Bruce Pascoe, Very Much in the Black
Bruce Pascoe with his pink cheeks, white beard and strange claims to Aboriginality has suffered the downside of celebrity. His Dark Emu thesis is that pre-contact Aborigines were romantic farmers who tilled, planted, harvested and stored their native crops like the picturesque Wessex folk in a Thomas Hardy novel.
Uncle Bruce spoke bitterly to his pals at University of Technology, Sydney, how he and his 60-hectare farm at Gipsy Point, near Mallacoota, attracted free-loading tourists. “People want to have photographs with my dogs, the poor dogs they’re getting tired of this. I started saying to them, ‘When you drive away remember you’ve had a lovely time, paying nothing, a free afternoon on Country and you are stealing again, stealing Spirit, stealing [my] time.’” [Episode 7 at 10.20mins]
He calls capitalism “the destroyer of the country” (Episode 5) which has “enslaved” his people. But he’s spelt out his new philosophy: “This is a capitalist world, you have to pay now.”
And pay you will, into his Black Duck Foods charitable entity. Want a Welcome to Country? That’s $500 plus travel. He’ll put you up for a night on the farm for $800 per person. Buy native seeds? Sure. Have 250gm of Mitchell and Button Grass, in a classy paper bag. Ninety bucks.
Over the campfire under the stars, he’ll yarn to you about now he chats with pelicans in Yuin language (at 45mins20): $300 an hour. He might also yarn about his luck in finding native relics. When. living at Cape Otway, he came across a midden uncovered and sheared by a great storm. “It exposed a whole lot of [native] tools, normal tools — axes, scythes, hammers, augurs, bone spear-points for sewing clothes.” [At 7.00mins]. Plus a matchbox-sized stone functioning as a small but elaborate sewing kit. Instead of turning in the prehistoric scythes, augurs, sewing kit etc to what would have been the astonishment of Melbourne Museum curators, he says he respectfully returned them to the midden: “They’re still there, I go back and see them.”
Bruce’s Black Duck outfit is tasked with reviving the lost knowledge and techniques of “Aboriginal farming”, a cause so worthy that donors – governments, corporates, foundations and mums and dads – have thrown $1,899,263 of free money at Black Duck in the three years to last June. Bruce’s personal business, Pascoe Publishing P/L owns his farm and has leased it to Black Duck Foods, whose accounts list “Occupancy Costs” as $140,000 for 2021-22. Bruce also sold his farm gear to Black Duck for $81,735.
I’d say Black Duck now has more cash than it knows what to do with: $415,000 in the bank as of June 31, 2022, and that pre-dates any $800-a-night tourist influx. All the same, Pascoe invites further donations: you can join Black Duck Cultural (a tax-deductible $240 a year) or platinum-class Gulaga Family VIP Membership ($40,000 a year). Gulaga perks include getting a first taste of new product lines, hat, T-shirt and Bennies (sic), and a farm-stay for four at one of Black Duck’s Tiny Houses. (Not for nothing did Melbourne University appoint Bruce as its “Enterprise” Professor in Indigenous Agriculture). Black Duck’s website also re-runs puff pieces by credulous reporters ranging from Bega District News to the New York Times.
Among the Black Duck partners listed on the website is Twofold Aboriginal Corporation, an Aboriginal-only aged-care/welfare group where Pascoe has been a director since 2019. After nearly $800,000 net losses since 2018-19, Twofold’s auditors have qualified its accounts as an ongoing concern for each of the past three years, so I hope Twofold’s board won’t be over-generous to the Black Duck board down the road.
Professor Bruce’s finances are quite exciting. Every five minutes some worthy establishment gives him a cash prize for blathering about early Aboriginal farmers, but his main revenue has been from Dark Emu royalties from Magabala Books. Magabala to mid-2021 puts sales at more than 300,000, plus 95,000 for Young Dark Emu spin-off for schoolkids. Assume by now sales are 350,000 at $18 and 100,000 at $20.50, or $7.5m after GST. At 10 per cent royalty, that’s $750,000 for Bruce, plus whatever comes from sales of numerous other books and his incessant paid-speaker gigs.
He’s had two goes at farming. The first was a 300ha mixed farm out Gippsland way, which he had to sell “because my [teaching] work got in the way”. He and his mother bought a shack, near the Cape Otway lighthouse, which gained in value from Great Ocean Road tourism, and he sold that (over his daughter’s objections) and just managed to afford the “old buggered up” Gipsy Point farm. This began costing him buckets for several Aboriginal workers on full pay rates and all the other expenses of experimenting with grass-seed crops. He has said several times that he spent his books’ revenue on farm costs.
