Episode 15 | A Prophet for Our Time

 Big river gum at Payneham Vale Organic Farm,  Frankland River

Big river gum at Payneham Vale Organic Farm,  Frankland River

One of Ron Watkins most satisfying design projects happened in 1999. That’s when Ross and Sally Davies, farmers at Many Peaks near Albany requested his services to help them deal with water-logging on their farm.

 At the heart of the Davies farm was a big patch of karri forest… This forest had the capacity to carry incredible bio-diversity and Ron’s design while it worked to control and capture the water that came onto the property, naturally served to enhance the ecological development of this forest and connect the whole farm with wildlife corridors.

Ron spent an enjoyable period observing, surveying and test digging at Many Peaks to nail his design. This required driving around on a quad bike with his surveying tools, he reckons it takes him an hour to survey one kilometre and an hour to test dig every 30 metres.

Davies accepted Ron’s suggestions and spent the next 10 years implementing the plan whenever he could spare the money and time on the excavators, bulldozer and other equipment needed to create drains, dig dams, fence off and plant tree belts and existing native forest remnants. Ron has had the pleasure of seeing his Integrated Whole Farm Plan applied with intelligence and dedication and the satisfaction of seeing the water-logging problem fixed and the farm gain soil fertility.

On paper, the Many Peaks plan shows kilometres of drains, snaking gently around the contours of the land – there are no straight lines on the map. A series of interconnected meandering marks follow roads and natural creeks, either skirting around or soaking into features. The drains feed the tree belts that are planted alongside them and in turn link the land visually. It possible to stand on land that might have only 10 or 20% vegetation with 80% open pasture and feel that you are in the middle of bush as far as the eye can see.

HOW WATER FLOWS

When Ron first started to apply himself to working out how water flowed in the landscape he also had to learn to strike out on his own - the issue was around the clay layer. He explains: there are four ways water moves: it runs off, it becomes seepage on top of the clay layer where all the waterlogging problems happen, it moves through the clay or gets into the water table, or it hits bedrock.

Some analysis of water logging and attendant saline problems only look at the top two layers. Ron’s instinct was to look deeper into the subject – to him it was logical that water found its way through the earth at all levels, but the farmers and consultants he was dealing with at different times on farm field days were not interested in divergent views.

He became convinced these blokes never looked deep enough. He had found variation in clay layers which went as deep as 1.2ms on some land; but, frustratingly found no support for his observations that it was often possible to see wetness below the drains…

In the late 70’s after a particularly frustrating session on a mate’s farm where he found himself to be a lone and unwelcome voice against the prevailing mindset he went home and excavated a hole 6.5 m deep. He then spent  2 days observing what the water did. It was clear: water moved in at all levels, trickling through and exhibiting different qualities depending on its journey through the earth: his mentors and the mob of farmers he was working with had not seen or had seen but would not acknowledge the existence of such water.

One of the elders, a man he held in high esteem was with him for some of the time as he carried out these observations. It was one of the lowest points of his life that this man refused to acknowledge what he had seen. One of Ron’s oft quoted phrases: ‘there is never a person so blind as one who wills themselves not to see’ might well have dated from this time.

Sue remembers that Ron came out of that hole and said: They can go and re-write the book. He was convinced of what he saw. It was hard won wisdom - it came with a sense of isolation that has never quite left him…he was on his own.

Ron knew from his own experiments on Payneham Vale, his 550 odd hectare farm near Frankland River east of Manjimup that all land problems are multi-dimensional – there are no single issues – he looks at energy, seasons, soil, water, air, plants, animals and human interactions to get the holistic vision.

THE KEYLINE PLAN

The basis of his knowledge comes from P.A. Yeoman, an engineer who developed a way to create soil fertility by capturing water in the landscape via a system he called the Keyline Plan. The Keyline Plan, the book, came out in 1954. The man himself came by invitation to Payneham Vale farm in the 70’s and Ron got the benefit of an intensive tutorial on water harvesting techniques over 5 days. Ron took to heart PA’s  teaching; land shape and the way water moves over the land is central to the way he reads the land.  Two of the main devices that feature in his farm land adaptations are the drains that are constructed in conjunction with tree belts roughly following contours. The decision to use drain/ tree combinations was a direct result of doing an environmental assessment using energy, soils/seasons, water, air, plants, animals and human impacts as the model for determining what practices would enhance the positive and negate the negative.

