Episode12 | Measuring the unmeasurable

Amanda has a close look at nature and enjoys a bit of spadework before referencing some big thinkers looking at the future of the wheat belt, asking questions like: What is yield? How do we judge resilience in the agricultural world?

On Kingsley and Christine’s farm in Dandaragan, autumn mornings are characterised by mists and fogs. Christine walks out every day with her camera to document the dew as it gathers in decorative drops on steel grids and sparkles as moisture on plants. Her interest has been prompted by something scientist Dr Martin Staaper said in a soil regeneration workshop she attended: why, she wonders, in tune with his thinking, is this moisture not counted?

Christine’s reflections on dew brought to mind stuff I have observed but not given conscious weight to. Living in station country there were early morning walks where I was transfixed by the sight of thousands of low, spaced plants, all captured by tiny spider’s webs, glistening with moisture. It wasn’t rain, we didn’t measure it, but it must make a big difference to the ecosystem.

In the home paddock at Dandaragan Christine walks over a patch of ground where a number of small, nibbled grasses – possibly native perennials –  are growing and determines to cover the patch with one of the steel stock cages lying around near the shed: a simple way of protecting and marking plants so ID can be made. She checks another cage and notes with satisfaction how much leaf litter has been caught in the small microcosm of plants that have been able to grow undisturbed by grazers.

Christine and Kingsley’s sense of what the land needs to thrive has changed since they have embraced the ideas of regenerative agriculture. It is all about retaining ground cover after a summer that has been unreasonably dry - weeds, remnant crop plants, leaf litter, all are welcome. I realised wandering around with Christine how I was getting a close-up view of how a different way of experiencing the land encourages an ongoing reassessment of natural phenomenon.

Christine’s problem is reigning in her sense of urgency about wanting to push change on the farm processes in the face of the mountain of work involved in running a broadacre property. The day I visit, husband Kingsley cracks jokes about the age of his off-sider called in to help setup a bunch of ewes for crutching– both men are approaching 70 years old and the work ethic is there, but the bodies are a bit buckled up. Christine carries in her mind a sentence gifted to her by fellow farmer and friend Di Haggerty: ‘do what you can with what you have’. Wise words that Christine uses as a mantra when the weight of what-could-be threatens to overwhelm her.

But Christine and Kingsley are pretty determined to really go for it this season. They have all the potions and notions needed to cut their chemical bills in half by injecting biological elements into the mix on the hectares set out for planting. And they have a plan on how best to feed their pregnant ewes, many of whom are expecting twins. In the lead up to the birthing time, these sheep will dine on barley stubble and perennials, then a thin line of lupins will lead them to Lucerne hay and a paddock with sorghum planted and lastly they will walk to a paddock planted with wattle. The latter has been put in the mix because in a previous year they noticed that the wattle seemed to clean up any intestinal worms and forestall the need for chemical drenching. 

There is a new energy afoot in the excitement of experimenting with new ways of doing things, and the knowledge that they are part of a much bigger push to work more closely with nature, build carbon in the soil and reduce the use of chemicals for the health of all ecosystems.

SPREADING THE WORD

For Christine, conversations matter. She is a networker, an organiser and quietly relentless about promoting holistic ways of looking at life from soil to human health. A phone call here, an invitation there, an introduction between people in a forum where ideas can be exchanged; she quietly gives people the opportunity to learn, to change their minds about things that matter. Life has handed Christine some lemons and at every turn she is quietly determined to make lemonade and share it around.

STUART AND WIDE OPEN AGRICULTURE

Not too far away as the crow flies, heading north east, Stuart McAlpine is also juggling roles as a long-time farmer and soil regen advocate on his farm near the tiny settlement of Buntine. I turn off at the Marchagee Road to Buntine and travel 60kms on a hot morning through acres of blasted, treeless paddocks: the wheatbelt at its most uncompromisingly dry and unappetising. Some paddocks are being burnt , some have rough stubble, any remnant bush looks impossibly dwarfed by cleared paddocks laid bare under the wide open sky. 

It occurs to me that regenerative paddocks might be hard to pick from conventional paddocks at the end of a long dry summer…..Stuart concurs: really the only true test is to stick a spade in it and observe what comes up when you lever up the blade.

