Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Essay - Farming, green house gases and the importance of practical experiments- Part One

This short essay was triggered by a post from John Quiggin,The race for a low carbon economy: A form guide. I found John's list a useful check list. However, one thing that he said triggered the need to do some brief research. John wrote:

Offsets: There are a bunch of these, but reforestation is the big one, probably big enough to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations by 50-60 ppm over a century or so.

As it happened, I have been conscious of snippets of debate suggesting that reforestation is not necessarily the best way to go, that other forms of agriculture might better capture carbon by storing it in the soil, in so doing improving the soil. John's focus on reforestation led me to go and investigate. I found a very interesting story. However, some personal stuff first to set a context.

I am a townie. This was the term used to describe a person from the town in the area in which I grew up. However, I also spent a lot of time on properties, so I was close to country in a way that is less common today.Ron Vickers Glenroy 1950s

The photo on the right from the 1950s from cousin Jamie's collection shows Uncle Ron butchering a sheep for house meat. Ignore that for the moment, and look at the surrounding country.

Look, first, at the grass. This is tussocky native grass. Each year Ron would burn the grass to encourage new growth. This was great fun for us as kids.

Now look at the trees in the background. Notice the dead trees. Tree cover is being reduced to increase carrying capacity.

The next photo, again from cousin Jamie's collection, taken in 1948 shows men picking apples in the orchard on Glenroy. My first job for which I was paid in decimal currency terms $1 per hour was thinning fruit in this orchard. WOrchard, Glenroy, 1948e did this to allow the remaining fruit to grow to proper size.

At the time Ron married Aunt Kay, Glenroy carried one sheep per acre. Wool from the 1,200 sheep provided Mr Vickers Senior with his living, while Kay and Ron gained their income from the 10 acre apple orchard.

Time passes. Wool prices are down. Experimentation by New England graziers has shown that the combination of improved pastures with aerial top-dressing will allow many more sheep to be carried. The tussocks are replaced with new grasses.

The New England is prone to severe hail storms (here and here, for example). Given hail losses, Apple prices are too low to provide a reliable living even with the orchard doubled in size. Twenty acres of fruit trees are grubbed into the ground.

Instead of 1,200 sheep, Glenroy now carries 3,500 sheep plus some cattle. This is sufficient to provide a living.

More time passes. Suddenly gum trees across New England are hit by die-back. Gum trees start to die in tens of thousands. The causes are complex, but link to a variety of interactions created by changing farming practices.

At one level, this may sound like a story of land despoiled. This would, I think, be the modern interpretation and at one level it may be true. But it's far more than that.

Country people love their land. They also have to make a living. Productivity improvements mean that an ever reducing number of country people actually produce more, feeding and clothing millions. Australian people are used to plentiful cheap food, but it comes at a price.

Within the constant tensions created by the need to increase productivity on one side, build and preserve the land on the other, the experiments and actions necessary to really maintain the environment have come not from Government nor from the environmental movement (although this has played a part), but from the actions over time of thousands of individual farmers. Conversely, some of the worst outcomes have arguably come from the combination of Government with urban environmentalists.

Uncle Ron was an innovative farmer, constantly experimenting to find new ways of doing things. The remaining gum trees on Glenroy started to die after he had retired, but he took it very personally. On every visit home we talked die-back. He worked out the causes long before the scientists simply because he knew the country and asked questions.

In responding to John's post, I approached the issue of carbon farming from an environmental perspective, the best way of reducing green house gasses. A slice, if you like. What I found was an on-ground environmental revolution based on farmer experimentation that is addressing in an inter-linked way soil fertility, salinity, erosion and green-house gas reduction. It is also a revolution that has had to struggle against accepted science, best practice and the universal regulations and rules based on both.

The following map is not going to reproduce well in this format. It is no more than a contour map of a property in Western Australia that is part of the revolution.

NSFmtannecunderdin-contour2m The remarkable story of Peter Andrews has been well covered on Australian Story. You will find the transcripts of the most recent programs here and here.

In simple terms, Peter has attempted to address the problem of land degradation through what he has called natural sequence farming, the restoration of natural rhythms to the Australian landscape. This is not the lock it up in national parks approach. Rather, it addresses the question of how to manage broad acre land used in agriculture in a way that will improve and enhance it.

When I first learned about Peter's work, I found it intuitively plausible. It fitted with the little I knew of the country, as well as the New England focused reading I had done on the history of land improvement. It just felt right. Yet because Peter's thinking in some ways went against conventional scientific nostrums and also to some degree against regulations based on that science, he had to struggle. This was a battle. The only way to challenge the apparently proven is to demonstrate that the unproven will in fact work, and that's hard and takes time.

When I started to investigate carbon farming for this essay I had not connected it with Peter. Yet reading the on-line material quickly brought me to him because his approaches do increase carbon content in the soils.

I also found that he and others had founded a movement, Natural Sequence Farming,to propagate his ideas. In turn, this brought me to the story of Ian James, a grains farmer in Western Australia.

On 17 July 2007 on the NSF forum he wrote:

I am unqualified, I have only read Peters book and matched his writings with my own observations. At first I wanted to throw the book in the bin and go and do something useful, but by the time I was two thirds through the book I was a convert.

I had started to compare what Peter was saying with what I could see on my own farm. It all started to make sense.

Now I want to get started, I want to build my ponds. My farm and I are ready.

Now I need practical information. I need advice. I need knowledge. I need help. I don't want to do this wrong. Where do I start? I have machinery and I have time and I have a blank canvas upon which to work.

Over the next years Ian's entries trace his experience in applying Peter's approach. They make a quite fascinating on-line diary not just of the farm experiments, but also of Ian's progressive involvement in the NSF revolution. The contour map above is the latest stage in Ian's evolution, the progressive application of the approach to the whole property.

One thing that I found especially interesting is that Ian's experiments appear to turn conventional wisdom on its head. I stand to be corrected here because of my lack of knowledge.

Soil and water salinity are major national problems. The conventional wisdom appears to be that this is due in part to higher water tables caused by tree clearing and that the best way of getting rid of it is by the combination of reforestation with deep drainage.

Ian's results throw some doubt on this approach. The establishment of ponds on the deeply saline creek in his property, effectively the ponding of salt water, along with other vegetative steps appears to have reduced salt. The ponds themselves have moved progressively towards potable water. The answer appears to lie in the creation of what is effectively a fresh water bubble on top of the saline. The salt is still there as it always has been, but plants and animals can now access the fresh.

I am out of time for today with this post only sixty per cent written. I am going to post now and will continue the story tomorrow.

Second post in this series Sunday Essay - Farming, green house gases and the importance of practical experiments- Part Two.

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