Heath moved south to find a perfect balance in life – half the day in the dirt, have the day in the water. Photo SA Rips

Best of 2023 | HEATH JOSKE: LANDSCAPE ALCHEMIST, TURNING SHIT, STRAW AND SEAWEED INTO GOLD

Jesus, I think to myself, this joint is the real deal. I’m driving south on the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia. It’s early autumn, there’s not a cloud in the sky, it’s hot and blindingly bright. As the hot air funnels in my window, I imagine that this is what people overseas must think of when they think of Australia.

 

On one side, the landscape is hot and dry, populated by the type of low scrub that – if you foolishly decided to run through it – would shred any clothing material other than military grade canvas. On the other side, there’s the ocean. The edge of the Bight. Huge, unrelenting in its dazzling beauty, a vast, potent wilderness rammed up against the southern edge of a mostly uninhabited continent at the far end of the world.

 

There’s a reason why the place isn’t teeming with people. It takes a certain type to make a go of it here. It’s the kind of country that’s home to hot-and-bothered-looking sheep, hard-wrought crops of wheat, rocks and snakes. I’m finding it hard to believe that I’m off to meet a bloke who’s growing vegies, though apparently that’s exactly what wave maestro and dirt whisperer Heath Joske has been doing out here for the past six years.

The hi-vis scarecrow keeping an eye over the garden. Photo SA Rips

This must be the place. The driveway is marked by an old fridge with a handwritten sign telling of eggs and fresh produce held within, as well as another couple of signs seeking donations of fish scraps and green waste. I take a quick sneak peek inside to see what passes for fresh produce in this landscape and am blown away by a collection of leafy greens, tomatoes, herbs and eggs that would give a Northern Rivers biodynamic farmer’s market a run for its money.

How, when the rest of the country looks like it’s straight out a Mad Mex set, how on earth do you grow such heavenly delights? I ready myself for an education about growing on the fringe.

I point the car down the driveway, making my way past subtle earth works and countless tree plantings up to a stone house that’s surrounded by an eclectic mix of structures. The kids come out first – two yellow-haired grommets who have that classic look of farm kids, beaming health from good homegrown food, lots of fresh air and their own private kingdom to grow up in. Ah, here he is. Mr Joske, I presume? Big beard, big smile and the build of someone who only sits down to eat.

With no town water on the property the Joskes get by on tank water, while the garden survives largely off recycled grey water. Photo SA Rips

Time for a tour. This place has to be seen to be believed. All the structures are hand made using upcycled, recycled, scrounged and salvaged materials. There are fruit trees, chickens, turkeys, compost bins, worm farms, bubbling cauldrons of mysterious brown liquid and vegetables everywhere you turn. It’s mind blowing. After a whistle stop tour of the patch, it’s time for lunch with the family – home baked sourdough, farm fresh eggs and salad from the garden – the type of hearty agrarian fare that tastes as much of the love with which it was prepared as the sweetness of the soil in which it was grown. It’s the kind of meal that money can’t buy… you have to do it yourself if you want it this good.

As a pot of coffee brews on the stove and the family goes about their day, Heath and I sit down for a yarn.

PW: Where’d you catch the gardening bug?
HJ: It’s been a part of my life forever. Growing up my mum always had a good vegie garden with lots of fruit trees. She was really passionate about it, still is. As kids growing up we got to enjoy the fruits of her labour, we always had homegrown produce on the table.

With no corner store nearby, Marlow and Ziggy Joske graze all day from the patch. Photo SA Rips

Travelling the world on the pro tour, that must’ve been a bit of a crash landing after growing up on homegrown produce?
Yes and no, it depends on where in the world you were. The States were the worst – you’re always eating takeaway, which as a young buck was great for a bit, but it lost its sheen very quickly. You really start to notice the waste, eating out three times a day this pile of garbage would slowly grow around you… that and after a couple of days you’d really start to notice it physically, feeling like crap and finding it harder to perform. That wasn’t the case everywhere though. You’d travel to countries like Mexico, Chile and Brazil and there would be this amazing food everywhere. With all the markets and small farmers you could easily get your hands on an incredible diversity of local, fresh food to feed yourself and you’d feel amazing.

What brought you out this way?
There were a couple years that I came over here, camping and surfing and I loved it. It felt properly remote, no phone service, nice and quiet, more laid back. It felt like it was a few decades behind the east coast, which I loved. I ended up meeting my wife who grew up here, then the opportunity to buy a block of land came up and the rest is history. That was back in 2017.