As Stuart and I chat in his kitchen, I become convinced that this wide-ranging thinker, philosopher and change merchant must be thinking about parking his tractor permanently in the shed - he clearly has a lot of irons in the fire to do with improving the diversity of the social and natural capital in his neck of the woods and beyond - and the work keeps him travelling.

But my opinion changes when we get in the ute and drive around the property. First stop was to visit the paddock that Wide Open Agriculture, backed by investment company Commonland had purchased under the Land for Reasons project.

A 320ha plot of the McAlpine land has been bought and leased back to the McAlpines’ under an innovative investment model. The money raised has been employed to invest in the three-zone system: Natural zone, combined use zone and commercial zone. A team of planters were bought in over a week to revegetate 98 hectares, the combined zone, with species of saltbushes, acacias, eremophilas and other natives. Alleys, spaces wide enough to take machinery, thread through the area, waiting their turn to be planted with perennial grasses when the time is right. This area has the potential to be used for both cropping and grazing.

SPADEWORK

Stuart hops out of the car and shoves a spade into the dirt. He levers the spade handle down gently which causes an area of soil much larger than the size of the spade blade to lift, explaining that this movement is a good sign as it signals that structure and biological activity are well developed. This paddock is gravel and sand, not the most fertile land, but I am surprised by the moisture held in on this warm day, one of many warm days at the end of a rainless summer.

In a nearby paddock, Stuart stops the car where the earth becomes red, a sign of a richer loamier soil that he has been working with through a process of adding bio stimulants, what he calls ‘diversity in a bottle, designed to wake up biology’. There is both clay and moisture in this soil as shown by the mosaic of cracks on the surface. Stuart explains that denser soils are tougher mediums to reconstitute - he reckons it has taken a dozen years to get it to the point where the spade goes in with such ease.

 He hunkers down, starts digging with his hand and invites me to smell the rich-looking brew, drawing attention to the dark areas that indicate the presence of carbon. His mood lifts, this is earth to gladden a farmer’s heart –  I start to see that Stuart might not yet be at the point where he is ready to park his tractor in the shed for good. The knowledge that he is re-building the soil on land that has been plundered for profit or decades is a wonderful legacy to leave for future food growers.

This red soil is at the bottom of a gentle slope, near to a dam. We are looking at a couple of hectares out of about 4000 arable hectares and Stuart tells me it is really a waste to grow grain or lupins in this soil because it could support a much more intensive and valuable crop. Saffron? Garlic? Vegetables?

I was struck by both Christine and Stuarts differentiation of soil types within a paddock. The broadacre farms that are getting bigger and bigger and making way for bigger and bigger machinery are run on a form of chemical hydroponics in the sense that the dirt is simply there as a medium to hold a plant, rather than the dirt hosting a community of organisms’ complex enough to build carbon and support plant growth. When you start looking at the details, you realise that a lot more diversity could be achieved in broadacre paddocks – as long as there is enough money and labour to get these projects off the ground.

Across the road in a neighbour’s paddock that is being run along conventional lines, the soil has been recently ploughed. We walk in a little way and even though the soil looks friable the spade only just makes it past the surface disturbance until it hits the hard stuff. As we walk Stuart urges me to get a feel for the earth under my feet, to intuit what is happening in the soil profile. Is there any give? does it feel compacted or springy?

Stuart takes a long-range view of things – a politically astute and philosophically-inclined man he, like many farmers, realized sometime in the early 2000s that he was spending a lot more money to get significantly less yields.

A drought that lasted from 2006-2009 inspired him to look at the history of the land he was farming. He saw how the two previous generations had drawn down on the natural capital of the farm to make good profits and started a spread sheet from 1975 to the present day that tracked productivity in terms of tonnes per hectare and what would happen to yields if he kept up intensive cropping with the full complement of quick-fix chemicals. By doing the maths he saw compound yields showing ridiculous – impossible gains. And the true costs, the destruction of soil health was not factored in.

