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Rachel Ward: From actor to regenerative farmer

Dec 04, 2023Dec 04, 2023

She was well on the way to Hollywood stardom, before turning her hand to screenwriting, directing and raising a family. Now The Thorn Birds star has found another passion, right beneath her feet: regenerative farming.

By Candida Baker

Matilda Brown (left) was a late convert to mum Rachel's zest for regenerative farming after a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. "Suddenly, it all made sense," she says.Credit: James Brickwood

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Rachel Ward, her daughters, Rosie and Matilda Brown, and Matilda's two-year-old daughter, Anouk, are sporting a great line in Crocs, which might not be an odd thing ­except that we’re picking our way down a hill, in the rain, and then through a muddy creek, to light a bonfire and have a picnic. Matilda's four-year-old son Zan, who is wearing a pair of jaunty light-up sneakers, is squelching through such thick mud that they’ll probably never be the same again, but he's not fussed.

"Come on, Mopey," he says, tugging at his grandmother's hand, "walk in the mud with me."

"Mopey" and her husband, Bryan Brown, have gathered their tribe for Easter at the farm that's been the family getaway for the past 37 years, bought when the pair were making the film The Good Wife and chanced across the beautiful Nambucca Valley. The farm, says Ward, was the first one they saw. "We took one look at it and we just knew we had to have it," she says, as we take a stroll behind the house to meet the two horses, Elvis and Tuska, check out the geese on the dam and run our eyes over Ward's current pride and joy, her 300 head of breeding cattle.

Beyond the fact that it's Easter, there are a lot of good reasons for this gathering. Ward, 65, and Brown, 75, are about to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary; their eldest daughter Rosie, 38, is pregnant with her first child; and Ward's latest documentary project, Rachel's Farm, which charts her journey from actor to director to regenerative farmer, will be released ­shortly. Brown has also been busy, and the cover design of a larger paperback format of his crime-themed short-story collection, Sweet Jimmy, has just arrived in time to show to the family. Its release will coincide with the publication of his second book, The Drowning, later in the year.

The picnic destination is an area on the 340-hectare cattle farm where Ward and her farm manager and partner in the regenerative project, Mick Green, have culled a grove of invasive camphor laurels burnt in the 2020 fires. Their felling has opened up a small valley with a meandering creek where Ward plans to plant winter feed, such as rye grass and clover, for the cattle. She also wants to light a small burn pile of old wood – the bonfire – so the troops have been gathered, no matter the weather. (As we ready for our drive, Brown lifts his grandkids into the back of the ute. "It's raining," he says, lugubriously, "so of course the Browns are off to light a fire and have a picnic. They always go on a picnic when it rains." )

Heading out for a picnic on the farm – "the heart of our family", says Ward's eldest daughter Rosie, at far right with her kelpie, Alby. Credit: Candida Baker

So, here we are, slightly damp, eating sandwiches while Rosie's kelpie, Alby, runs around in a state of high excitement, and Brown manages, with the aid of quite a lot of fire lighters, to get the burn pile going.

Ward points out small bottlebrushes already appearing where there used to be no sunlight or space. As if on cue, a flock of rainbow lorikeets fly overhead. "The whole point of being a regenerative farmer is to try and take things back to as much of their natural state as possible," she says, holding little Anouk's hand, as we navigate the puddles.

After deciding to aim for regen status, their first task was to redesign the fencing to mimic the movement of a wild herd. "We turned our 30 paddocks into 90 paddocks and reorganised our water points. We’re in leached land, low on potassium and boron – a trace element – and just doing that has made a distinctive difference to our soils," she says.

"Now, instead of putting out chemical fertilisers, we give the cattle mineral additives, and as they’re moved through the paddocks it means we’re not overgrazing and the cattle are ­reinvigorating the land with their manure."

After our sandwiches, Ward decides a longer walk is in order, but Brown and I stage a small rebellion and stay by the now-roaring fire. He was burnt, badly, only nine months before, when a wood barbecue blew up in his face. I wonder if he isn't finding it hard to be so close to a fire. "It's been a very specific anxiety," Brown says. "I haven't had any problem lighting fires, but the first time I had to light the barbecue, I almost had a panic attack." He shows me the photo of himself in ­hospital, looking scarily like Freddy Krueger.

The damp adventurers return to the picnic site, and Ward picks up the story. "It's what accounts for his smooth skin," she says. "He gave himself a severe case of microdermabrasion, and now he looks 20 years younger!"

