Heather’s incredible life on the riverbank

by Wendy Barrett, first published in Southerly Magazine, March 2020

THERE are many different ways in which one can experience a magical childhood, and Heather Adams had her fair share of magic simply because of where she grew up.

The backdrop to Heather’s life was a picturesque farm on the northern slopes of the Porongurup Range, 50kms from Albany–a truly spectacular area in both topography and biodiversity.

Her childhood years were during the 1960s and 70s when children were less micromanaged.

“When we were kids we were outside all the time, climbing the mountain or playing near the creeks making cubbies,” Heather said. “We were never inside and we made our own fun, but it was tough too, as we had to help a lot on the farm.

Heather Adams walking along the Kalgan River
Image: Frank Rijavec

Until she was six years old it had been a dairy farm, then it transitioned into running beef cattle. In the early 80s her parents switched to growing grapes and created their own winery with a cellar door.

“We pretty much drank the whole first vintage at my wedding,” Heather said.

She met her husband Mark when they were at school together. His family were also farmers in the area.

Having been immersed in such a spectacular natural landscape during her formative years,and being a third generation Porongurup farmer, it was no surprise that Heather developed an enduring love of nature and continued with the farming life.

“I moved from the foothills of the Porongurup Range to the foothills of the Stirling Range,”she said.

Together Heather and Mark farm “Yaralla”, a broadacre property between the Stirling Ranges and the Kalgan River in the Woogenellup area.

“Mark and I had a common vision right from the early days. We could see that a lot of issues needed addressing,” she said. “I had seen a decline in the environment over the years and it motivated me to protect what was left.”

Heather at a revegetation site in the Ranges Link

Their innovative practices have resulted in the development of a successful farming enterprise. Over the last three decades these practices have been energetically shared by Heather to the rest of the community through conversations, encouragement, and active leadership in a range of groups.

This work culminated in Heather’s recent award of life membership of the Oyster Harbour Catchment Group (OHCG).

In addition to her involvement with OHCG, whose origins began as the Kalgan Land Conservation District Committee, she has also been active in many other organisations including the Casuarina Obesa Working Group, Stirling to Coast Growers Group and the Strategic Tree Farming Technical Advisory Group.

As agents for change and progress, Heather and Mark have been recognised by researchers who have sought opportunity to do work on their property.

All this activity occurred while she successfully raised and educated three children and shared in the running of Yaralla.

“The kids are grown up now and I look back and wonder how exactly did I do all of it,” Heather said. “I remember that the first OHCG meeting I chaired I also spent most of the time breastfeeding our youngest son.

“The kids fitted in with what was going on around the farm as well as having their other activities.”

Heather at launch of 20 Million Trees

Heather has had a long commitment combining good farming practice with rural conservation and natural resource management concepts.  

She had no formal education in landcare or conservation but learnt by osmosis from the life she led.

“When raised in the environment that I was raised in, you live it instinctively,” she said.

“I learnt a lot from the people around me. Over the years I’ve had a lot of interaction with some amazing and knowledgeable people.” 

 The citation prepared as part of her OHCG life membership reveals the depth of work done over the decades.

“Heather was involved with the establishment of the Kalgan Landcare District Committee in the 1980s, providing fresh ideas,” it read. “She facilitated the formation of sub-catchment groups in the 1980s and 90s with the encouragement of the Department of Agriculture. 

“She made the transition to the Oyster Harbour Catchment Group in 1995, being its chairperson (2009-2012, and 2017-2019), secretary (1994 – 2006), and treasurer (2013-2019) managing a budget in excess of $500,000. 

“At the regional level, Heather has been involved with the reference groups within South Coast Natural Resource Management Inc. 

“For four years Heather was the project officer for the Middle Oyster Harbour Strategic Catchment Project (2006-2009), a community-driven project with a budget of $1.4 million.

“She brought vision and action to the project resulting in far-reaching changes in farming systems for the 65 landholders and the 30,400 hectares involved.  She initiated significant outcomes from the project in the establishment of the Stirling to Coast Farmers Grower Group and the support for the Ranges Link Project.”

At the regional level, Heather has contributed to the natural resource management activities across the south coast through the reference groups of SCRIPT and its successor, South Coast NRM, working in the areas of land, water, forestry and biodiversity. 

Heather brings to all these rural groups an excellent knowledge base borne out of practical experience, intelligent analysis and astute assessment of the issues involved. 