 The Wheatbelt, near Buntine, WA

The Wheatbelt, near Buntine, WA

 

ROGER CROOK’S BLOG

He reads widely: Roger Crook a WA based former farmer and now consultant ad researcher is the author of blogs on a site called Global Farmers.  Roger argues that there will be no grain farming in WA in 23 years times. He builds this article around his responses to a recently published article in ‘The Conversation’ from three CSIRO scientists: a paper titled ‘Changing climate has stalled Australian wheat yields: This study predicts that by 2041 the national average yield will be down from 1.74tonnes per hectare to 1.55tonnes per hectare: which puts farmers back to getting the yields of the 70s with the costs of the future. And competing against countries like Russia and Rumania that are not only achieving higher yields and infrastructure efficiencies – but are also much closer to our export markets.  

Roger’s arguments are well researched and convincing – I won’t expand on them here – but urge you to have a look at the Global Farmer site if you are interested in the subject. He has a wealth of expertise in WA farming and a number of great blogs to dip into.

Where does regenerative agriculture come into the argument here? Does evidence that decreased costs achieved by lowering chemical inputs and replacing them with biological treatments – and hints that higher prices can be commanded for nutrient dense, residue free grain…. alternative land use and higher value crops … these are all ideas where more experimentation and deeper analysis is needed.

Stuart reads critiques of the capitalist system – he mentions another name, John Perkins and his book Confessions of an Economic Hitman that helped him to understand how the creation of a debt cycle is at the heart of capitalism. All profit ultimately comes from exploitation of the natural capital…and in that sense, capitalism is a death economy.

Going hand in hand with what he was reading was a growing disappointment with industry. The Grain Research and Development Commission, the GRDC, do research paid for by wheat growers from the levy that all growers pay on every tonne of wheat they produce: they are the only body with the money and expertise able to conduct research into the future of grain, they are currently not at all supportive of a different approach and are investing heavily in chemical solutions. Despite millions of dollars of research, grain yields have remained static for over 20 years. Also, whatever regime you support, it still has to rain….

Stuart doesn’t rate agronomists – having met many who advise their clients on chemical regimes and crop types without ever getting out of the car and looking at the soil.  He says, somewhat ruefully, these blokes have learnt not to take him on in face-to-face discussions – they prudently stay in the background and talk quietly to their clients when he is not around.

THE UNMEASUREABLE

On the way to Stuart’s farm, driving down from Geraldton, I had listened idly to a woman on Radio National talking about the efforts to find a cure for the various forms of dementia. Scientists have been beavering away in labs to the point where many different elements have been identified as potential influences when trialled on lab mice.

Four hundred potential elements eventually made it to clinical trials, human beings were involved and data collected. The results were disappointing – what looked good in mice had to be abandoned in humans due roughly to toxicity or simply that no appreciable difference to the advance or character of the disease was discerned.

What scientists can do in a test tube cannot come within cooee of the complexity of life. When we are talking about 25,000 different species in a teaspoon of soil – humans are capable of identifying and naming a fraction of them and flounder when it comes to the task of figuring out how they all work together to balance and advance all the processes needed to maintain lifeforce.

Stuart made the connection between science and measuring the unmeasureable for me when he said this: and I paraphrase: The intelligence in the natural system and genetic diversity will eventually collapse any chemical regime – no matter what you throw up against problems, if you are operating against the laws of nature you are going to get smashed.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and if you repeatedly strip the earth, nature will grow its own defensive cover crop. In central Victoria I observed this, fierce thistles are a pioneer plant and if you get rid of them without noticing what purpose they are fulfilling, prickly gorse, one of the toughest, most uncompromising plants around will march over your land.

Contemporary agricultural science still insists on making yield the ultimate measure for farming success – even though it is a measurement that is sounding increasingly hollow. For Stuart, this approach is simply another expression of the capitalist system.

THE CONCEPT OF YIELD

On Stuart’s farm, senses beat scientific analysis and he describes yield as being a result of a journey. Like many farmers he uses sight, smell and feel to feed a subtle, instinctual understanding of his acres born over years of contact. What he is looking for in soil can’t necessarily be measured. How for example, can you measure resilience? Resilience is like a piece of elastic, Stuart explains, it can be stretched and stretched according to the conditions….You are really asking the unanswerable.

Farmers asking these questions are empowering themselves to take back the reins. As soon as you start working with nature, as distinct from against nature, you are working in an expanded field of consciousness. When you are not pouring huge resources into chemical regimes and are instead adopting a more nuanced approach that suits your particular conditions you are changing the game. And that sounds like a good idea, because the old game is already lost.