After drought, fires and floods … Rachel Ward films her farming revolution

Rachel's Farm is an inspirational story of how regenerative farming is ‘the most hopeful response to climate change’.

Actor and film director Rachel Ward is better known for her body of work in front of the camera and forging a Hollywood career, famously starring in The Thorn Birds and marrying Australian Bryan Brown.

But what may be her most important contribution to film yet is her feature-length documentary, Rachel’s Farm, which raises the acute issues surrounding farm practices and the move by many smaller commercial farms to regenerative farming.

Ward’s passion came from a deep belief that things had to change on the family farm on the mid-New South Wales north coast in the Nambucca Valley that she and Brown, 76, had bought in 1986.

After years of drought, bushfires, fluctuating incomes, overgrazing, pesticides and chemical fertilisers, Ward realised that conventional farming was unsustainable.

It became her cause celebre.

‘Galvanised to take action’

“With the very pressing realities of climate change and a new grandson I was galvanised to take meaningful action with not only the way I farmed but, as a filmmaker how I could employ my skills to spread the word about the most hopeful response to climate change that I had ever encountered,” Ward, who shares three children with Brown (Rosie, Matilda and Joe) tells The New Daily.

Ward’s fight to address climate change has become the ‘most pressing concern’ of her lifetime. Photo: Madman Films

After the 2019-20 bushfires, which decimated 1.5 million hectares of land across NSW and Victoria – including the fences, trees, soil integrity and pastures on their 121-hectare property – Ward had reached a fork in the road.

It was time to act.

“I hit a wall in the summer of 2019-20 when, after a three-year drought which forced me to buy feed, then sell half my herd, I was surrounded by the Black Summer fire.

“I lost all my fencing and my faith in any miracle arriving to save our country from destruction.”

A bigger story

Reluctantly, but cleverly, the way to tell the story about how they needed to change everything about farming was putting herself, her story in front of the camera.

Make it personal.

“I resisted that to begin with,” she reveals.

“I didn’t want it to me about me … I was enamoured by the earlier doctors of regenerative farming and read Charles Massy’s book, Call of the Reed Warbler, and wanted to meet those farmers … see the pictures between the health and sickness of “over the fence” [farms].

“I wanted to learn from them … but it has to be a personal story … so I went kicking and screaming to start with because I didn’t think I knew enough.

“But in the end that was the point … I don’t know enough.”

The miracle arrived.

Although the film introduces us to the beauty of their idyllic rural family retreat, where their kids ran around with horses, chickens and cows, the reality of commercial – and sustainable – farming eventually reared its head.

At the age of 60, she joined forces with her neighbour and farm manager Mick Green, and together the pair go on a risky experiment to see if they can change the quality of their soils, their pastures and how they manage their cattle amid rising temperatures on a shared 340 hectares.

They were told the soil was dead – no insects, dung beetles or worms – and no native grasses. Heavy rain washed away top soils, and a clay base underneath was a bad sign.

Regenerative farming

Green’s research leads them both to regenerative farming and Ward hits the books.

She attends a holistic farming management course, goes to scientific lectures and meets with Indigenous leaders who share the little-known history of pre-colonial farming.

“I grew up in the country so I am a country girl … [and] find it all appealing. I love getting my hands dirty. I have no fear of manure. I love the smell. I love physical life.

“I was in the wrong business as an actor and filmmaker. It wasn’t nearly physical enough for me – I need to be worn out by the end of the day.”

Ward says she wasn’t afraid of nature, of spiders, snakes, of hard physical work: “To me it was natural. What was hard was going back to being a bloody Luddite again … I had to go back to school and be the fool that got everything wrong.”

Ward’s neighbour and farmer Mick Green. Photo: Madman Films

Make it count

As the pair continue the restoration of their joint farms, there is – as in all good stories – another drama.

Green suffers a horrendous motorcycle accident off farm, and Ward is forced to step into the boss role.

“The evolution is me being a complete ignoramus and me having to look after a herd of 300 cattle after a small time on the farm,” she said.

“It’s the whole evolution of the story, my transition as well as the land’s transition. At the time, I thought it was the end of the documentary. We had no Mick.

“What was so brilliant was it forced me to step up and do Mick’s job … believe me, I had no idea that was how the film would go.”

The original business plan for the documentary was to show viewers improvements in the farms, but not in such a dramatic way.

“It became a heroine’s journey in the way it happened,” she said.

Smoko. Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown at the cabin on the hill taking a well-earned lunch break. Photo: Madman Films

Brown ‘eating his words’

Ward says Brown, who makes an appearance in the film as a farmhand to help Ward move mobile electric fences and fix water pumps, was initially “patronising” about the project but offered some sage advice along the way.

The pair celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary this year.

Meanwhile, their daughter Matilda and her partner, former My Kitchen Rules participant Scott Gooding decided to set up The Good Farm Shop.

They sell meals using produce from local suppliers and market gardens.

“Now [Bryan is] watching his daughter’s business and he’s eating his words a bit … and certainly eating those meals. He’s really enjoying them,” she said with a laugh.

“He’s telling me to keep it simple … you’re still an ignoramus in this space. Don’t get to a point where you leave everyone behind. I am a newbie in this space and that is my value.”

How do you feel now?

“I feel a lot more self-respect that I actually got up and did it, [and] recorded it. I am still anxious about where we are as far as looking after our land, our farms and our food.

“We still have a long way to go. I hope I am not living in fairyland. I think we really need to know where our food is coming from. Still a lot to be concerned about.”

Above all, she has optimism and hope.

“This is a journey of hope where a grandson’s future is made possible if we act now to make changes.”

Rachel’s Farm is in select cinemas on August 3

Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.