Making the most of it

Making the most of it

Words by Daniel Down, with thanks to Jo Norman.

The life of David Norman, 1930 to 2020. Engineer, sustainable farmer, climate activist, nature lover.

It’s a special quality to be able to draw the most out of something. Whether it be a singular experience or a career, being able to siphon the most for the least amount of effort, to ‘make the most of it’, is a gift. David Norman harnessed this power through all aspects of his life, from childhood until his passing earlier this year.

David Norman; 1930-2020. (Title image: Springbank at Yass, where David undertook tree planting and habitat restoration.)

A talented engineer, with an aptitude for making the world around him as efficient as possible, it would be a quality that served him from business to farming and by extent the natural world of Australia that he so dearly loved. In later life he would champion sustainable practices to make farming more resilient in the face of a warming climate, becoming a bonafide climate activist within his farming community. Indeed, he often donated to the Wilderness Society among other environment groups close to his heart.

David with his sister Deborah at the farm in Romilly.

If we are a product of our environment then David was testament to that. He grew up on a remote farm, Romilly, near the community of Beverley, 120 kilometres east of Perth. It was here, during the Great Depression, that the Norman family were forced to make do with what they had in a time made even harder by relentless drought. “Having been caught up in the Depression, Dad's philosophy was that you don't use more resources than you absolutely need,” says his daughter Jo Norman. “Efficiency was in his blood. Whether it be designing better slingshots, rabbit traps or crystal set radios, he was constantly trying to increase their effectiveness. His engineering mind kicked in from a very young age.”

Perhaps inevitably given the circumstances, the Norman family would lose their farm. They moved to Perth only to return to Beverley to be near their old community when Australia was plunged into World War II. “I remember Dad saying he felt ‘hemmed in’ living in the city,” recalls Jo. With the War over, David’s knack for problem solving saw him emerge from school with a clear direction; he wanted to be an engineer.

Lake skating in Canada - David lived in Canada from 1954-1958.

At the University of Western Australia he found his niche: air conditioning. Woefully inefficient at the time, the moment was ripe for someone of David’s innate ability to get more from less, to step in and solve the problem. For his thesis he conducted multiple experiments on an old fan from a mining ventilation unit, massively increasing its efficiency.

“When he left university he realised that if he wanted to pursue a career around innovation in air conditioning, he needed to go to Canada. That's where he was going to get the skills needed to take him to the next level and open up his own business here in Australia,” says Jo.

Following a stint supervising mechanical services at the Woomera Rocket Range facility, where the secretive British Blue Streak ballistic missile was being developed, he took a job at Carrier Corporation in Toronto, an industry leader in air conditioning. As Engineer in Charge of the General Air Conditioning Division for Canada, he oversaw the installation of industrial scale air conditioning units, increasing efficiency and saving clients money in the process. Before sustainability was a catchphrase, David developed a reputation for reducing energy costs, often by as much as 50 percent, thus paving the way for more eco-friendly building design. Canada also deepened his love for exploring the wilderness and on weekends he’d be out canoeing or walking.

In 1959, he returned to Australia to set up a business in Sydney, looking to bring his expertise in air conditioning to what would be the beginnings of a burgeoning market. He was the right man in the right place at the right time, founding the engineering consultancy Norman Disney & Young, which now has offices all over the world.

Success afforded him the opportunity to purchase three farming properties in NSW, the first in 1978. It was a return to his roots. “Since he was caught up in those Depression years he was very isolated for the first decade of his life. So his whole world was the land,” says Jo. “And I think buying the farms was an opportunity to relive his childhood love. His father lost his property to drought, so it was a chance to follow in his father's pastoral footsteps.”

And it was here that he could work on solutions to another problem; perhaps humanity’s greatest: climate change. David was acutely aware of the threat a warming climate poses to farming. Farmers need to constantly adapt to survive, even more so with unpredictable rain patterns and increasingly hot, dry summers. “You're totally reliant on the weather,” says Jo, who now with her sister Jenny is continuing the family’s farming business. “You never know what next season is going to hold; you've always got to be as efficient as you possibly can.”

The Norman family’s properties in the Hume region of Southern New South Wales produce lamb, with some wool. Since 2008, David invested in biological farming techniques to improve the soil grade on his properties, working alongside a local organisation to fine-tune soil chemistry, utilising their compost mixes. The improved soil enabled his land to hold more water. More water in the soil means more feed for the lambs when things dry up. In a reverse logic, the dams are now half full compared to those on neighbouring properties because more water is retained in the land. “The soil improvement programme has made a huge change to the way that we can capture our water,” says Jo. “And that's allowed us to have quite a significant amount of feed on the ground, whereas next door might not have anything left when rains are scarce.”

David also planted trees to reduce salinity patches, form natural shelter belts to protect the top soil, and act as wildlife corridors. The farms have seen an increase in the number of birds and marsupials as a result. “Biodiversity was something that he was very upset about, seeing it decline so much in Australia over the course of his life,” says Jo. “The wildlife corridors were very important to him and he would always be keen to take us out to show us a newly fenced off area, checking in on the progress of the native trees he had planted. Together with a reduced paddock size and an improved stock rotation program with a hardier breed of sheep, his farm became an exemplar of modern, biological farming practice.

David was an outdoorsman, here in his beloved Canadian canoe.

“I guess his values were reflected in what he did on the farms and the wildlife corridors were a part of that. Dad loved nature in all its forms,” recalls Jo. “We’d go on camping holidays out into the bush before the farms high-jacked his time. He always loved getting out into nature, and he was a really big lover of birds.” His preferred time out from the farms or his company was to head out, a pair of binoculars around his neck, into the harsh outback, driving the Canning Stock Route.

Today David’s farms stand as an example of how to adapt to climate change while also improving biodiversity. With farmers on the front line, he found the lack of action in Australia in the face of the climate threat appalling. “He was just totally puzzled why the government was doing nothing about climate change. It just felt so wrong to him. The data is there,” says Jo. To that end he became an active member of the Farmers for Climate Action, which runs workshops on how to employ biological farming techniques. “We proudly display the Farmers For Climate Action signage at the farm gates to hopefully encourage others to join the movement and learn smart and sustainable agriculture through its workshops,” says Jo. “It's been an interesting journey, particularly over the last five or six years, because up until then speaking too loudly about climate change was not the done thing in these communities. But for David it was just a matter of finding like-minded people that could become a voice. And then you can start a little bit of a movement.”

In life David came full circle back to what he loved, applying his engineering knowledge to develop biological farming methods, becoming a voice for change within his community. Farms in the area have followed David’s lead with a growing number realising the benefits of sustainable practices. He learnt that for anything to survive it has to work with nature, benefit it even. “You have to work alongside nature, I think that was a big part of Dad's philosophy,” says Jo.

Perhaps that is David’s legacy, a man who made the most of it.