Nearly a decade ago he began manoeuvres to run his projects with other people’s money. He had a huge fan base from 2014’s Dark Emu lucrative imaginings, so why not parlay that into crowd-funding? Through his Gurandji Munjie entity, he targeted $42,000 in two crowd fundings in 2015 and 2016. These over-fulfilled by raising $59,000.
His pitch was to revive the (largely mythical) native agriculture he extolled in Dark Emu, lower the planetary temperature by cutting CO2 emissions, improve soil and “start Australia on a whole new agricultural journey”. The first raising financed two greenhouses, two pasture blocks, irrigation, and two workers for six months ($50,000) plus volunteers, total budget $58,500 with the shortfall to be patched by the Local Land Services seed fund. The second raising was for a “Bandicoot Native” grass harvester to take on the broad acres and “achieve financial independence”. Plus “our own cool-plate flour mill” to deal with an impending “truckload” of seeds. Plots included his farm plus land lent by other farmers. His cash donors enthused:
Richard Cornish: “This is the start of something amazing!”
Juliet Bradford: “I am so happy that this project is doing well .I absolutely love the book Dark Emu, and wish that it was part of the school reading lists and in environmental studies. I am looking forward to keeping up to date with the progress of this inspiring project.”
Gregory Day: “We’ve got murnong growing here in the backyard in Mangowak. It’s struggling a bit to be honest but we’ll stay with it.”
Julia Green: “Great project, hope to eat some of the bread sometime!”
I can find nothing online at ASIC or the Charities Commission about Pascoe’s results. In 2019 ASIC began striking off Gurundji Munjie into a black hole. In the many Pascoe talks I’ve accessed, there’s no update. I’m left scratching my head about the seed and flour volumes and finances.
In Dark Emu, Pascoe claimed about Gurundgi Munjie “…early trials of flour production have had spectacular results” ( p214). The strike-off by ASIC doesn’t suggest those “spectacular” results continued. In 2019 Pascoe pivoted to a new funding model, this time specific to his own farm. As he put it (my emphases),
Unfortunately, in a world that we have, we sometimes have to appeal to the rich, we have to appeal to the people who have enormous influence over us. And that’s what we’re doing… But at this stage in the journey, we’re appealing to rich people to help us. And to the credit of those people, many of them do. There are some who think they’re God’s gift to Aboriginal people, and are doing it for their own sake, not ours [isn’t this looking a gift horse in the mouth?]… eventually we will have Australia eating Aboriginal food.
This time the vehicle would be Black Duck Foods, a charity run by an eight-person management committee, requiring at least half to be Aborigines. Current names include Bruce and wife Lyn Harwood (they separated some years back but maintain good relations). Son Jack was on the board in 2020-21. Among the initial bankrollers of Black Duck was none other than Rupert Murdoch’s sister, Eve Kantor: the family’s Dara Foundation put in $200,000 in 2019 and $100,000 in 2020.
Black Duck’s constitution, drafted by Arnold Bloch Leibler, gives “Principal purposes” 2.1.h as “reforming agricultural practices across Australia for the sake of Indigenous people and country”. The other “purposes” are about re-implementing Aboriginal pre-contact agriculture “that benefited all of life on country” — sustainably of course — thus “inspiring the broader Australian community to commercially appreciate this knowledge”, and providing jobs for Aborigines.
Black Duck’s owners, namely Bruce and his associates, won’t distribute any profit to themselves, but they will be entitled to good-faith payment for goods and services rendered – (s2.3.c,i).
The first Association report from Pascoe to the Charities Commission was for 2020-21. I don’t know where any 2019 report got to but I notice (p12) a $25,263 federal government grant to Pascoe Publishing in January 2019 for Black Duck Foods’ “native grains and tubers for the food industry which is already desperate for the product”. Total donations and grants for 2019-20 were $378,500.
Total donations and grants in 2020-21 dropped $860,626 into Black Duck’s lap. Under the “Grants” money-go-round, Indigenous mini-bank First Australians Capital (itself a charity) put in $100,000 (2020) and $50,000 (2021). The Victorian “Framers” (sic) lobby put in $5000 (2020), and a rather paltry $600 in 2021. A $7 million Indigenous charity, FVTOC, paid in a handsome $180,000 Djakitjuk Djanga (tr. “Country’s food”) grant (2021), and the federal statutory Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation ponied up $50,000 (2020).