What was this block like when you first bought it?
Pretty rough. It had one little patch of scrub, maybe 5 or 10 per cent of the whole block. The rest had been cleared and used for growing crops and running sheep for a long time, maybe 80-100 years. It had been flogged. It was hard to get a garden growing; there was just nothing to the soil, but the more time I put into building things up, the more things started to progress. I started by planting out native trees, around 600 in that first year and more every year since, trying to create some shade and shelter in the landscape. I planted an olive tree, a fig, a mulberry and an orange tree as well as 12 fig cuttings. Out of all those fruit trees none survived. It was a hard landing to learn that this was nothing like the east coast country I watched my mum gardening on as a kid. In that first year, it was slow going as I had to focus my efforts on building a home for the family so we could live on the block, but once that went up it allowed me to focus more on the land. I built tin walls to protect the growing areas from the howling northerlies and southerlies that whip through here. I added more organic matter, still am. So far I reckon I’ve added hundreds of big bales of straw, dozens of trailer loads of manure, compost and chicken manure over these past six years. The progress has been amazing. Things seem to get going twice as quickly now as they did when I first got here. There’s life in the soil now and I’ve got earthworms helping me do the work.

Addy Jones has been a regular visitor to Heath’s farm over the past few years, driving an excavator to create swales while helping Heath build up his composting program. Photo SA Rips

What’ been the hardest lesson?
Dealing with hot dry summers. It’s an ongoing lesson and I’m learning more every summer. The biggest fuck-up had to be the fire that I started in the orchard, cutting some tin for a chicken run with an angle grinder. That little spark started a 50-acre fire – there were fire trucks out here getting it under control, and we came close to burning our home and losing at least 60 fruit trees. Having to start again after that was a big challenge and took some serious commitment, but you learn from the mistakes and you get going again. I'm definitely more careful when using an angle grinder these days.

A big chunk of your life has been spent in the ocean, what’s the allure of the dirt?
You leave a longer lasting effect on the dirt. If you plant a tree it grows over the years into something that provides shade, habitat and beauty for the environment. Like surfing, it’s a lifelong passion, it’s something that you can do physically and then watch the fruits of your labour grow along with yourself over time. It’s gold.

What gets you more excited these days, the surf or the patch?
I’m definitely frothing more on stuff coming out the garden these days. There’s so many layers to it. I’m feeding the soil, myself, my family… it’s amazing. I’m spending way more time poring over rain forecasts than swell forecasts now. The rain is just so crucial to what can and can’t be done here. Don’t get me wrong though, I still get excited when I see a big Southern Ocean swell on the radar.

Who’s helped you out along the way?
Addy Jones has been a huge help and inspiration. When Mick Waters was here shooting his film Outdated Children, he told me about this wild wizard living down in the Bass Strait doing crazy things with permaculture and his vegie patch. He thought I’d get a lot of connecting with him so I did. Addy and I started chatting on the phone for about 18 months, with him offering me guidance and advice, before he finally came over to visit the farm in person. I had a borrowed digger and Addy hit the ground running, weaving his magic to dig swales to slow the movement of precious rainfall across the property. He’s a living legend – he just wants to help people. He’s so generous in giving his knowledge, time and energy.

The Joske’s property, one dune back from the beach on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula.

If there are crew out there feeling inspired by what you’ve done here and wanting to give growing their own food a crack, where should they start?
It’s easier and simpler than you think; all you need is a little growing space, a couple of bags of potting mix and some seeds. Just try to grow some vegies and in a month or so you’ll see that come to fruition. Also, make compost. Watch your waste turn into garden gold. It’s an amazing cycle to be part of, just frothing on the circle of life, watching our waste feed the soil that feeds us and so the circle keeps turning. It’s the best.

I thank the Joskes for the feed and the yarn and hit the road. As I thread my way out of there, ocean on one side and land on the other, I think about how Heath has the mix just right. Pouring his love and attention into a trashed piece of country, a burgeoning landscape alchemist, turning shit, straw and seaweed into gold. When the digging gets hard the ocean is always there for a quick rinse, a couple of waves and the opportunity to return to his toils reenergised and fresh. The ocean offering thanks from the land to this bearded doer. It also fills me with a sense of hope. That if one bloke and his family can breathe life back into this harsh landscape and enjoy the hard-won fruits of their labour, then there’s a chance that it can happen anywhere. All we need is a few more people willing to have a crack like Heath, some compost, and a bit of land in need of some TLC.

Watch the latest episode of Farm Boys here.

Heath moved south to find a perfect balance in life – half the day in the dirt, have the day in the water. Photo SA Rips

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