"It has its pros and cons having a mother who is so energetic. She's more ­fearless than anyone I know."

Suddenly, the rain starts to get heavy again and, by consensus, we pack up. Zan's not keen to go, but with the promise of a short drive in the bright red tractor with Mopey before we leave, he's happy again. Ward coaxes (read: orders) Rosie, Brown and me to take a massive tarp off a pile of mulch and fold it, in what seems like endless to-ing and fro-ing. Ward's energy levels are enviable and perhaps just a little bit exhausting.

"It has its pros and cons having a mother who is so energetic," Matilda, 36, tells me later. "She's more ­fearless than anyone I know. I once went bungee jumping in Zambia and she insisted on coming as well. I was riding with her one time, I hadn't yet cantered and I didn't want to, and Mum says: ‘What are you talking about, you don't want to canter?’ She hit the horse on the rump and there we were, galloping up the hill. And of course, I loved it.

"I didn't want to go to LA, and she told me I had to go and at least try my luck in the film industry, and it was a great time in my life. Mum's always been, ‘You have to do things’ – Dad's more laid-back, much more ‘If you want to, of course you can.’ "

Andrew Cameron, Rosie Brown, Rachel Ward with Anouk and Zan, Tashi Gooding, his father Scott Gooding and Matilda Brown.Credit: James Brickwood

For their three children, Rosie, Matilda and 31-year-old Joe, working as an animator in Europe, the farm has been a constant presence. "It's the heart of our family," says Rosie, an interior designer. "I recently watched an old home video of me as a ­one-year-old not long after Mum and Dad had bought it, and the magic [that] Mum has created on the farm is amazing. It will be our gathering place ­forever, I’m sure."

The regen magic that's on show in Rachel's Farm has taken a remarkably short time to come to fruition after Ward and her current manager, Mick Green, made the decision to go regen following the 2019-20 bushfires.

"When we bought the property it was a traditional farm, managed with slashing, spraying and set-grazing," Ward says, "and that's how it continued. Cattle went to market, and if I thought about anything beyond the house and the children, for me it was an unease that we had cattle at all, because of my mistaken belief that cows are considered largely responsible for contributing to climate change. I loved the farm, and it was a place that we went to for holidays, but I wasn't at all involved in the decision-making process."

What Ward would discover, as she dived into regen research, was that the expression "It's not the cow, it's the how" was all too true. "Mick and I both witnessed the ferocity of nature in the Black Summer bushfires," she says.

"We were very lucky that the house was spared, but we had neighbours who lost their homes and we had about a third of the property burnt out. Mick had become convinced that we couldn't go on farming traditionally, and I agreed with him. I had no idea, of course, that my agreement meant that in my mid-60s I was suddenly going to become a full-time farmhand."

To become a regen farmer is no small thing. One of the most emotive moments in Rachel's Farm is when Green and Ward ask soil expert Tony Hill to assess their soil, only to be told that it is officially dead. In the samples Hill's team analyse there are no insects, dung beetles or worms, or even winter perennials. And every time there was heavy rain, topsoil was washed away, with water travelling too fast down the hills, causing erosion, contributing to the soil drying out too quickly.

"You can almost see my brain working," says Ward. "It wasn't just what that assessment meant for us, it meant that verdict – dead soil – could probably be ­applied to numerous farms around the country, which have relied too heavily on chemical farming. We decided that we wanted to go regen, but to get a regenerative verification for ­market you have to prove that the soil is improving."

For Ward, what started out as an interest and an idea quickly became a passion, but it was hardly a Damascene conversion for her children. "I honestly used to put my fingers in my ears," says Matilda. "It was Mum's ‘thing’ and that was that. I’d been going through a lot of life changes myself. I’d spent my entire 20s trying to break through in the film industry, doing some good work, making my own material, working with some established directors. From the age of 25 I was going backwards and ­forwards to LA for pilot seasons. I’d get really close to landing something and then not get it."

Ward was not surprised when Matilda decided to temporarily shelve her acting career. "I couldn't blame Matilda for taking time out," says Ward. "It's delivered me a few body blows over the years."Credit: James Brickwood

Matilda decided to be in control of her destiny. "I was angry and exhausted, and dealing with a broken heart," she says. "I’d never thought about being in a business because I’ve always been a creative, but I ­decided that it was time to take charge." As fate would have it, at the same time, in 2017 she met Scott Gooding, an Australian chef and health coach, in a Bondi cafe. It definitely wasn't love at first sight with the former My Kitchen Rules star. "I wasn't ­impressed," she tells me cheerfully. "I thought he was a Bondi wanker with a funny haircut. We were friends on Facebook, and he asked me out, and I said no, then some months later he asked me if I would be on his podcast. It's amazing how first impressions can be so wrong. He's funny, he's not at all arrogant, he's not a wanker and I got rid of his bad haircut."