As for operations, the farm generated sales of $22,045, but “Farming direct costs” were double that at $46,151.
I thought Bruce with his gift of the gab would bring in some good consulting fees, but “Consulting services” generated only $4391 while Black Duck actually paid out $47,516 for consulting, plus another $2600 for “Communications and Storytelling”. It doesn’t say who told the stories.
Now for the juicy bits. Bruce’s farmlet is part of his Pascoe Publishing Pty Ltd, which handed the farm over to Black Duck’s usage via a lease starting July 1, 2021. The 2021-22 accounts are via Pitcher Partners (Black Duck has now changed to a Limited NFP company). Under “Occupancy expense” is the sum of $140,000.
The 2020-21 accounts also mention that Bruce personally sold $78,109 worth of farm gear to Black Duck (maybe including his little red tractor) and another $3626 worth of odds and ends, written-off in the books within 12 months.
Overall, thanks to free money, Black Duck racked up a splendid $389,741 surplus in 2020-21, following a similarly buoyant $221,409 for 2019-20. Way to go, Aboriginal agriculturist Bruce!
Moving on to the 2021-22 accounts, free money is still pouring in, though slightly less: $660,117 (down from $860,646). But a $405,563 wages bill for the Aboriginal workers, plus that $140,000 apparent annual rent to Pascoe Publishing and other costs meant a $180,691 loss.
Receipts rose briskly from $23,250 to $106,200. However, the notes show “Consulting Revenue” of $114,979. This large sum suggests that the farm earned little from sowing, harvesting and baking bread from native grasses, Aboriginal-style dating back 120,000 years. Hence the figures don’t actually indicate that Black Duck is “revitalising regional Australia.”
To get a handle on Black Duck’s goal of employing Aboriginals, the 2021 Information Statement shows five full-time equivalent workers, helped by ten volunteers. It lists $343,251 as “Employee expenses”, a notional average $68,650 per worker. The surprise is that in 2022 the full-time equivalent workers were down to only three, plus the volunteers. “Employee expenses” are listed as $405,563, an average $135,188 per full-time worker. Am I missing something here?
WWW-Australia awarded Black Duck part of its $250,000 “Innovate to Regenerate” fund in November 2021, following the big Black Summer fires. The grant is for an “Indigenous Traditional Agriculture Knowledge Hub” at Pascoe’s farm, and is under way.
If Black Duck wants some pro bono consulting, I’d suggest Pascoe cuts back on the time-consuming Yuin ceremonies. He welcomes each day with a morning ritual to “greet grandfather sun” and follows Yuin lore on the farm — “real Rainbow Serpent country”.
♦ Before burning off, Yuins are mobilised to light fires using a hand drill and performing Yuin rituals
♦ “When we’re cropping, when we start up the machine and get ready to crop, we do a ceremony for that as well.”
♦ “The first thought always when you approach any plant, you have to ask the plant, ‘Do you mind if I take this leaf, bark or stick?’ [Episode 8, 5.20mins]. That could get a bit time-consuming when clearing a paddock.
WWF says that Bruce is a Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian Aborigine. This damns Bruce with faint Aboriginality. After all, he’s also said he’s Wiradjuri, Punniler Panner, Koori, a descendant of the Ballarat and Geelong Aboriginal communities,andfrom a tribe bordering the Wathaurong of Geelong and Colac Victoria,along with a South Australian Aboriginal connection.He discovered he was Aboriginal at the age of 30 or 32 — no, make that 18, — no, make that 9, when he was speaking the Wathaurong language with his family.
Pascoe was himself initiated by Yuin during secret ceremonies. I hope for his sake that practices like penis sub-incision and cicatrice-cutting on chest and back are not part of their continuous living culture. Bruce says, “It was all about love of the earth. I was so moved by it. It changed my life.”
However, things went a bit pear-shaped later when Warren Ngaarae Foster, one of the Yuin dancers in the choreographed version of Dark Emu, objected to Pascoe having added a “special and sacred” Yuin men’s initiation story to the label on a boutique “Dark Emu Lager” he’d designed with Sailor’s Grave Brewing Company of Orbost.
