Organic farmers in tune with the land

Danella BevisThe West Australian
Kim Hack and Penny Mossop on their farm in York.
Camera IconKim Hack and Penny Mossop on their farm in York. Credit: Countryman

Dotted across the undulating property, the solitary pianos serve as a somewhat haunting point of difference to the usual Wheatbelt landscape.

Submerged in dams, atop hills, hidden in an olive grove, beneath trees and teetering on rocks, the skeletal-like remains of 40 of the weathered musical instruments have been playing out their final years at Kim Hack and Penny Mossop's York farm since the mid-2000s.

Since the arrival of the first pianos at Wambyn Olive Farm and Ruined Piano Sanctuary, Kim and Penny's farm has become popular with intrigued photographers, artists, musicians and tourists keen to set their eyes upon and brush their fingertips across the decaying musical instruments.

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The pianos, many of which are "grey and crumbly like an old tree" according to Kim, often evoke a feeling of wonder for those that visit, particularly when it comes to the mystery of their past life. The instruments arrived at the property following an art installation of several ruined pianos by composer and musician Ross Bolleter, who following the installation needed to find them a new home.

A champion for World Association for Ruined Piano Studies music, Mr Bolleter performs and records music on old, degraded pianos.

"I got a phone call from a mutual friend saying, 'would you like to have 14 ruined pianos on your farm?'. I thought, why not, and it carried on from there," Kim said.

Over the years, more pianos have been collected and now they can be found across the property in various stages of decay.

"Ross is a thinker and he is a Zen Buddhist Roshi teacher," Kim said.

"He is very focused on this cycle, everything on the planet you look at, including us, are all getting old, we're all going to die and decay away.

"These pianos just remind us of that eternal cycle that goes on forever, renewal comes from this.

"It's a natural process and the whole idea of this farm is a natural farming system, which we'd really like to see applied so much more in agriculture, so the pianos in a way symbolise that."

The pianos certainly add a unique element to their 65ha NASAA-certified organic property, which is also home to not just the pianos but also an olive grove, small-scale vineyard and cropping program, as well as a Merino flock.

Kim said the couple had always had a keen interest in sustainable farming. Both were raised on farms and decided to return to the country in 1994 after years working in the city, Penny in teaching and Kim in the lead-lighting business.

"At the mature end of our lives we ended up back on the land. Going back to your roots, I think, is pretty natural," he said.

"This house doesn't take any power out of the grid, it produces its own power and collects its own water.

"We inherited, or bought, two completely bare paddocks so we've had to regenerate as much as we could. We've been able to achieve, in our own modest way, a sustainable objective."

The couple's property borders the Department of Environment and Conservation-managed Wambyn Nature Reserve, home to a swag of native wildlife including wallabies, white-tailed cockatoos and echidnas.

As part of their organic certification, the couple planted a 5m buffer zone of shrubs and trees native to the area.

The planting works as a form of extension between their property and the reserve, which Penny said was well known for its diversity of orchids.

"It's just wonderful having that, we have tried to join up the reserve with our remnant vegetation on the hill and then we've planted shelterbelts all down along the other side of the property," she said.

"So we've got a corridor from the reserve that goes all the way around our place and then joins up with the neighbours' bush."

As well as plenty of native revegetation, the property boasts 1300 olive trees, which take up about 30 per cent of the block.

Among the nine different varieties grown are more traditional eating olives like Kalamata as well as the robust WA Mission variety and Nevadillo, which makes a lighter, more medium oil.

"The olive oil is our biggest seller, that's what we make most of our money out of, and the olives would be next. The olives are very time consuming," Penny said.

"There's quite a lot of work involved in getting the olives from the barrels into the jars."

For 10 years, the couple hand picked their olives, but with the arduous process taking months to complete, they decided to use a contracted mechanical shaker.

Penny spent two years in Greece, one year in the 1970s and another in the 1980s, where she developed a penchant for Greek products, the Mediterranean diet and traditional farming methods such as multi-use of the land.

It is perhaps this connection that spurs on Penny and Kim's varied range of products made on farm which, on top of olive products and surplus produce from their vegetable garden, include olive oil soaps, preserved lemons and lavender bags.

"We make our life from olive oil and table olives and with that there's a few farm products along the way - eggs, fruit seasonally and a very modest wool clip," Kim said.

The pair are regulars at farmers markets across Perth, including Manning, South Fremantle, Palmyra and Perth City Farm.

Their Wambyn Olive Farm-labelled products are available at various retail outlets across the city as well as in York.

"We make our own Shiraz wine and we sell Shiraz wine vinegar, which is pretty magic. We also use that in the process of producing table olives, we put a dash in the marinade and it sets them off like you wouldn't believe - it has a very intense, sweet sour complex flavour," Kim said.

As if they were not already busy enough, the couple also put in a rye crop, which is harvested using Kim's vintage Case self-propelled harvester just before Christmas and sold to Bodhi's Bakehouse.

Oats and wheat crops are also grown to feed their free-range chickens.

The crops are fertilised organically using mainly multi-grow processed chicken manure, while a flock of 35 mostly Merino ewes are used as a form of weed control between crops during the rotation.

"They can't get organically-certified rye in WA, I just wish I had a larger farm - there is a market just waiting to go," Kim said.

"It grows so well here, you don't need to put lime down because it likes acid soils, our soils are acidic, and it just grows up above the weeds so it's good for an organic crop."

It is among these crops the steady disintegration of the pianos is plain to see.

"One of the first ones we received fell down, probably because of white ants, and now you wouldn't know there had been a piano there, it's a little heap of dust," Penny said.

Kim said the natural decay of the musical instruments meant that some of the pianos had been almost entirely recycled back into the ground.

"We would greatly receive anybody's unwanted pianos, we've only got 40 odd and it's not enough … they are all starting to disappear," he said.

"Out in the paddock there is a Casuarina tree growing right behind one of the pianos, as the piano degrades and pieces fall off it they go back into the earth.

"It's being turned into this Casuarina in a very real way and it's growing again as a tree behind it.

"Really, it's a symbol for the eternal cycle of birth and death I think … these pianos rather than being thrown on a rubbish dump, they're still out there in a sense performing - it's a dignified end."

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