Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday essay - dust storms, environmental change and the romance of agriculture

Jenny Guy dust storm

Dust storm: Jenny Guy, exercisers, Coogee Beech, 6am.

I devoted my last two Sunday essays to an exploration of new farming techniques (part one here). I had no idea then that Sydney was about to be hit by a dust storm that would rather dramatically illustrate the importance of the things that I was talking about.

This dust storm began in the deserts around Lake Eyre in South Australia. As it travelled east at speed, it picked up more dirt. By the time it arrived in Sydney in the early morning it had become a spectacular sight indeed in the early morning light.

This was not Australia's first dust storm, nor will it be the last. The red deserts of the centre with their very sparse or non-existent ground cover will always breed them. However, there are things that we can and indeed have been doing to ameliorate their effects.

I thought that in this Sunday Essay I might talk a little about this, also putting it in a historical context.

When my father arrived in Armidale early in 1938 from green New Zealand he almost left at once. New England was in drought. It was hot. There were very few trees. Worst of all, the wind from the west carried a constant stream of dust from the dry and now eroding paddocks of the western slopes and plains that clogged the air and left a constant gritty residue.

These problems were not unique to Australia. While now largely forgotten in this country, the 1930s US dust bowl was, perhaps, the most famous environmental disaster of the first half of the twentieth century, plunging hundreds of thousands into abject poverty.

Three things combined to make the US dust bowl an environmErosion, US dust bowlental and personal disaster.

The first was bad farming techniques that left the land bare and created wind and water erosion.

This photo from Alabama shows the bare land with what we in Australia call gully erosion. In an Australian context, some of these gullies were so deep that their banks towered over even a very tall man.

The second thing was drought. It just stopped raining. Now the bare land was exposed to the winds that ripped the soil away into huge clouds of dust.

The third thing was the depression. The collapse in agricultural prices meant that even those farmers who could produce a crop received very little for it.

The combination created an abject poverty that I, as an Australian reading about it many years later, could barely understand. The caption Destitute family, US dust bowlto this photo reads:

Destitute farm family of Elzie Rathburn, 18 miles from Pierre, South Dakota. They are now on relief with all resources exhausted after fifteen years on their 160-acre farm fighting constantly the effects of drought, grasshoppers, and dust storms.

For a number of reasons, Australia did not experience disaster on this scale. However, the warning signs were clear.

Australia did respond. I have not attempted to trace the full history of this response, but instead want to give a purely personal perspective.

  One part of the response lay in academic and scientific research. Australia needed to maintain its rural exports, erosion and soil degradation was a problem that needed to be addressed. This flowed through into research efforts.

A second part of the response lay in farm extension. Farmers and graziers needed to be given the knowledge to tackle the problem, the incentive to do something about it,

A third part lay with the farmers themselves. It was the agricultural leaders who drove the redemption process.

I first became really aware of all this at primary school. Growing up, I was aware of erosion simply because we spent a lot of time in the country. I also listened to the discussion around me. But it was a novel written for kids (and perhaps also their parents) that first excited me.

I no longer remember either the author or title, just the story.

It was a simple enough story.

A farmer was wrestling with a severely degraded property. There was serious gully erosion, the top soil was blowing away, soil moisture had dropped, crops were failing, he was going broke.

An agricultural extension worker persuaded him to try a new approach. The erosion gullies were dammed. He contour ploughed and banked the property; contour ploughing simply means ploughing with the lie of the land so that water does not rush down the furrows; contour banking is building banks following the contours so that water coming down slopes is captured.

The book starts with disaster and then traces the re-growth. I was entranced, not just with the success but also with the way that the kids who were my age started playing and swimming in the ponds and dams created. This was something I could understand.

It was only later when I came to research grandfather Drummond's life that I realised what I must have been listening to in the background.This was a world of farmers who cared for their land. This was a world where farmers and graziers wrote letters to each other about new techniques. This was a world where academics such as Sydney University's Macdonald Holmes who believed devoutly in contour ploughing combined with New England graziers in large scale trials.

I knew none of this. I just listened.

The significance of the new farming techniques I talked about is that they mark, I think, the next stage in a process that began some time ago.

Forget the greens who want to lock the world up in national parks, creating some form of stasis linking back to a perceived past world that never in fact existed. Forget the dry world of modern public policy with its classification of things into grossly simplified key performance indicators. Forget the world of user pays in which every single activity must be costed and charged to those who directly benefit, ignoring unknown and unseen benefits.

Focus instead on the romance, the excitement, of people doing doing new things in the face of an increasingly rigid official system.

Keeping things very simple, Peter Andrew wants to add moisture back to Australian soils. Christine Jones wants to add back carbon to Australian soils. If successful, the result will be an Australia that can still feed many millions while reducing green house gasses.

I think that this is kind of important, far more important than renewable energy targets as such. These targets are important, but they are mechanistic. They belong to the modern, pull the lever, world.

I really would like to see modern Australia reengage with, not reject, its rural past. Oh, and by the way, we would have less dust storms.              

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