Mr Foster said Pascoe was adopted into ceremony and lore to the Yuin nation and as an initiated man, he should be more aware of the protocols in sharing the story. He further expressed his disappointment the story was put on a can of alcohol. Foster wanted the story removed from the can: “He can make beer and money using natural ingredients they grew.
Uncle Bruce is always mortified by challenges to his authenticity:
I remember when John Howard was Prime Minister how hurtful it was, and how hurtful it is to walk into a meeting with non-Aboriginal people and be sneered at... And in my darkest hours the thing I’ve done is gone straight back onto country. And usually lay down on the earth and just slept there and let the earth restore me… Because I’ve been quiet, all the animals come around and I wake up and sit up and there is a bird staring at me that I’ve never seen before. Or a mob of kangaroos come within 20 metres. [I’m sure this story isn’t a pinch from Disney’s film about Bambi]. Mother Earth will provide something which will say to me, “It’s okay, old boy. Everything’s okay. We’re here. You’re here. So forget your troubles.” And I’m so grateful. She’s a good mother.
His ancient-farmer premise might be suspect.To give one example, he told the ABC’s Richard Fidler that explorer Thomas Mitchell passed through four towns, each of 1000 peaceful inhabitants, in just four days (at 12.00mins). That’s equivalent to today’s Malmsbury (Vic), Woodgate (Qld), Ardrossan (SA) and Augusta (WA). Mitchell never mentioned any native settlement of 1000, let alone four of them within 50 miles ride.
Pascoe also cites a village near Lake Munro, where he says the Old People had enlarged a water channel and built houses each side: “It was like a little Venice, it would have been a beautiful place to live.” (at 43.00) I don’t know if the professions there included real estate agents; we once stayed six months in “petite Venice” in Colmar, France, which our kids re-named “pretty Venice”.
Another Pascoe anecdote goes,
Ernest Giles’ brother was travelling through NT and came across huge stores of what he discovered was grain stored up in platforms 3 metres off the ground. Each of these stores weighed one ton [at 6.00], he had never seen anything like it.
Pascoe has not a scrap of evidence. “Ernest Giles’ brother”, Robert, was an accountant at Hamilton, Vic., not an explorer. Pascoe is claiming the natives could build three-metre towers each supporting the weight of a Peugeot 208 small family car (1065kg). It’s just one more of Pascoe’s bovine extrusions.
On another occasion, he did a Tim Flannery and put a hex on my poor birthplace of Perth:
Capitalism has to die or the world will die with it. It’s resource-based and it’s running out of resources. And the first resource will be water. Perth is a city that doesn’t have its own water anymore. It will collapse. It will be like Atlantis. It will disappear.
Meanwhile, global warming would soon see mangos growing in Canberra, he prophesised, as if that were a bad thing. (I endured Canberra frosts for a decade.)
Of course Melbourne University did its due diligence before appointing Aboriginal Bruce to its prestigious Enterprise Professorship in Indigenous Agriculture. I assume his university protégé, Professor Marcia Langton, who hailed the appointment, would have checked out those 2019 UTS podcasts in which “Senior Uncle Bruce” proposes harvesting mixed grains by hand. , as per Episode 5: “Instead of harvesting 1000 hectares of wheat, allow families [of native plants] to grow together and harvest them separately … If we have to revert to harvesting by hand it would put a stop to unemployment…” [at 4.00]
He continued that “capitalism is the destroyer of the world”, adding (4.30mins) “ I think I’m in the right university to talk about this, because there are some unis where you could not.”
In Episode 7 (at 1.00min), he faces head-on how hand agriculture would support rising population:
There are far too many people in the world. There must be a better solution but we never talk about that. We always think there is a political solution but there isn’t. Look how the old [Aboriginal] people managed this land, the population [350,000-1 million] was suited to the land. It was governed by lore, we have to govern population by lore again, not by religion or capitalism.
If we convert just 5% of our agricultural lands to these environmentally friendly grains, we could help save Mother Earth from warming and wash away our colonial guilt, Pascoe believes. That’s not far off the area of Victoria.
So, mums and dads, if you want Bruce to educate your morose teenagers about New Age agriculture, just pack them off to the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences at Melbourne University.
Pascoe does practice what he preaches. In January 2016 he hand-harvested kangaroo grass. From his account, this generated two loaves of bread, or possibly even three or four, each involving a little ceremony: “John Campbell milled that for us and we were able to prepare a loaf on the Channel 10 morning show. I received the flour from John the night before so there was really little time to prepare, but it was obvious the flour had a wonderful aroma and a great texture.” He said the crowd ‘went wild’ over the ‘sensational’ loaf. He baked another for gourmet chef Ben Shewry, who ate a third of it with gusto. Pascoe’s plan was “to harvest a few hundred acres of kangaroo grass and our aim is to produce 100kg of flour… and we hope to build from there.”
