Farming is what Mark Merrett knows best.
It’s the same story for his dad, and his grandfather: their 2,800-hectare mixed farming operation has been in the family for three generations.
“We’re currently running about 2,000 breeding ewes and putting in about 1,000 hectares of crops each year,” the 23-year-old says.
“We’re growing wheat and barley for grain, as well as some vetch hay, and producing first cross ewe lambs, Merino cross Border Leicester, as well as prime lambs, which are sold for meat production.”
If you’ve never lived or worked on a farm like the Merretts have, chances are you have a pretty vague idea of what all that means.
Enter Farm Vlogs: a series of day-to-day logs that detail life on the Merrett family farm.
“In 2016, I started making some short farm videos for my nephews and niece in Melbourne to keep them up-to-date with what we were doing on the farm,” Mark says.
“Being kids, they weren’t quite as passionate as I was about the videos.
“But in 2020, after seeing supermarket shelf after supermarket shelf wiped clear during COVID panic-buying, I was once again inspired to make them … because I realised there was a big disconnect between the people growing our food and the majority of the people eating the food.
“Social media has really opened up the reach of farmers. Traditionally, farms are remote and far away from major city centres. So someone’s got to do the travelling, and social media is a great way of eliminating that.
“In the videos, we run through the tasks we’re doing, with a deeper look into the reasons we make the decisions we’re making and how they affect us both financially and physically in the extra work, or other things that we have to do,” he explains.
“I wanted to provide a space where people could find out where and how their food is grown,” he says simply.
But why does that matter?
What can happen when we disconnect from where food comes from
Mark believes knowledge gaps in our wider understanding of farming can have a big impact that extends beyond the world of agriculture.
“If you don’t know where food’s come from, you won’t be able to support local farmers,” Mark begins.
“And if you don’t know how your food is grown and the work that goes into it, it doesn’t have the same value.”
This reasoning is familiar. But why should we want to support local, and is doing this always best?
Amy Cosby, a research fellow in agri-tech education and expansion at CQ University, has one argument: “We’re very lucky here to be able to grow such a wide range of high-quality food that we’re used to.
“That’s something that people value — being able to know their food has been produced as safely and sustainably as possible.
“That’s why it’s important to keep our farming businesses productive and profitable, otherwise in the future we might not have that opportunity anymore.”
Mark adds: “If people aren’t aware of how their food is produced, they won’t be able to make wise decisions in the supermarket. Farming practices can be about what is best for the animal [for example] or they can be about what’s going to make the most money.”
Farming now accounts for 55 per cent of land use in this country and 25 per cent of water extractions, according to the Department of Agriculture.
This is why Sue McIntyre, an honorary professor at the Australian National University, says wider awareness of farming practices is necessary. But she insists awareness isn’t sufficient.
“We absolutely need to understand what we’re doing to our countryside — and our cities,” Dr McIntyre says.
“Anyone who manages land, from managing a backyard to a huge property, can effect change in the way they use their land and people who buy products can too, by consuming less, by buying more carefully, and also by understanding and supporting sustainable production systems.
“We all have the capacity to learn more about our production systems and their effects and to buy accordingly.
“This is the key thing,” Dr McIntyre says. “It’s not just about the production on a single piece of land — it’s about understanding that it matters what happens across the entire landscape.”
So how do we connect?
First things first, Dr Cosby says the idea that a lack of farming knowledge comes down to a city versus regions divide is a misconception.
“In our research team, we’re often finding that unless you have a personal connection with a farmer or a close family member, or friend, it doesn’t matter necessarily where you live … or even if farming happens in your backyard.”
She says this is in large part down to a decline in small farms.
“Smaller farms are being bought by larger farms; with that comes fewer people, because larger farms lead to more efficient processes, so then there are fewer people working in farming itself,” Dr Cosby explains.
“Fewer people working on farms feeds that disconnect regardless of where people live.”
That this disconnect can be found everywhere makes the issue a broader one to overcome.
Dr Cosby’s research team is currently conducting a national survey of grade four to seven students to find out what they know about food and where it comes from, as well as how it’s grown.
When it’s finished towards the end of the year, the plan is to distribute the feedback collated to the agricultural industry and the Department of Education.
“If we don’t know what people don’t know, it can be really hard to target programs,” she says.
“Videos like Mark’s Farm Vlogs are a really great example of resources we can use to teach people about where their food and fibre comes from.”
But Dr Cosby says we also need dedicated training for teachers, “so they can provide accurate information to the next generation”.
Mark isn’t waiting around for this to happen.
“I love farming here,” he says. “There’s not a huge stack of money involved, but it’s easy for me to keep farming because I love doing it and talking about it, and I love making videos.
“I don’t know what it will turn into, or what it will be, because Farm Vlogs has already surpassed my expectations.”
The ABC’s Trailblazers program provides a platform for individuals and groups of up to three working on projects to make regional Australia a better place.
Winners receive media support, networking and mentorship opportunities and an all-expenses-paid trip to Canberra.
If you would like to find out more about the next Trailblazers intake, go to the ABC Heywire website.