"That Christmas, when we were all at the farm, I took my fingers out of my ears, and began to listen to Mum..."

Zan and Anouk came along quickly, and Matilda ­retreated further from acting. "Learning lines for an audition seemed like a waste of time if there was a chance I wouldn't get the job," she says. "I threw myself into looking after the kids, and to being a stepmum to Scott's son, Tashi. At one point I went on a trip to Heron Island [in the southern Great Barrier Reef] with Groundswell, which puts on an environmental educational tour about the Barrier Reef every year. I came home terrified at the idea of what we’re doing to the planet and the ocean. That Christmas, when we were all at the farm, I took my fingers out of my ears, and began to listen to Mum and to think about carbon sequestration, the difference between regenerative and conventional farming. And suddenly, it all made sense."

The younger couple's move into what has become an organic ready-made meal business came from an initial decision to offer some of their friends a share in grass-fed regen beef raised on the farm. The idea gradually morphed into The Good Farm Shop, selling meals using ­ingredients purchased at their source to local suppliers and online.

Ward with Tuska.Credit: James Brickwood

"I love it," says Matilda. "Supporting best-practice farming for the health of the environment and the consumer can really create change in the way we farm and what consumers purchase. It also allows me flexibility to be with my kids and gives me control around the business. I haven't said a permanent goodbye to the film industry – it's in my blood. But having a businesscertainly takes the pressure off."

Ward was not surprised when Matilda decided to temporarily shelve her acting career. "I couldn't blame Matilda for taking time out," says Ward. "It's delivered me a few body blows over the years." Ward herself first arrived in Hollywood when she was only 20, "a pretty, foreign exotic", as she describes herself.

Born into a life of privilege, Ward grew up in a large country estate in the heart of the Cotswolds, with a line of illustrious ancestors, such as her grandfather, the cricketer Giles Baring, a member of the Baring family, of Barings Bank fame, and her great-grandfather, William Ward, second Earl of Dudley, who was governor-general of Australia from 1908-11. She's also the sister of environmental campaigner Tracy Somerset, Duchess of Beaufort. But behind the silver spoon lay an emotional disconnect. In a world of ­nannies, butlers and chauffeurs, Ward and her ­siblings, her brother and sister, hardly saw their parents, and with primogeniture still firmly ensconced, it was always going to be her brother who would inherit the family home.

Ward as a young girl.Credit: Courtesy of Rachel Ward

"To be honest, the whole thing was set in aspic," says Ward. "As girls our education hardly mattered, and as a woman excluded from my family's legacy, it left me with a profound sense of not belonging and also, of ­female ineptitude and irrelevance. I didn't want to stay closeted in that lifestyle, and so I left school at 17 and headed overseas. I never ­returned to live in the UK again."

The move paid dividends. Moving quickly from a modelling career to acting, Ward landed roles in Hollywood films such as Night School and Sharky's Machine (both 1981), before being cast opposite Richard Chamberlain in 1983's The Thorn Birds, the TV miniseries in which she also first met Bryan Brown.

"I’ve definitely burnt bridges along the way [in the film industry]. But Bryan, he's survived 50 years in the business and never burnt bridges."

But as well as her career was going, Ward also showed early traits that have, perhaps, been both a blessing and a curse for her. "I’ve always understood that my career was based on the pretty ticket and youth," she says. "I moved ahead before the door was closed in front of me, but it probably didn't help my career that I spoke out when it would have been wiser to keep shtum.

