Yesterday I spent the day looking at grass!! This is a new country occupation for me. Before in the city there was grass (said in a short, crisp tone – dismissing this noun promptly). Now I am surrounded by grass (said with a suggestion of awe and wonder and never dismissed lightly).
I went to a Field Day at Danthonia which is large community of people living on ..mmmm…… I’m not sure of how much land but, according to this parliamentary summary of Danthonia, 4,300 hectares (I thought it was 5,500 but I could have remembered incorrectly and it could be acres not hectares. Why do we have 2 land measurements?? I get so confused.) http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/hansart.nsf/V3Key/LA20030625039
They are famous for the signs (big signs advertising things eg Inverell’s city limit sign) they create winning many international awards. http://www.danthonia.com.au/about-us.html.
But I went to see their grass and contours!! (Ha – 3 years ago I wouldn’t have DREAMED of going to a day like this!! How life changes!!)
Peter Andrews was the main guest speaker. Peter is famous for his book “Back From The Brink”. It’s been a while since I read the book but if you want a summary and how someone has applied it to small acreage, visit Liz’s great blog article:
(Ha – I’ve just learned to insert a URL!! Ta da!!! I just corrected the ones above too!)
The day kicked off with a presentation by the Danthonian organisers. WHAT an impressive job these people have done restoring the land. There were many “then (somewhere between 1999 when they started and 2006 when they said they REALLY started)” and “now (2013)”. They said that they really didn’t start making a difference until 2006 when they asked themselves and answered the question “What sort of land are we going to leave our children?”. This caused them to reassess how and why they would move forward in a certain direction. Basically it seemed they decided to leave their descendants a healthy property on which they could live sustainably.
The photos of the changes they have managed to encourage on their property by thoughtful consideration of their interventions has resulted in the basic functioning of the landscape improving dramatically. They have put most focus on water through carefully placed contours and revegetating the ridges so that the erosion will stop in the gullies and creeks. They have planted tens of thousands of trees. They have planted a mix of natives and exotics (mainly deciduous exotics with the reasoning being the leaves falling each year will always provided much needed mulch/organic matter). The natives were for the wildlife. The trees have been planted in corridors so that the native animals can move around the property and have food sources. This obviously included the birds – which they noted had increased in numbers and species present. (I wish I’d taken photos of their before and after photos to share with you but I was so mesmerised by the incredible changes). They harvest the hay in the gullies and flat areas then take it to near the top of the ridges to feed the cattle in winter – or use it in other ways to apply organic matter to areas lacking in ground cover or any type of potential microbiology “housing”.
They feel that they have now got to a point where the upward environmental lift of the property is multiplying. In the beginning the changes were small. Now changes seem to have a multiplier effect as the landscape becomes more resilient and healthy and its water carrying capacity increases.
Peter then presented. You quickly realise that Peter is ALL about water. Water, sunlight and plants – which in a way is what farming is all about. Peter says its so simple really. Converting free solar energy into money using plants and their environment. It’s just getting the production process right and judging from the degradation of the land around the world, lots of times we humans just ain’t got the processes right!!
Peter talked about the daily water cycle and later in the paddock showed us the effects of a small water course on the surrounding environment. Peter noted we need to focus on water for the plants (which are powered by the sun) as they become the cooling system of the farm. With adequate number of plants in the environment, water is attracted/produced. Peter said that when you get your feet wet with dew in the morning it shows that the water cycle is working. I’ll view my wet feet with greater appreciation now!!
One quote I liked from Peter was from Louis Bromfield (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Bromfield) who really was a pioneer in this area. Bromfield compared land to a chamois. When you pour water on a dry chamois, the water just runs off. When you pour water onto a chamois that is only a tiny bit wet, the chamois absorbs lots of water. I can see this where I live and in many erosion areas when it rains. The water hitting on a flat, dry, hard surface just runs off whereas where there is ground cover and organic matter (which has all those tiny spaces for water to creep into) the water tends to soak in.
The whole room was filled with comments relating to how we don’t have to invent anything new. Before we (humans) started trying to control/manage the land, the land was fertile and productive. Now we’re “managing” the land it’s dying. So everyone was keen to discuss how to deal with problems such as weeds (African Love Grass for example) in a holistic way and get to a more natural environment without using synthetic chemicals and petrochemical products.
Glenn Morris also presented his vision of the future. How we as Australians can decide the health of our nation – not the mining companies. Through keeping an open mind we can hear “new” ideas and believe that these new/different/ancient ideas which are resurfacing/obwservations will work and will make a positive difference to our land and our communities to take us into a healthier, sustainable future.
Glenn observed the old story isn’t working right now so we need to listen to the new story to understand how to look after the wider landscape (not just our own farm) so our individual farms can heal too. Glenn stated that farmers are healers, healers of the landscape so that the water holding capacity of the landscape increases and thereby the health (FF comment: It all revolves around water!!).
Glenn is from Fig Trees whose cool logo is “Linking consumers and healthy food to a healthy environment”. (http://figtreesorganicfarms.com.au/figtrees-billabong-inverell.html)
We had lunch with all the Danthonians – such friendly, welcoming people – then headed down to the paddocks for more insights (Or should that read “en sites”!!!!).
Johannes from Danthonia pointed out the features of the landscape which they had consciously impacted. Pointing out most notably the contours from the dams and across the hillsides which retain and distribute as much of the runoff water as possible. We had seen the results on the photos so it was exciting to see the actual “things” that had helped caused such a positive change. Both Johannes and Peter explained how to read the land to ensure these contours were in the right place. I have to admit I find this tricky and I’m not quite sure I’ve got it (it’s much tricker than seeing a gap in the city traffic!). I think it has something to do with that farmer’s 6th sense I was talking about. Maybe being exposed to this gets me to 5.100001 sense!!
Many more features were described revolving around retention of water on the landscape but without the landscape it’s impossible to impart what we saw (and I have to admit I didn’t actually “see” what everyone else did. I have such a long way to go). THAT is what is so good about Field Days. You get to see the landscape through someone else’s eyes – and for this city chick I definitely need new farm lenses on my eyes!
All the while there were kids in the background playing. In the dirt, with the bullrushes which were ripe for making snow out of, throwing rocks and sticks into the creek, rolling in the grass…… They were all having a great time. I wondered what their city counterparts would be doing while their mums and dads where at a presentation of how to increase the value of their investments?
And so ended our day of observing and interacting with the Danthonian landscape. VERY impressive Danthonia. Good on you. You made it look doable. Many farmers there are doing these things already. I realised we can all do these things with a little thought, setting our vision at improving the land as well as production and then making decisions to support our newly focused on vision.
And a final word from the shortest farmer there………