Vale Rod May – Ecological farming pioneer and natural leader

One of Australia’s ecological farming pioneers passed away on the 29th May 2017. Rod May aged 63 died after a motorbike accident on the road between Ballarat and his home at Blampied.

Rod was a 4th generation farmer, who lived and worked on the family’s 200 acres at the foot of Kangaroo Hills in central Victoria. In the late 1970’s Rod returned to the family farm motivated by his interests in self-reliance, organics and tree crops. Influenced by his experience as an exchange student to the USA he became convinced of the need to develop alternatives to large-scale chemical intensive agriculture. He converted part of the family farm to organics, implementing large-scale plantings of shelter, fodder, timber, fruit and nut trees.  In 1982, Rod helped found the Central Victorian Tree Planting Co-op, Australia’s first contract tree planting business organised as a worker owned co-operative. He was also elected to the conservative Creswick Council. Over the next four decades, Rod remained active in promoting a more sustainable future as an influential leader in local politics, landscape restoration and organic farming.

The Landcare movement emerged simultaneous in several regions across Australia in the early 80’s. One of those places was central Victoria, where Rod played a leading role.  In 1983 an innovative revegetation scheme, Project Branch Out was funded by government to employ hundreds of people planting trees on demonstration sites across the Campaspe, Loddon and Avoca catchments in response to the threat of salinity.  Possibly the first large revegetation initiative, Project Branch Out was a forerunner of subsequent landcare employment programs, like the Greencorps and Green Army, adopted by successive governments. Rod was employed as the managing director of the huge program. He shared the project’s bold, holistic vision, communicating easily with public officials, conservative farmers and the previously unemployed workers putting the trees in the ground. Importantly he had credibility with dirt under his nails as both a farmer and tree planter.

Rod read widely. The latest copies of New Scientist were always lying around his owner built mud brick house.  The leader of a generation of organic farmers he worked tirelessly to integrate ecological theories into farming practices. In his role as the founding president of the National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia (founded in 1986) he was at the forefront of linking sustainable development and organic farming systems. His interested extended to community development and ecological restoration of entire landscapes, leading the revegetation of the Captains Creek Catchment that includes the family farm.

Rod was a charismatic leader who engaged with people from all walks of life. He demonstrated his community and industry leadership skills in a variety of formal roles, but he was also equally engaging with his many friends and family.  As organics grew in the 1990’s, Rod spent an increasing amount of time in meetings around the country and around the world, making important global linkages through the International Federation of Organic Farming Movements.

Rod did some of the first organic certification inspections in Australia and helped certify coffee growers in East Timor. His human skills were complemented by a keen intellect, strong observation skills, and a sharp memory for facts, figures and protocols of organic standards. Rod had a gift of seeing and communicating the big picture. His commitment, generosity of spirit and easy-going manner made him a natural diplomat. He brought people together including the diverse and disparate organic and biodynamic groups, who had to work together with government to establish protocols for organic exports. Rod’s understated diplomacy allowed him to work with the idealists and pragmatists of the organic movement.

Rod was married to Vivien Hodgins, a gifted drama and media teacher at Mount Clear Secondary College in Ballarat, who died tragically in the Samoan tsunami of 2009. Together they raised two strong young women – Stephanie and Carla. He and Vivien respected each other’s passions – organic farming and teaching – and loved travelling on their many overseas trips.

During many years of globe-trotting Rod juggled his off farm commitments and farming operations, with the help of his father, Morris, who supported the farm’s organic production methods, also adopted by brothers Greg and Doug. Like his father, Rod was a big bloke who loved hard work. In the paddock there would be few that that could work day in day out like he did.  He even claimed that picking spuds was great for fixing a bad back. In his later years, his knees gave him trouble after years working across the mounds and furrows of his abundant crops of irrigated vegetables. For some years he sold these wholesale but in recent years he focused on suppling local markets using methods he had seen working in Europe, Japan and the US. Rod produced mixed produce boxes, supplying customers with boxes overflowing with mixed unwashed vegies, fruits and nuts that he delivered to pick up houses, for collection by groups of local customers.  A short documentary about this can be found at https://youtu.be/pTe-xDrI1mQ

A natural teacher, Rod had a seamless grasp of soil and landscape ecology, agricultural and tree crops, organic marketing and the mechanical gadgets involved in farming. He held numerous field days, workshops and farm walks and delivered impressive lectures and public talks.

Rod had an easy way of playing with ideas, often expressed with laconic humour. He said once “ I don’t think we should say we grow veggies – its totally authoritarian. We would say the veggies grow themselves. I don’t think we should dominate vegetables. We further their lifecycles. They give up a few of their family”. Another time Rod explained that by farming he felt like a slow sculptor working with plants over time. He pointed to patch of blackberries, near his dam, where he had planted oak trees thirty years previously. “I’m still waiting for these oaks to out compete those blackberries. It’s a gradual process – this art of sculpting landscapes – but who’s in a hurry?”

Rod always had a strong interest and natural inclination for politics. This cumulated with his time as a popular mayor of the Hepburn Shire. He also stood as the Greens candidate for Ripon in 2014. He was motivated to take on political roles to bring about fundamental change. Rod had vision, always seeing options to make the world a better place, but he also made them happen – on the farm, in the community and through the organic farming movement – slowly sculpting the future.

Rod is survived by his two daughters – Stephanie and Carla – his partner Annie and his brothers, Greg and Doug and their families. He will be sorely missed by his family and by a huge group of friends and colleagues.

Obituary prepared by David Holmgren and Jason Alexandra, both friends and colleagues of Rod’s over many decades. More information can on their work can be found at: https://www.holmgren.com.au

http://rmit.academia.edu/JasonAlexandra

https://hazeldeanforestfarm.com