On a rainy day 50km west of Moree in north-west New South Wales, Brisbane artist Jane Milburn navigates through the sinking black soil quintessential to this farming region.
Pure white cotton material is draped over her shoulder, the only thing to set her Driza-bone apart against the brown backdrop. With a flourish, she lays it down, painting the fabric with the mud that helped grow it.
The slow-fashion advocate plans to convert the farm-grown cotton material into a dress to wear and tell a story about the place where it came from: Keytah Farm, the carbon positive farming operation owned by Sundown Pastoral.
“A lot of farmers naturally are cautious about opening the doors and part of that is they can be subject to criticism,” Milburn says.
“But I think transparency and shining light and showing the good things they are doing here is important.”
Just 100 metres away, more artists take shelter from the rain under a row of grain silos while they paint the landscape.
Leo Robba is among them. He’s a lecturer at Western Sydney University and at the helm of the pilgrimage of city artists who travel west each year.
The visit is part of The Painted River Project, combining creativity and science to highlight the importance of healthy waterways.
The project started at Parramatta in western Sydney in 2017, and extended to the Moree region in 2021 through a collaboration between Western Sydney University and the Bank Art Museum Moree (Bamm).
According to Robba, the artists come not just to create but to contribute to and understand the carbon conversation.
“As climate change kicks in, people become more aware,” he says.
“It’s important that city people get a different understanding of how country people live and where their food comes from, how it’s grown, how we could work together to understand each other’s perspectives and work for a collective approach around that.”
Licence to farm
The Keytah Farm manager, Nick Gillingham, doesn’t mind the company the project generates and the chance to gain direct feedback from the consumer.
“It puts back to us how we need to make sure we do the right thing to maintain our licence to farm in the public sector,” he says.
“We need to keep pressing on and try and do the best job we can and improve on what we are doing.”
The operation uses sustainable farming practices, including minimal soil disturbance, incorporating stubble and reducing usage of fertiliser, and according to Sundown Pastoral it’s made water efficiency improvements of up 235%.
In 2019, the 65,000-acre (260 sq km) cropping property underwent a carbon emissions audit that found the production of cotton and other crops on the property reduced carbon emissions.
“We were one of the first farms to do a really thorough study. We compared from 2013 to 2018 – we’d increased our levels in that time, and hopefully in the next few years will be on the up and up,” Gillingam says.
According to Robba, the view that farmers are wasting water is simplistic.
“They are running businesses, so it is in their own interest to be responsible,” he says.
Many in the broadacre farming sector are now using minimal soil disturbance practices and slowly building the health of the soil to increase yields, but Gillingham says sustainable decisions are still motivated by consumer demand and “at the forefront of every political talk”.
In a pre-budget announcement, the federal government recently offered tax cuts to farmers and landholders receiving revenue from the production of Australian carbon credits, to encourage more participation in carbon offset projects and practices.
But as Milburn walks back to the grain shed with her mud-dipped masterpiece, she speaks of her own responsibilities as a consumer in the farming supply chain to make more sustainable choices.
“It is actually how we as wearers use the cotton, so if we wear it for longer until it wears out, then really there is no issue because we need to wear something,” she says.
In the next shed, Moree artist Nick Osmond has been sitting on a chair looking out at the rain to inspire his colourful figurative piece on paper.
While the presence of the artists on the farm is a juxtaposition, Osmond’s self-reflection would have you thinking he could be a farmer.
“You do get set in your ways, you really do. You should be continually looking for different aspects of your work,” he says.
Bamm recently held an exhibition of work completed as part of The Painted River Project 2021.
Lauren Marer is a freelance journalist based in Warialda.