Do these ideas work? Has Ron worked out a way to solve the problems of water-logging and it’s handmaid, salinity that are an aspect of farming in the Great Southern?

The proof is in the pudding. From an ecological and economic perspective the Watkin’s farm has thrived in the 46 years since Ron and Sue took over as the main decision-makers … and on a farm he tells me with scorn, that was considered: “too small to farm successfully”: He didn’t heed the call to ‘get big or get out’ and is still farming, economically and ecologically sustainably, satisfied that he has fulfilled one of his main aims, to leave the land in better shape than when he inherited it.

 A drain next to a ploughed paddock at PVO June 2018

A drain next to a ploughed paddock at PVO June 2018

Ron tried to explain to me how he actually reads the landscape. Sue reckons it’s instinctive. He has a feel for it, maybe it is not something that can be taught, but he tried to give me an idea of the way he approaches problems in the landscape. There are some foundational starting points: the shape of the land is one. There will be significant landscape features that he looks for that drive water movement: saddles, rock outcrops, areas that would be good for large storage sites, swampy zones, forest to name a few.

WATER HARVESTING IN ACTION

Cruising around a paddock searching in the tree belts for calving cows, Ron, points out some features that influenced where he placed his drains and accompanying tree belts. He stops the car high in the paddock and tells me that we are in a saddle. It is a barely discernible, subtle dip, part of what PA would call a primary ridge, Ron explains. He points out sloping areas falling in another direction as secondary ridges, coming away from the primary.

 We approach the top of the paddock and the fence that runs along the top of the ridge and divides PVO from the neighbour’s lands. Ron parts his hands, ‘You can see up here we are right at the top of the ridge which is the water divide – all the water from this point here either goes that way or that way’. He points out: ‘this is the start of the catchment area and where we were yesterday up the top of the other hill is the other divide, between the valley with the creek in-between the two. It’s all very logical.’

It is a fiercely windy day, we cruise around a contour close to the tree belt, luxuriating in the sheltering calmness. He points out high and low points –that where he wanted to put a dam actually coincided with a key point – meaning that you’ve got a steeper slope above it and in the next paddock it levels out – all the elements fit together beautifully. The’ key point’ is a place in the land shape nominated by PA Yeoman – it is what he built his ideas on, but Ron asked the question, if you don’t have any other key points, which is true of his land what do you build your design from?

When PA visited, Ron’s desire was to learn how to harvest water that could be used as irrigation and fed into projects close to the houses. PA Yeomans designed the contour dam, a 240 metre dam (capacity 30,000 cubic metres) that is 3 drains lower in the landscape from the place we are standing and is fed from the top of the catchment area.

When the Contour Dam went in, Ron knew he had to plant trees along the drains to protect the system above the dam. Rather than cascading down the hill, the water that falls on the land, after an initial, short, downhill rush is directed sideways into a series of connecting drains, so it movies down the slope like the silver marble in a pin-ball machine. The contour dam has an overflow end that ultimately means that excess water from a big rain event is directed down to the creek that runs along the valley floor past the hay shed near the house.

 Sheep at Payneham Vale Organic Farm

Sheep at Payneham Vale Organic Farm

Because the high dam at his place is 16 metres higher than the main house, Ron can gravity-feed water into the outside house taps and toilets, making his windmill obsolete.

Standing on a steepish slope, Ron says the average speed that the water would run here would be 1 in 15 (that is 1 metre every 15 metres). So when rain hits the ground, it runs into the first drain at 1 in 15 but only for 100 metres, then when it strikes the drain it runs at 1metre every 300metres, even 400metres – so the water is being impeded by the earthworks, it is slowing right down. ‘You can move a lot of water slowly, but you can’t move much water fast without causing  erosion’, Ron adds.

So apart from the initial rush, it’s all under control. You can imagine in a thunderstorm if there weren’t drains and tree belts the water would just sheet down the hill. Now all the cultivations are on the contour – not perfectly, but enough that all the sheep and cattle tracks are not straight down, they are on the contour (against the flow of the water). No water let loose from the top of the catchment can do more than wander down the hill while being impeded upon by trees and drains.

Trees alone would not be enough to slow the water down, the drains and the contours are essential aspects of the system.

