Cowsnest Community Farm celebrates 40th anniversary of ‘common sense’ living
When Alexandra Seddon bought a farm in 1975, she ended up growing a community that for the last 40 years has farmed the land, built a wildlife sanctuary, and created art, crafts, and music.
“We were serious farmers from the beginning,” Ms Seddon said.
As part of the anniversary celebrations, a band played in the shed where the daily tasks are organised.
It is a typical old, corrugated iron farm shed, except it also features a stage and lighting rig in the corner for the parties and enough stoves and benches set up to feed large groups of residents and visiting farm workers.
Ms Seddon said when she and her then husband moved to the farm in the New South Wales Bega Valley in 1975 there was only one house but “right from the outset people used to come and stay”.
This was the Age of Aquarius, famously celebrated at Nimbin in northern NSW, with the emergence of alternative communities establishing communes.
With her brother Peter also involved, Cowsnest was to be a serious agricultural enterprise.
“There were people sleeping on the veranda, in the tents, in cars — it was a community right from the start, and it just grew,” she said.
It was at school that Ms Seddon first heard about Israeli kibbutzim.
“I thought, wow, that’s physical labour during the day,” she said.
“And in the evening it’s music and dance and painting, it’s a community. And I never lost that idea that that would be the ideal way to be.
“I always felt really excited about community, conservation and education and so we went along those lines.
“And I liked the idea that people who didn’t have any money could come and offer their labour in return for food and lodging.”
Some people came and went and some stayed, and in the mid-1980s Ms Seddon established a company so long-term residents could become shareholders.
“You could become a shareholder after two years if all the other residents were happy to have them,” Ms Seddon said.
“And people would give up their share when they left.”
After school in Melbourne, marriage, and living and working in the UK and Papua New Guinea, the move to Cowsnest became a time for Ms Seddon to pursue her dreams.
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She had taught creative writing and drama in PNG and developed her crafts and visual arts talents.
The creative community, which was attracted to Cowsnest, began offering regular arts and crafts open days.
With Candelo being the closest town, the group also formed the Candelo Arts Society, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and which has been a significant contributor to cultural development in the region.
That first flush of community in the 1970s was followed up with the emergence of the Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network which saw ‘woofers’ coming to the farm from all over the world.
The objectives of ‘woofing’ exactly match the foundations of Cowsnest Community Farm: to provide voluntary farm work on an organic farm in return for meals and accommodation.
“Anything I’ve done has just seemed like common sense,” Ms Seddon said.
“I haven’t really got a great intellectual idea about it.
“It’s just that it gives me enormous happiness to see people working together and people being happy and people looking after the land and the plants and the animals and the other people.”
In 2006 Ms Seddon also bought an ailing wildlife park near Merimbula, renaming it Potoroo Palace, and running it as a native animal sanctuary and conservation and education centre.
The company structure of Cowsnest raised risks of shareholder descendents wanting to sell parts of the property so the farm was integrated with Potoroo Palace.
As a charity, Ms Seddon said it provided a more secure structure for the Cowsnest community.
“There are only four rules for the community [and] they imply respect for anyone,” Ms Seddon said.
“You can have the most diverse views possible and still be OK if you treat each other with respect.
“The rules are so mundane: clean up after yourself, return tools and equipment, take responsibility for any tasks you take on — and we recently added the fourth one, keep communicating.
“If they can’t obey those rules, they usually just leave.
“It’s as simple as that.”