This ancient kitchen of the Dja Dja Wrung people is a place of great significance for Ann-Marie on her property, Wooroomook: “I often wonder when the last meal was eaten here and recognise this as a significant site that needs to be protected.”
Today, Wooroomook is home to Holy Goat, an organic farm producing gourmet cheeses. Ann-Marie and her partner Carla Meurs run the place sustainably – collecting native seeds, replanting, clearing weeds and caring for adjacent Myrtle Creek. Eighty goats roam the Sutton Grange property, which has 4 part time employees on the farm and 5 at the farmers markets.
“We were attracted to this place for its native vegetation, water availability and beautiful view of Mount Alexander,” says Ann-Marie. “It’s also near Melbourne farmers’ markets, and sustainability means we try to sell our cheeses within two hours of the farm.”
Twice a day, 50 goats are milked at a small onsite cheese factory. From the loyal way they follow Ann-Marie, it’s clear they’re not just milk-producers: “We have a real connection with our goats. We care about their welfare.” The animals’ names – Argon, Nectar, Ruby, Tulip, Marika – denote their bloodlines, with a theme for each family tree: the periodic table, fruit trees, precious stones, flowers and “Carla’s Dutch aunties”.
The farm has no permanent flowing water – humans drink rainwater and the goats rely on Winter Creek and four small dams (built in the 1960s). In the wet months, thousands of tiny trickles converge to form this waterway, which flows between old Red Gums, over granite boulders and into adjacent Myrtle Creek. The Myrtle joins the Coliban River, which joins the Campaspe and eventually reaches the Murray.
“All these little waterways are effectively the start of the Murray,” says Ann-Marie. “So we only send good-quality water into the creek.”
Other resident critters include native birds and frogs. Wooroomook itself is named after the indigenous tortoises that wander the local farmlands after rain. But many waterways are fenced off with chickenwire, meaning a thirsty tortoise can trudge kilometers in search of water. The farmers launch rescue missions to lift them to safety.
The couple faces a tougher animal issue: the property’s 200-odd kangaroos. “This year they’re really hungry because of the drought,” says Ann-Marie. “With rare native seedlings struggling to grow, we’ve realized we have to cull a few to manage the remnant bush and the kangaroo population sustainably.”
Erosion poses a constant challenge, and indigenous plants are one solution. A narrow, fast-flowing stream will erode, but slowing the water by planting native reeds creates a natural “sponge”, spreading moisture and stabilising the land.
Like all farmers, Ann-Marie and Carla work long hours. But they often invite friends for swims in the dams, and picnics. “It’s important to be connected to nature and animals,” reflects Ann-Marie. “This is not a lifestyle “ it’s a life.”
Story by Meg Mundell, 2007