A tale of opportunity lost and potential opportunity recognised, in a corner of the wheatbelt.
Time spent in Perth and I’ve been hanging out with Caroline Harry, the Urban Tucker Woman. Five or so years ago she had created a large mosaiced board announcing the birth of Urban Tucker Woman and stuck in on Stirling Highway so it was visible approaching Eric Street from the south - I have been wondering what lies behind the words ever since.
After we met and bonded over our passion for all things to do with produce, I was able to direct Tuckerwoman’s attention to both an avocado and mandarin tree laden with fruit near where my father lives, leaving her to approach the tree owners to see how they take to the idea of sharing or exchanging produce. Like me, Urban Tucker Woman with attendant website and social media presence, is trying to find its role, skirting the edges of the whole foody thing – how to connect interested community members with the abundant seasonal fruits that occur in the suburbs, creating small distribution chains by value adding produce using essential ingredients to Caroline, like enthusiasm and generosity.
After time in Perth I took off for Kojonup to spend a week as a farm hand at Temple Farm. This 2500 acre property was established in 1927, and 3 generations later is still run by the McFall clan - currently represented by two brothers, Michael and David. ‘Temple Farm’, named by the founding great grandfather, who was a man of vision and heart - has been run on organic principles since its inception. The name refers to the idea of family and others working together and sharing the fruits of their labour – a sanctuary for souls.
Temple Farm never embraced the chemical regime that swept up so many businesses from the 1970s onwards. It is an agri-ecological production unit and has invested a lot of resources into replanting programs, water management and improvement of its soils.
Like many farm businesses, the McFall’s lack ready cash and labour to ‘fast track’ their philosophy. Currently Michael works off farm as the key contractor for the Australian Wildlife Conservatory and has just finished establishing the planets largest feral cat exclusion fence at a Sanctuary in the NT. This enclosure aims to create a refuge for at least 10 nationally threatened mammal species.
With Michael away, David is picking up the reins and managing the day to day farm affairs. This includes agisting acres to nearby sheep farmers which involves a fair amount of sheep wrangling on David’s part as he grazes them around the property. At the moment, local conventional farmers need his paddocks which have good feed relative to the neighbour’s land due to the presence of summer growing perennial grasses that have been allowed to grow, building humus in the soil.
THE BIOMASS ENERGY DEBACLE
Dave keeps up with the latest in regen thinking, but his passion is for alternative energy, in particular farm sourced biomass that has the capacity to drive new regionalised industry development in the biofuels and bioenergy space. As we rode around in the ute attending to general farm matters I got an education in the comparative strength and weaknesses of the various renewable energy systems; in particular, the shortcomings of the ‘intermittent’ supply capacity of wind and solar energy versus the potential of biomass energy which is capable of meeting ‘base load’ energy demands.
David thinks big. He feels that the embodied energy bound in biomass could be harnessed to develop a network of regionalised desalination units that could manage encroaching salinity and provide essential water security.
David had a sad tale to tell of opportunity lost. In the early 1990’s he took up the position of regional manager for the Wickepin Oil Mallee Development cell, one of 6 project areas in the south west ag zone – eventually becoming part of an enthusiastic oil mallee community group that had a big vision for the project and the regions. Leading up to this there had been some key bits of research done by Alan Barton, a scientist at Murdoch university, who had identified eucalyptus oil as being a nature-based solvent capable of leading the fight against the chlorofluorocarbons that were destroying the ozone layer.
Oil mallees were considered to be the best eucalypts for the job as they were robust, relevant to the area and fitted nicely into the regions dryland farming landscapes. In the late 1980s a few key movers and shakers in the Dept of Ag and CALM had been getting their heads together on the back of Barton’s research and decided to form a partnership with landholders to get the Oil Mallee Industry underway. At the time the State was also keen to tackle salinity, so strategically replanting the Wheatbelt made common sense. To create a new land based industry that was climatically adaptive, low risk, low management and provided a diverse array of social enterprise outcomes for regional communities was the cherry on top of this particular cake.