Apart from suggested productivity of 333 grams of flour per acre, Bruce’s account seems to miss some details. The Australian’s Richard Guilliatt observed in 2019: “Some years ago he made the rash decision to bake a loaf of bread from native flour on breakfast television, a culinary disaster from which he learnt a valuable lesson.”
Another grass-flour experimenter, Dr Angela Pattison, of Sydney University, noted: “I’ve tried all versions, and I found that some, to be completely honest, really do taste like grass.” Pascoe himself has said of his loaves, “You will be buying this. You will be baking it in your own kitchens and when you do, your house will smell like an Australian grassland.”
Cost might be an issue. Pascoe says a farmer mate in central NSW began harvesting native grass-seeds after the fires, earning $1000 per kilogram. “You can make money out of that,” Pascoe says, acutely. But I suspect the loaves would be a wallet-buster at my Moonee Ponds Woolworths. According to retired farm-chemical manufacturer Roger Karge (B.Sc. Hons Melbourne University), who runs the forensic and impeccably-referenced dark-emu-exposed website, the native grass-seed output is about 50kg per hectare compared with 2000kg for best wheat. “Apart from the economics, kangaroo-grass cropping requires copious sprays of Roundup and other chemical herbicides,” Karge says.
Pascoe worries that today’s would-be Aboriginal regenerative farmers lack farmland. “This is something Australia can fix,” says Bruce. “You mob, you’ll be voting to fix it in a few years time. [Who knew the Referendum was about that?] In 100 years time, I want people to say those Australians, they’re fair, not fair in skin colour like me, but fair in their hearts.”
I want to book myself in for a farm-stay night to yarn with Bruce. But how do I crowd-fund $1100 to pay for it?
Tony Thomas’ will launch Mark Lawson’s new book,Dark Ages- the looming destruction of the Australian power grid(Connor Court), at Il Gambero restaurant, 166 Lygon Street, Carlton, noon to 2pm on Friday, April 28. The launch talks will be over pasta and wine ($30). To accept, email firstname.lastname@example.org
 The on-line shop went live on March 31, nearly four years after Black Duck started. Of five native foods and seeds on sale, four are unavailable – marked “sold out”.
 Pascoe of the pelican: “He’s like my speaking coach, if you live in country, this happens.” [45.00] He talks in Yuin to other animals as well, “in a culturally appropriate way because they’re my cousins”.
 Twofold returned to a surplus last year.
 Other “partners” are the super-woke Melbourne University, PWC and lawyers Arnold Bloch Leibler and Minter Ellison.
 The 2022 accounts say Black Duck also bought $40,416 worth of motor vehicles.
 Professor Geoffrey Blainey: …the famous explorer Thomas Mitchell…never once used the word ‘thousand’. The word thousand seems to have been made up. It’s a terrible mistake and it ruins an important part of his [Pascoe’s] argument. [at 2:57]
 Verified accounts of native grain storage involved them stealing explorers’ and workers’ clothes, and using them as bags after tying up the sleeves and trouser-legs.
 Professor Langton also has complete faith in Pascoe’s dark ancestry – “Bruce says that he has documents,” she says [0:40secs in]. But why won’t he produce them?
 An actual farmer wrote to Roger Karge: “We know that rainfall in the inland is erratic. The native millets grow prolifically when rain falls, but cannot be relied upon from one year to the next. The idea that aboriginals would till and cultivate a species that will not grow in a dry year, and grows abundantly in wet years without cultivation….. is truly unreasonable.”
 Associate Provost Professor Marcia Langton: “Bruce Pascoe’s commitment to the recovery of Indigenous agricultural practices and native plants will enrich our curricula and contribute to the recognition of Indigenous knowledge as part of the mission of our University community.”
 Nonetheless Bruce won the 2016 Gourmet Traveller “Outstanding Contribution to Hospitality award.”
 When three bakery shop folded in nearby Eden, Pascoe was talking excitedly about buying one, staffing it with Aboriginals and selling Aboriginal bread. “… we wouldn’t be able to get enough bakers or enough oven space to bake the bread we would need. I think we will be knocked over in the rush.”