According to Ron the most efficient use of water is using it where it falls. The tree belts are all fenced off to stock so the ground in these enclosures is springy with moisture captured by roots and held by soil surfaces rich with leaf litter, undergrowth, twigs and other debris. The next step Ron would like to implement is the planting of perennials grasses so the continuous deep root action could act to use all the water between the tree belts to turn the open paddocks, as well as the fenced off riparian and tree belts, into giant green sponges.

From this high point, the contour layout creates a sense that you are looking out over dense bush –the sense of beauty and natural diversity is as rare as it is refreshing in the middle of a farming zone.

Ron is not necessarily rapt with the species selection planted in the treebelts along the drains…fashion at the time dictated Bluegums as a good species. They look gorgeous with their dead straight trunks but drop an enormous amount of bark and other debris and never produced the high grade timber as promised - the wood twists and warps when sawn so they are only good as paper pulp instead of the promised high grade building timber…..in future plantings would be fine-tuned.  When they put in a grove of olives over 15 years ago, they planted a nearby tree belt with a variety of trees – to encourage the right kinds of insects and birds. One of the waterways heading down the slope in the paddock we are on to the contour dam has been planted with English oaks.  

If Ron ends up applying his design to the remaining 1/3 of his land, he would use different species again, and learning from experience plant 4-6 rows wide. But the point is that these zones are a breeding ground for insects and birds and create pathways for birds and critters to the zones of remnant bush that have also been fenced off to protect them from the stock.  Rather than being a pleasant or separate add-on the wildlife corridors are an essential result/outcome of the water control system. 

This is the Integrated Whole Farm Planning system in action – true holistic planning that works with nature.

Over the week I spend at the farm Ron tells several stories; one of him sitting on the edge of a bit of bush on the farm and watching a couple of hornets dragging a cut-worm into the treebelt. A study done by a scientist in USA, stuck in his mind: Did I know that a pair of swallows eat 980 insects a day? Why would you use insecticides? Even a ‘predator friendly’ one? Ron added with a sly grin. Sue had to explain that one to me…apparently this is a claim written on the side of the container of a commonly used insecticide. He has neighbours growing canola – sometimes they need to spray up to 6 times on a single crop in a season.

We pass another dam, lower in the landscape as we continue to sweep the paddock looking for birthing cows. This one, Ron explains, has a 5 to 1 storage ratio, meaning he was able to get 25,000 cubic metres of water storage for 5,000 metres of dirt shifted. He fed this dam, he explains using several ridges and built it to an L shape in response to the land form, knowing exactly where the water would want to overflow and channelling the excess down the valley.

To have a finely judged understanding of how water moves across the land and to be able to slow volume and pace through the biggest rain events is also to save huge amounts of money when it comes to constructing earthworks. Shifting dirt is a costly business….so it’s a good idea to have a handle on the numbers and an idea of what the conditions are likely to deliver your land…you build what you have to build adding to the overall design as you can afford to do it.

Land and water is obviously where the Payneham Vale farm income has been directed for the years Ron and Sue have been in charge. The house is modest, the equipment of a vintage that Ron can maintain himself; the land itself sings with the love and care put into it by its custodians.

It’s not rocket science – Ron sighs, not for the first time - it’s logical. But like most profoundly good design, it takes complex reasoning within a framework of understanding -in this case how water moves across a landscape- to get it right. Ron has a strong belief that nature makes sense – it is just beyond the capacity of most human beings to discern how everything in nature functions in the face of such complexity, so they label it chaos, not understanding the intricately fitted pieces that make up the whole.

The way Ron talks about farm design makes it appear to be an act of creative uncovering – the design falls naturally and beautifully into place when he has noted all the features that count…this to him is a reflection of the beauty of God’s work and a large part of the inspiration that drives his life as a farmer.

I am amazed by the elegant solutions Ron has created to ensure effective water harvesting. He started thinking about water when he and his wife, Sue took over the running of the farm with his parents’ blessing in 1973 - his ideas have be honed over decades of practical application.

Ron talks affectionately of his first mentor, PA Yeoman. His first Challenge of Landscape (as PA would say) was to work out why his mother’s citrus trees were dying. The culprit was the growing salinity in the dam near the house. Ron also knew from his mother’s lifelong connection to this land that the creek that winds through the valley near the house used to harbour a network of freshwater swamp paperbarks. It was clear that unless something was done, the farm would be lost to the curse of salt.

