• Written by Yvette Frahn

Mallee Farmers WA Field Tour

It’s not often someone contacts us to offer a trip to the other side of the country to look at cool stuff. Matter of fact I can’t remember that happening before, but I sure hope it happens again, especially if it’s organised and run by MMLAP. A fully escorted trip and an interesting and enjoyable few days. All we had to do was come along and all the rest was sorted for us. Thank you!!

Gary and I joined farmers from the Mallee district on a Western Australia field trip organised by the Murray Mallee LAP. Although we didn’t know each other, the following days proved that as a group we got along incredibly well and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company and stories.

From Perth we headed out to Newdegate, to learn about the property of the Kelly family. The most striking thing you notice in this region as a Mallee farmer is that you’re not in Kansas anymore, and it is most strange to see how different the soils and the vegetation are. We are so used to the rich red sandy loam soils of the Mallee that I actually assumed the West Australian farming country was pretty similar. It’s not! The soil is white sand, much like beach sand, mixed with a small orange pebbly stone. It doesn’t look like it could hold water or nutrition, but the native trees are among the biggest in Australia and the endless dense native forests suggest the land has plenty to offer.

We visited the Kelly family to look at the different ways they approach sustainable farming, something we need to see as too often we have so called experts come into our world to tell us what we should be doing without ever having done it themselves. These guys are most certainly not like that. They’re well researched and they’ve funded their own experiments all the way, proof in my mind that what we were looking at is truly sustainable and therefore inspiring, ideas we can bring back to our region and modify for our land.

Rainfall on this property is around 18” and mostly in winter and on this land the Kellys are implementing an integrated biological cropping and stock enterprise. Cathie Kelly gave us a beautifully clear rundown on how they transitioned into biological farming. This change was instigated when their son Nick came onto the farm full time some 10 yrs ago, partly because it was the only way they could remain economically competitive and so stay in business, and also because, after investigating alternative systems,he was inspired to take this path by Amazing Carbon founder Christine Jones, Soil Foodweb founder Elaine Ingham and ecologist Allan Savory.

Their machinery is reasonably new, consisting of a spray plant and a direct drill air seeder as well as header. The air seeder had been set up as a parallelogram disk drill for no-till farming, using rubber press wheels which given the nature of the stony soil and the stubble, was quite aggressive on the rubber of the press wheels.

They showed us how their most innovative system is set up – a worm cast liquid used as fertilizer, having decided that synthetic fertilizers are not only excessively expensive, but don’t allow soil biota to develop. In their super shed is filled with woodchips and pulp mixed with a biota which is kept damp with overhead sprinklers to encourage biotic and worm activity. The matter is processed for 6 months before being loaded into a tank of water which is agitated for 4 hours before being drained off, filtered and sprayed out onto the paddocks just prior to seeding.

Their property, while being almost organic, was not particularly weedy and they were finding over the 10yrs they’ve been running this program that the unwanted weed competition was decreasing. No obnoxious weeds (eg. melon, caltrop, innocent weed) exist on the property or in the district. Livestock is managed using a cell grazing system with electric fences. Stock is shifted daily resulting in better quality intensive grazing without taxing the soil.

They plant summer crops of sunflower and millet onto grazed fallow land for weed control and to create healthier soil, without the expectation that it will produce a harvestable crop – this is generally followed by a winter crop. Becoming organic is not part of the plan.

Day 2 saw us on the road to the property of Geoff Woodall, who gave us an in-depth look at his Australian Sandalwood plantation. Geoff is considered the foremost expert on commercialization of Australian Sandalwood and decided some years ago to back up his research with a practical implementation of all his ideas. He sought the cheapest land in the best rainfall district he could locate and ended up with a pretty run down property near Arthur River.

The host species were planted via direct seeding 12 months before the sandalwood seeds were. They were planted in rows 4m apart with 2m spacing. Sandalwood seeds were primed by soaking 24hrs in water before being planted in rows both sides of the host plantings, at a spacing of 1m from host and 2m apart.

Harvesting of seed provided the bulk of the income in early years. The sandalwood itself is harvested when 2” diameter, and the bark is stripped to reveal the beautifully scented timber. The main market is in India probably because they really love the stuff and consumed all the existing timber without thinking to keep planting more.

We also gained an understanding of their parasitic behavior by looking at a host tree root. Sandalwoods bury the tip of a root into the root of the host, creating a nodule and then draw their needs from the sapwood. They send out new roots constantly in search of fresh young hosts as the connection over time will kill the host if no other trees are found.

Geoff is not one to stick to a single idea and his engineering skills are also formidable, designing and constructing a direct seeder. He is also experimenting with the commercial growing of native bush foods, trialing a tuber much like water chestnut (which we tried out at lunch) and a type of chilli.

Early the following morning we drove back to Perth airport and flew home with an exciting and fresh perspective on revegetation and farming from the viewpoint of some innovative WA families. The air of optimism is strong and infectious and we can see the potential to try out some of the ideas we saw being implemented during our tour.

Thanks to LAP, and both the entertaining Ro and the ever organised Rachel for planning this trip, as a group we believe there is so much we may be able to modify for this region, and look forward to giving them a go, and sharing our experiences with the community.

This project is Supported by the Murray Mallee Local Action Planning Association through funding from the Australian Government.


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