So by the late 1990’s all of these influences came together and there was a persuasive case developed for the government to finance the construction of a pilot mallee biomass fuelled energy plant in Narrogin. This project was known as the Integrated Wood processing Plant (IWP), so called because it would also have the facility for handling cereal crop residue. Currently it is still the autumn practice of farmers across the wheat belt to burn their stubble in readiness for the new seasons cropping – an action that contributes to pumping more carbon in the air, and also, in this context represents a massive energy loss.
Colin Barnett, state energy minister at this time, signed the project on and construction commenced in early 2000’s in partnership with Western Power. Their need to meet a renewable energy target from a Federal government push helped drive their involvement. The project was a world first. It required gasifying mallee biomass to create energy, carbon and eucalyptus extraction. The process of constructing and then commissioning the plant met many obstacles - to be expected in a project that made use of every aspect of the trees, aimed to produce zero waste and had never been done before.
Over time, fickle politics from both parties nearly saw the project scuttled on a number of occasions. At one point David mentioned that after the Narrogin plant hit the $15million mark there was pressure from the bean counters to scuttle the project. The invested community bodies went into overdrive and pushed for completion, managing to talk the powers that be into continuing for the, by then, measly sum of $600,000.
That hurdle overcome, the IWP was commissioned in year 2006 and mallee energy was fed into the grid, a world first achievement. The local landholders did their bit to back the new complex by planting a further 5 million mallees for future feedstock.
But the winds of environmental politics were changing. Successive governments had come and gone, policy was moving away from carbon capture, leaning into wind and solar energy and the Narrogin project fell out of favour. After a year of trials and at an estimated spend of $27 million bucks the government pulled the pin. The local community was gutted. To add insult to injury the site was sold off by Synergy with unseemly haste for what is believed to be scrap metal value.
This was an incredibly poor outcome for a big public spend. A potential multi-billion-dollar industry in the bio-energy space for regional WA was trashed as was the dream of bringing jobs, people and resulting life back into a wheat belt town. Ironically, some farmers are now bulldozing and burning their mallees to get their paddocks back – a lose/lose situation for the natural and social environment.
Government mismanagement, poor leadership aside, the regions are still an opportunity waiting to happen. I saw evidence of this the very next day. Close to Temple Farm is Marribank Settlement. I knew it as Carrolup River Native Settlement from my art days, a place that had produced some influential landscape paintings from the 1940s done by young Aboriginals living under government care. I was eager to have a look.
THE CARROLUP SCHOOL
Marribank Settlement as it is known by Katanning locals, operated as part of the assimilation and child removal policy of early and mid 20th century Australia. Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and traditional lands and sent to government settlements. The conditions were harsh and the Aboriginal children were poorly treated, in what is now widely considered to be a prison-like environment.
In 1945 teachers Noel and Lily White arrived at the Carrolup School, introducing an art program to try and boost the spirits of the dispossessed children. Noel White took the children out on bushwalks and told them to draw what they saw. Using basic art supplies the Noongar children aged between nine and thirteen produced highly skilled, colourful landscapes and realistic depictions of traditional cultural activities from the south west. The scenes of hunting, corroborees and the environment illustrate some of the last remaining memories of traditional cultural activities in the south-west and made an important contribution to Noongar history and to Aboriginal art history..
A supporter eventually toured the work and made a bit of an international splash with the art in the 50’s…..this from info on the web. To go there now is to drive through a sad and derelict ghost town, a lot of empty buildings gradually falling into disrepair – there is, it seems, no heart for resurrection from the landlords - the Great Southern Aboriginal corporation. Possibly it represents an aspect of history that is simply too hard to deal with.
David, who delights in baking bread and pizzas is particularly mournful about a building that contains an old wood-fired bread oven. Once this would have pumped out the daily bread for the whole community of towards a 150 souls, now it sits in a building that is quietly losing its will to live. Whatever the story, it is now a whole village sitting in the middle of farmland about 30kms out of Katanning, quietly slipping away.