SALINITY AND WATER MOVEMENT

Salinity is a problem of too much water in the landscape…in the duplex soils common to the agricultural areas, sand/loam sits on clay. If salt appears, the analogy is that the bath is full, the drains are blocked and water is given the time to seep from below the clay layer to draw up the salt beneath that lies in the earth. His challenge was to capture all the water that fell on his property and use it to grow trees, enliven the soil and to produce more from the natural environment without degrading/mining it.

He began with the statistics in common use for rainfall. On average three million cubic metres of rain fall every year on his property. According to Department of Agricultural figures 10% of this will be run off (which means it varies between 0-20%) He decided he was going to harvest that 10% -  which is 300,000 cubic metres of water.

He was the subject of some mirth in the district – ‘how long do you reckon it will take to fill that one Ron’? a neighbour asked. ‘I reckon I should be able to do it every year, given an average amount of rain’ he responded calmly. And proved the notion. He notes with somewhat grim satisfaction that people are now creating much bigger dams in the district. 

STAFF

On economic, ecological and spiritual grounds Payneham Vale is a property that should be being used as a test case for regenerative farming across the globe. In terms of bio-diversity, carbon capture, the capacity of the land to hold water, they have developed a farm that is as climate change resilient as it is possible to be.

I spend a week helping out with the eggs across their four free-range, mobile modules housing something like 1400 chickens. Ron and Sue are flat out with a daily regime of collecting, cleaning and packing eggs. Every week involves moving one or more of the enclosures onto the next part of the paddock so the chickens get new green pick and the paddocks get a dung-scratch and de-bug makeover, prepping the paddocks. The eggs are an income, but the chickens give so much more than that, they are an integral part of the cropping program. 

 PVO Chooks

PVO Chooks

When I arrive to do my farm help thing it is the start of June and the rains have come. I just missed the olive harvest and the cropping program is ready to begin. These plantings will provide grain and hay for their stock for the next 12 months. As well as prepping acres for planting there is also the necessity of keeping hay up to the herd of 50 odd cows who are all busily producing calves ( they are up to number 45 so far) and keeping an eye on the young steers and heifers who need to be drafted so the hefty looking black bull that glares at us every day when we whizz past on the way to the pullets can have some down time with the young cows and the whole cycle of fertility can begin again. The few hundred sheep are relatively easy to take care of – the Watkins have taken to running Wiltipolls, a type of meat sheep that don’t need shearing.

This farm is really broadacre permaculture – imagine what could be achieved with staff!

One of his water capture plans encompasses a vision to have fish dams. I started throwing my own ideas into the mix. I had been inspired by the big chipper Stewart and Bee operate on their ‘Organic Farmacy’ in Nannup that is used to munch up animal and green waste as part of their composting program. Gruesome, but imagine the nutrient rich compost and compost teas that could be produced using chicken waste – including the actual bodies of the chickens when they have reached their used by date as egg producers. The big advantage on a broadacre farm over a smaller block is of course, the availability of easy-access, flat land and tractors with handy hydraulic appliances on the front that could be used to combine and turn big piles of stuff.

Ron, with an already enormous workload, currently buys in organic, biological fertilisers and various additives he has found enhances the growing power of his soil. He greets my idea with a weary smile. With a bigger labour force this farm has huge capacity to vertically integrate the existing production processes on many different levels.

Ron is also at times in demand to advise people on water and land issues. He talks wistfully of time he would have loved to spend with Joel Saladin, a US farmer, the inventor of Polyface farming who has been inspiring mixed farm food growing efforts around the world. He loved Joel’s workshop but was convinced his landscape design ideas didn’t go deep enough when it came to initial considerations about farm planning to do with water control from areas on and outside the boundaries of the land being considered.

Sundays is a day the Watkins try to do as little as possible. It is a time to worship and a time to relax….both are looking ahead to retirement.  Sue has patchwork quilts to make and arts and crafts in mind. Ron has his eye on a smaller property and a chain of dams near Albany. I reckon that with his gift of the gab, sonorous voice and knowledge he should become the high priest of regenerative environmental development, spreading the good news from pulpits across the land.

We’ll see what happens….