"I was quoted in the LA Times outing Joel Silver, ­producer of two of the Die Hard movies, who had ­[reportedly said] that the only women he wanted in his films were either dead or on their backs [or words to that effect]. I commented that many LA producers probably shared [that] sentiment but that only he was pig enough to say it. He rang my agent and said I would never work in LA again. And, for whatever reason, I didn't. I’ve been vocal here in Australia, too, and I’ve definitely burnt bridges along the way. But Bryan, he's survived 50 years in the business and never burnt bridges. I sometimes wonder, is it because as a man he's never had to, or is it just that he's far more agreeable than me? Don't answer that question …"

Ward and Brown in 1983's The Thorn Birds, where the couple met.Credit: Alamy

I make the diplomatic decision to follow that particular order, and over the few days that I spend in another family's annual celebrations, Brown is, indeed, very agreeable. He seems at home in his own skin, takes himself off surfing to Scotts Head, spends time reordering the cheerful chaos his wife and daughters and grandchildren generate, taking washing off the line, straightening the tea towels, and doing his daily Pilates exercises on the verandah before settling himself in his favourite armchair to watch the football (with subtitles) while the ruckus continues around him. "He's not hard of hearing," says Rosie at one point, wandering through the kitchen, having directed a question at him and got no response. "He's deaf. Pure and simple."

The blessing of Ward's at times almost ­brutal directness is her ability to focus with laser-like intensity on what she wants, and work until she drops to achieve it. "Mum is so into the farm," Rosie says. "I’ve recently bought a property about 30 minutes north of Byron which my partner Andrew and I are planning to rewild and make as organic as possible, but Mum takes it to a whole new level. I can't really understand making a choice to be covered head-to-toe in mud, or working all hours out in the weather doing fencing and examining cow shit for dung beetles. Here she is in her mid-60s and she's grabbing on to farming life with both hands."

Rosie almost had the opposite journey to Ward – choosing to move to London in her early 20s as her ­career as an interior designer unfolded. "The yearning to go to England must be in my DNA," she says, "but when I turned 28 I got to a point where I felt I needed to be more connected to the family. I came home and spent five years in Sydney and then moved to Byron in 2017, where I met Andrew [Cameron], the founder of Byron Grass Fed Beef, who is also on a regenerative journey with the land – I’m definitely the co-pilot, but becoming more and more deeply connected to our land has given me a different sense of purpose."

Both daughters have come, as adults, to understand what a wrench it was for Ward in 1984 to leave her early career in the US and suddenly find herself living with two small children at Whale Beach in Sydney's north. "One minute she's hanging out with Andy Warhol, ­presenting at the Oscars," says Rosie, "and the next, there she is – with the love of her life – but in a strange country, in an ­isolated community with two kids and no work."

What Ward didn't know at the time, as she attempted to settle down, was that the sense of not belonging and struggling to find work would begin to manifest in bouts of depression.

"When we faced our worst bushfires ever and our government showed no sign of changing course, I was plunged, like many others, into a terrible existential despair."

"Medication has mostly worked really well for me," says Ward. "But even with it, when we faced our worst bushfires ever and our government showed no sign of changing course, I was plunged, like many others, into a terrible existential despair. The paradox was that the grief connected me deeper to my adopted country and galvanised me to change and act."

Despite the periods of depression, Matilda says Ward was ­always present as a mother. "She was a playful mum," she says, "and it didn't hurt our childhood, but I do ­remember at around nine, being aware that something was going on, I just didn't understand it. It wasn't until I was older that she talked to me about it. She put on a brave face for a long time, but finally depression doesn't just affect the person, it affects the family. There were times when it was scary and I was really worried about her. In the end, I do believe it's the connection to the farm that's given her this new happiness and direction."

Ward with farm manager Mick Green. "She just doesn't give up," he says.Credit: Candida Baker

Ward's decision to make the documentary about the farm's regeneration – and her own – is a perfect place for her to put all her industry skills to good use. The film features some of the world's most influential ­environmental activists, including Allan Savory, the Zimbabwean conservationist farmer and co-founder of the Savory Institute; Walter Jehne, co-founder of Regenerate Earth; carbon expert Terry McCosker, and Charles Massy, author of what Ward calls her "regen Bible", Call of the Reed Warbler. Ward is comfortable in front of or behind the camera, and the storyline of Ward and Green's evolving partnership as they strive for regenerative status for meat sourced from Eastbourne – the name for the 340-hectare farm, which includes 40 hectares of Green's property – is both ­moving and funny.

Building on the decision to keep the cattle moving through a series of small paddocks, Green and Ward also engaged hydrologist Peter Andrews to help create a system of contoured natural gutters to stop water wastage. "With regen, you try to reduce your fossil-fuel use by not slashing, and now we are no longer slashing, the grass grows much longer roots, absorbing the deeper nutrients and helping to hold the water in the soil," Ward explains. "Keeping the pastures constantly growing pulls carbon from the atmosphere into the soil, which banks more carbon, with the carbon behaving like a sponge and increasing your soil water levels. The cattle trample the long grasses, creating a layer of mulch, nature starts to build on itself, and in the end it takes your ecology to another level."