Her foresight and enthusiasm for a holistic view of natural resource management was a significant contribution to the Oyster Harbour Catchment Group being awarded the prestigious National Alcoa Landcare Group Award 2007-2008.

It is impossible to see any delineation from Heather’s farm and working life to the prodigious amount of voluntary work she is involved in.

“I’ve always worked from home,” Heather said. “In my office I have one desk for farm work and right next to it is my OHCG desk. I just move from one to another.

“The farm work and voluntary work blends in together.”

Heather has been a constant presence in the Landcare activities in the Upper Kalgan for three decades.

Whilst many others have contributed much time and effort to projects and plans through those years, Heather’s involvement brought, more often than not, successful conclusions. 

Her rapport with participants ensured that operations ran smoothly.  Her personal involvement in a farming enterprise and the community brings a depth of experience in organisation, communication and leadership that are necessary for volunteer groups.

As a partner in a very successful farming operation, Heather has earned huge respect from those who work with her, and a desire to emulate the successes.

“I gained a lot of my skills from running a large farming business which involves financial and people management,” explained Heather. “When you volunteer, you do it because you’re passionate about a certain thing, but there is tedious governance and reporting required to keep things running.”

Looking at Stirling Ranges from Porongorup Road

As government monetary policy tightened in recent years, the need to attract funds with good projects has been paramount. Heather has shown skill in negotiation and persuasion to achieve new projects and attract two additional project staff.

Demands for accountability, good governance and a safe working environment have been managed effectively by Heather, and together with other administrative tasks have increased an otherwise heavy workload in recent years.

She has guided the Group successfully through this minefield.

Heather has also promoted the need for increased membership and effective communication through greater exposure of the work of OHCG in the digital environment. 

The ongoing need for resource management has continued with projects in soil biology and soil testing being established in support of improving farming practice. 

While Heather has been instrumental in initiating improvements in farming practices, she feels that the farming community in general are doing a remarkably good job of caring for the environment.

“I don’t think they get enough recognition for what they have achieved,” she said. “It needs to be remembered that it was farmers who founded the landcare movement in the first place.”

Heather has had a long and dedicated commitment to education in Mount Barker through being active in the Mount Barker Primary School, then the High School P&C Association, and now the Mount Barker Community College, being on its executive for more than 10 years. 

As a long-time member of the Farm Advisory Committee she has contributed her personal expertise and trade links to the advantage of the students and the college. 

She has promoted the farm as an enterprise to the benefit of students, personally encouraged the staff teaching agriculture, and raised the standards in documentation and presentation of achievements.

She has shown the importance of good data and soil analysis for improving farm management and ensured that the curriculum was challenging for students.

Heather has been a highly effective parent, always working with staff to get the best out of her children at the same time supporting facilities for all students.

Heather and Mark’s work at Yaralla has also made it to the big screen, with the recent release of the Gondwana Link film, “Breathing Life into Boodja”.

Breathing Life into Boodja was created by a local team working with the Gondwana Link program, including award-winning film maker Frank Rijavec. 

It was a huge cooperative effort, involving over 120 individual and group contributions and more than 50 hours of filming.

The film showcases inspiring people from different walks of life across the Great Southern – environmentalists, farmers, scientists, the Noongar community and community groups – who are working together to reverse biodiversity loss, tackle global warming, respect and embrace cultural richness and grow food and fibre.

It reveals the nationally significant ecological restoration happening along the Gondwana Link wildlife corridor which supports native birds and wildlife and shows how the local community is exercising its power to make major changes to how we live and work in this globally recognised biodiversity hotspot.

It celebrates the enduring strength and wisdom of Noongar culture, including recognising the connection between healthy land and healthy people.

The work done by Heather and Mark is prominent in the film.

The contribution Heather has made to the community in so many ways has been truly remarkable. Her advice and pragmatic enthusiasm have touched many lives. 

She has a huge appetite for hard work, always thinking the best of everybody, and genuinely desiring that those she touches in her activities will receive benefit and encouragement. 

“It is quite humbling to be singled out for recognition, and by people who you respect,” Heather said.

“There are so many of us working hard in this arena.

“One of the strengths of the landcare movement of the Great Southern is that we are a strong community who work very well together.

“And of course, Mark and the kids and the rest of my family have always been a wonderful support over the years.”