THE DE-PEOPLING OF THE REGIONS
Some of the surrounding farmlands, in private hands, could be said to be suffering a similar fate. David started to count the houses sitting abandoned on nearby farms – like his own farm, there are way more living spaces than there are people to occupy them. How can the transition be made from working farms, or farms that are working passively or are underutilised – where succession is not being taken up by the next generation? The people in charge now, those of David’s generation, are starting to run out of puff and there is still, as in the McFall’s situation, an older generation on the scene keen to see the farm continue as a working concern.
The problem becomes more acute when people are handing over land that has been managed with organic and regenerative principles– it is heartbreaking to think of someone coming in set on drawing down on all that natural capital under conventional chemical regimes with an eye for profit and none for the principles of return.
The farmers starting to look at retirement options do not necessarily want to leave the farm – they just want relief from the relentless labour and the chance to still be connected to land that they love. If family isn’t the answer, there has to be another way. The McFalls have looked at share-farming and David has connected to an organic farming group in the east whose mission is to put together people who want to farm but don’t have the wherewithal to buy their own land, with farms that have infrastructure and paddocks aplenty, awaiting action.
CROPPING AND SANDALWOOD NUTS
Meanwhile, the life of the farm kicks on. Farming is all about the timing. After a weekend away we came back to 15 mms in the rain gauge. This meant it was worth collecting and planting sandalwood seed while the ground retained moisture and more rains (theoretically) were on the way. These sandalwoods were planted by the family about 15years ago and were thriving in a big stand of Acacia acuminatas, sandalwoods favourite host tree, nicknamed jam for the sweet smell of the burning wood.
One tree in particular Dave declared the mother because of the exceptional number and size of the seeds, so I collected several hundred from the ground and started to spread them around. Later I headed into one of the many fenced off areas that dot the paddocks to dig them into areas around young jam saplings. Used to rangeland conditions where I don’t think I saw a young sandalwood in 2 years it was great to see them sprouting as youngsters all over the place.
WHAT WOULD A CONVENTIONAL FARMER BE DOING AT THE START OF THE RAINS?
While I dealt with sandalwood, David started what he called ‘tickling up’ the paddocks. At this point his techniques have to diverge from the chemical farmers who have several paths they can take. They might have already, pre rain, put down grass-killing herbicides on clean paddocks, chemicals known as ‘residuals’. These chemicals are highly volatile in water and are known frog killers. The good news is that the new generation residuals come in granule rather than spray form so the poison does not necessarily stray off the paddocks as quickly - though is still a ticking timebomb.
The other major way to go would be to wait for the first show of green in the paddocks and to use what’s known in ag circles as ‘the knockdowns’, contact sprays like glyphosate and paraquat that work to disrupt enzymes and have a capacity to lock up elements of the soil that would feed the plants, thereby starving them to death. There can be problems there as well due to weeds developing an immunity to the herbicides- known as ‘super weeds’. Nature has its way.
The crop goes in and depending on conditions, ripens unevenly. A pre-harvest process known as desiccation is the force ripening of plants by killing them with an application of glyphosates. This practice gained momentum on conventional farms around canola and some barley crops but is problematical. While it helps with the harvest timing it puts chemical directly into the food chain.
CBH and other grain handlers now harvest test for ‘residue’ chemicals on barley due for export – enlightened places like Europe and Asia don’t want these substances in their food. Some chemicals are banned and others have a maximum limit - there are grain shipments that have been rejected by the buyer because of the low gram residues detected – something that has the capacity to damage our standing as a clean green food producing nation.
At the end of a season there is a practice called spray or crop topping where the unwanted plant spring seed set is killed off by an application of chemicals. It is either that or setting animals into the paddocks to eat the weeds or chopping off the undesired heads by mechanical means, before they set seed. A truly slack practice is when farmers spray around grazing animals – if there is a chance you missed a load of poison in the grain, there is the backup choice awaiting you at the butcher shop.
THE UNSPOKEN POISONING
The toxicology of our food is an emerging issue - as is the protection of the ecosystem that hosts us all. Even if it is seems to be coming to public attention mainly in terms of ruining our export market!