During the regenerative process, Ward found that she needed to be at the farm as much as she could ­manage. "I’ve been pretty much living there full-time for the past three years," she says. "In fact, I’m hard to get out of the farm these days. Bryan works in the ­industry much more than me, and so we do spend a lot of time apart. He really enjoys Sydney, and I love it here, so we make it work."

Another more recent initiative has been to gradually change their herd of cattle from Black Angus to Mashona and Senepol – both rarer breeds from hotter climates that are tick-resistant, requiring less maintenance. "We’re genetically changing to suit the country and the climate," says Ward. "Instead of prioritising the cattle over the land, we’re prioritising the land over the cattle – and then the cattle benefit in the long run."

Despite her commitment to regenerative farming, Ward found that it took her a while to get used to the idea that her farm would no longer be, as she says, neat and tidy. "It's taken me longer than Mick to ­adjust," she tells me. "I sort of wanted to be regen but still have neat English pastures. It took me a while to embrace the wildness of it, and understand that the more nature was able to express herself, the healthier the farm could become."

A by-product of a healthy farm is healthy dung, according to Ward. "You become dung-obsessed," she says cheerfully. "Mick's worse than me … he gets very excited about perfect dung, when it's not too loose or too stacked. We have a cattle canteen full of minerals and the cattle can choose which minerals they’re missing, so perfect dung tells us we’re doing well."

"I really admire Rachel," Mick Green tells me, when we visit him and his wife Deborah down the road to pick up a loaf of her straight-out-of-the-oven sourdough bread. "If anybody had told me at the start of this that I could turn an Englishwoman with a Pommy accent into a farmhand, I wouldn't have believed it, but she just doesn't give up."

Ward with husband Brown in her upcoming doco, Rachel's Farm. Credit: Courtesy of Madman

When we get back to the farm, Brown is tying rubbish destined for the tip onto the ute.

"Come with us, Mopey," says Zan.

"That's a Grandpa job," Ward tells him, and he seems happy with that explanation.

There's a sense of contented warmth at the farm. In the living room, paintings, photographs, books and children's drawings are all generously spread around, while the only nod to technology is the generously ­proportioned TV screen. Mobile reception is patchy, if not non-existent, and cobwebs are a frequent adornment to the chairs and sofas, and to the piles of boots and coats that clutter the verandahs.

Zan appears early in the morning in a pilot suit, zooming around the kitchen, while Anouk's favourite item of clothing is her pink tutu. Home day-careactivities involve painting, and Mopey and I piggy-backing Anouk and Zan up a steep hill, singing We’re Going on a Bear Hunt as we stride through the waist-high grass to look at the herd and survey the dam shimmering below the house.

After we’ve bear-hunted our way back down the hill, an evening of food, wine and a game of Scrabble ­ensues. Ward wanders through the kitchen, picking up any wine glass that happens to be close. Matilda ­accuses her of taking hers, which Ward initially stoutly refutes. "You always do it, Mum," Matilda says. "You just swan through picking up the nearest wine glass. You’ve already done it to me twice."

Ward with Matilda, Rosie and Anouk on the farm. "For me, it's all about creating a sense of belonging for the family," says Ward.Credit: James Brickwood

Ward is unrepentant. "I don't see why it matters," she says, "we’re all family." Rosie and Matilda simultaneously give a very good demonstration of eye-rolling.

"She can't even help it," says Matilda. "You should see the look on people's faces while they wonder if they should say something."

As for Scrabble, Rosie sets the standard high, ­putting down all seven of her letters early in the game. Watching all three women zone in for battle reinforces that Ward, ­determined to live her life in her own way, has given her daughters the precious gift of showing them that growth and change are always possible. Ward's passion for regen has finally given her a sense of true connection.

"For me it's all about creating a sense of belonging for the family," she says.

"I think the process has made me much more acutely aware of what our First Nations people have lost. Indigenous people were on their ­country forever, and that was taken away from them. Connecting with both a sense of not-belonging, and now-belonging I’ve realised it's important to understand that we are all just borrowing this land for a time. I’ve been a custodian of this land for 38 years, but I’m a much better one now."

Rachel's Farm screens at the Sydney Film Festival this week, and will be released nationally in mid-August.

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achel Ward, Born into When we Rachel's Farm screens at the Sydney Film Festival this week, and will be released nationally in mid-August.