity rather than the monocultures we have been utilising. Because we have seen around the world in soil health and food nutrition that those methods are failing us. 

Thank you. I mean, we could go on for hours with this conversation, and judging from all of the questions you have been putting in, as well as the many I am getting online through a different mechanism.  

People are asking us to make sure that the resources that have been spoken about today are shared, so we will be certainly asking our panellists to write them down for us, and we can make them available.  

We're not quite finished yet, we have another five minutes. The final question for our panellists before I ask you for the one thing that you think we should do as a university, society or community about this. 

But first we will ask, is the 15-20% use of Indigenous grains about palatability, cooking methods or something else? Would an ideal end result be 100% grain, or not? 

I did that as an example here, because in a breadmaker I could make it work. Like any gluten-free grains, all these native grains are gluten-free, they have unique properties and they don't not make a nice loaf. 

They are quite strong tasting, some species taste different. Could we do 100% button grass? Maybe. Could we do 100% dancing grass? Maybe. 

It depends on the species and the preference of the consumer. I used wheat, but you can make 100% gluten-free bread as well. You can mix buckwheat flour with native flour as well to make a gluten-free version. 

I was hunting around for the traditional loaves because I had been told there were in existence, loaves by Aboriginal people that had been collected. 

I guess I spent two years hunting those down, because they were supposed to be in the collections, and people could not find them when they went to the drawer. It was empty, or it was just not on their records. 
And then at the Melbourne Museum, Kimberley Moulton, an Aboriginal woman, did a different kind of search and came across these breads. 

They were in a drawer, they were risen that far, they were 100% Australian grain. They just looked like a little cob loaf that you would see on the shelf in a boutique baker. 

And they are yet to be analysed. It is so important for us to analyse those and find out what the rising agent was and what was the combination of grains, when was it harvested. 

All of that stuff is available to us. It is like brain surgery. It is a lot easier than brain surgery, but we haven't done it. 
We couldn't find the breads, even though they are in our museum, because we didn't regard them. Now they are of interest to us, let's do the science as well. And let's not penny-pinch about this science. It is really important for us. 
We too have been making bread with combinations, because we just don't have enough flour at the moment. But we will. 

We have never mentioned these things on the 150 cooking shows that Australia supports. We don't talk about murnong, we don't talk about Australian grains and Aboriginal people, but we will. 

That is beautiful. We are so close to the finish. I am going to hand over very quickly to our wonderful guests today and ask them, what is the one thing that you want people to go away with from today's talk? 

Whether it is a call to action or a comment you would like to make. I’ll start with you Angela? 

Just like when I read the book and got frustrated and then did something about it, I encourage everybody, no matter what your capacity is, do something about it. 

But don't just do a little thing, do something at scale, whatever your capacity is. 

Bruce, final word? 

Love the Earth, love your Mother Earth, don't see her as being deficient - she is perfect and is all we have got. 

Don't try to use human hubris to improve, but most of all, make sure Aboriginal people are included and respected in this process. 

Perfect. I don't think any of us could have put this differently or better. 

I am very conscious many of you are saying, "When is the follow-up lecture?" I am not sure. It is over to Sydney Ideas. We could go for half a day or more. 
There are many people to think. First and foremost, the Winch family for the opportunity of having the funding to be able to do this. Second, to you Bruce Pascoe, it has been wonderful. Angela Pattison, thank you for coming down on a train to visit with us. 

And most importantly I would like to say thank you to the audience, thank you for coming along, spending a lunchtime, I hope it has been worth your while.


Thanks for listening to the Sydney Ideas podcast. For more information head to

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Finally, we want to acknowledge that this podcast was made in Sydney which sits in the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. It is upon their ancestral lands at the University of Sydney is built.

  • For all: Indigenous Grasslands for Grains project website will be releasing a 40 page report on the paddock-to-plate of native grains, along with 2-5 minute videos aimed at students and explore various aspects of native grains. Stay tuned.
  • For all but most relevance to potential growers: A series of three industry-focused webinars in November. These will be very practical and relevant to those wanting to grow, buy or sell native grains/foods. Register + more info.
  • For science teachers: A workshop in late November about how to integrate Indigenous knowledge into teaching (including providing practical resources). Bruce Pascoe and Dr Angela Pattison are speaking there too. Stay tuned.

The speakers

Bruce Pascoe has published widely in both adult and young adult literature. He has won numerous awards, including the New South Wales Premier’s Book of the Year Award in 2016 for Dark Emu (Magabala Books 2014) and the Prime Minister’s Literature Award for Young Adult fiction for Fog a Dox (Magabala Books 2012) in 2013. His children’s titles Mrs Whitlam (Magabala Books 2016) and Young Dark Emu (Magabala Books 2019) have been shortlisted in the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards. In 2018 Bruce was awarded the Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. He has worked as a teacher, farmer, fisherman, barman, fencing contractor, lecturer, Aboriginal language researcher, archaeological site worker and editor. Bruce is a Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian man, and currently lives on his farm in Gippsland, Victoria.

Angela Pattison is a plant breeder and agricultural scientist. Her current role is research and pre-breeding chickpea for heat tolerance as part of the ‘Legumes for Sustainable Agriculture’ hub, funded by an ARC linkage grant, and developing tools to achieve this including the use of UAVs, molecular markers, and diverse chickpeas from around the world. She is also involved in paddock to plate devlopment of grains for food, particularly non-wheat cereals; field pea breeding and research, and the potential of Australian native species for food, fuel and fibre production in environmentally and socially beneficial systems.

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