The health of the farmer and his family working around chemicals season after season…. this is a subject that is hard to talk about. To me it is part of what in another context Peter Ralston calls, the ‘overlooked obvious’, there is huge reticence around the subject of environmental induced sicknesses associated with chemical farming – and the use of chemicals in general.
Over the years I have been told, anecdotally, of seasonal nosebleeds, asthmas, headaches, miscarriages – of a man who no longer talks to his neighbour because he is convinced his wife’s miscarriage was induced by spray drift from an aerial spraying event. Again, after a number of conversations, I was driven to the internet to look at studies showing increased incidences of Parkinson’s Disease in farmers and agricultural workers. Parkinson’s, long considered a disease with a genetic basis, now has studies that cite environmental factors as being part of the story.
I have spoken to a horticulturalist who feels in his heart that his son’s disease is a result of three generations of exposure to heavy chemicals: insecticides, herbicides, fungicides. In his view it is cumulative, three generations who have been exposed have reactions, maybe sicknesses, but he reckons that it is the fourth generation of children who are starting to exhibit serious illnesses usually put down to genetics and not seen in his family before now… But it is hard to know how to deal with gut feelings, and humans being humans, there is as much denial as there is a desire to face the issue across the average family group - because it strikes at the heart of economic survival.
It’s a big topic and its not just about agriculture – 50% of smog is now caused by common household products according to a recently released study on air quality from Los Angeles. But will we really be surprised –when, and I say ‘when’ not if - links are made between exposure to industrial chemicals and all manner of illnesses? It is emerging that glyphosates (Round Up) destroy human gut flora, now considered the powerhouse of human health. Surely we are expecting this kind of information to emerge? It’s coming, the silences will be smashed and the flood gates will open when vested interests can no longer contain the bad news.
I feel cowed by people’s reluctance to talk about this stuff– toxicity in food might affect me as a consumer, but it is not my livelihood at stake, and people tend to not want to elaborate on what they think…. People suspect, but they can’t necessarily prove causation…It’s feels like sexual abuse, a dirty secret we can’t talk about, it is too big, too explosive, and maybe it’s simply too shameful.
I feel protective of farmers, life is hard enough, without people talking about the potential damage they are doing to their own, their land and families’ health from the chemical treadmill they’re on. It is a lot to face in a climate, and I mean the natural as well as the economic climate, that is, in many instances making farmer’s lives untenable.
Meanwhile……….Back at the ranch it is time for David to do his paddock tickling. He starts by attaching the big cultivator onto the tractor and testing the hydraulics. One side of the 15-metre wide beast lifted effortlessly, the other side started to glide up before one of the oil bearing pipes sprung a leak and litres of hydraulic oil poured onto the ground. The joys of farming. It took a while to locate the angle grinder, sheer off the offending part, refit it and plug it back in again and pour more oil into the system. The pipe burst somewhere else.
David, a patient man, climbed down from the tractor , headed back to the shed and repeated the mending process, eventually he was forced to replace the whole line. At this point I took off to have lunch and start the sandalwood planting task I was assigned to. David’s patient and calm persistence reminded me of the two seasons I spent working with a bloke who helped me plant my 20 ha of spelt grain – the long days of work spilling into the evening, the constant repairs, the clever making-do and inventiveness needed to keep a tractor and its accessories lumbering around, in David’s case, about a 100has of paddocks.
I remember at that time thinking that agriculture sucked and the hunter-gatherer option looked like a great lifestyle choice.
At Temple Farm I played a back-up role: picking David up from distant paddocks late at night and sharing meals. It’s all good, the life of the farm moves with the new season.
By the time I left Temple Farm, David was feeling upbeat. The desirable follow-up rain hadn’t happened, but there was a good flush of green showing in response to the ‘tickle’ and he had hopes that the weather was mild enough and his soil organically rich and paddocks sheltered enough so his topsoil wouldn’t end up drifting onto the roads – something that started happening with his neighbour’s soil when a big wind rolled in[AR1] .
The gamble was set. The dice rolled. Bring on the rain.