Current affairs

Pending collapse of WA’s breadbasket?

We recently went to WA to see Tom’s family. Tom hasn’t lived in WA for 10 years now, and he was shocked by the severe degradation seen driving South from Perth.

Bare Paddock in WA, with some rocks and Pademelons visible

There was evidence of overgrazing (mainly sheep in that area) and excessive chemical use. The overgrazing has compacted the earth, there is no organic material left and when it rains the ground cannot absorb any water. There were some puddles in places on the side of the road, there seemed to have been a reasonable amount of precipitation over the summer. The average rainfall in that area is 500mm per year. A lot of erosion was visible, there are now bigger culverts than 10 years ago, so there must be more runoff which means more topsoil loss. There is evidence of salinity with trees dying in the lower levels.

The Rake and Burn method used on a paddock in WA

To stop tillage machinery blocking up, many farmers still work with the raking and burning method. They rake all organic material up into piles and then burn it, thereby destroying the little organic material they have left on the land. This method has been used for a long time in broad acre farming in this area, and it is hard for these farmers to think of another way.  So on top of overgrazing and excessive chemical use, organic material is burnt. There is no organic material on these paddocks to slow the water down when it rains, nothing to prevent severe erosion. Tom recalled that when he did Biodynamic farming, his stubble rotted very quickly, but on neighbouring chemical farms the stubble would not rot at all. All the bacteria there would be dead or wouldn’t be silly enough to eat all that sprayed stubble (only humans are stupid enough to eat de-natured food…), so they would burn the stubble.

Years ago, when farmers first moved into the area, farmers had to totally clear the land they bought. This was demanded from the government, possibly to ensure maximum crop returns.  As the years go on, we see bigger and bigger farms (increased land prices make small farmers sell to bigger ones), with bigger and bigger debt to pay for all their heavy machinery, fertilisers and chemicals they need to use in the process of broad acre farming. They need bigger and bigger (monoculture) crops to pay their debts and in the process use more and more chemicals and fertilisers. Very little thought is being given to soil health, much to the detriment of their land. This area used to be only sheep and hay, now it is being used for grain crops as well; the land is being incredibly overtaxed.

A Paddock full of Pademelon and Pigmelon

We saw paddocks that were infested with Pademelon and Pigmelon, highly resistant weeds that are not eaten by anything. Nature is doing a great job trying to put some ground cover down. The weeds seem to have become spray resistant, since we saw evidence of spraying in the areas where the weeds grew.

Pigmelon (left) and Pademelon (right)

When Europeans (this includes the English by the way…) came to Australia, they thought they would be able to farm exactly the same here as in Europe. England and Northern Europe is temperate, with only a very short growing season and highly fertile soil. That area of Western Australia is semi-arid and never had any hard hoofed animals in great hordes travelling over the land. In semi-arid areas in the Northern Hemisphere, people would be nomadic and herd their small hard hoofed animals continually in different areas to find enough food and preserve the land for future use. No agriculture was done in those area, apart from some small scale polyculture.

In the 10 years that Tom has been away from WA, areas of land have severely degraded. That particular area of WA is called WA’s breadbasket. The question is how much longer will it be? Will there be a total collapse?

On the upside, we did see some evidence of efforts being made. There were small attempts made at planting trees in intervals to manage salinity. Sadly, there does not seem to be any follow up. The trees seem to have been planted 10 – 20 years ago, and there is no diversity in the trees, only Mallee trees were growing. Trees do not create any dollars for the farmers, so not much effort has been put into it.

We did see a few Wittaker interceptor banks, to manage salinity. It needed a bit more planting out, but the start is there. The Wittaker Interceptor bank works mainly for properties without sheep, since sheep destroy the vegetation on the banks.

Wittaker Interceptor Bank, not planted out

We also saw re-vegetation done on contour, which will create better paddocks. But is it all too little too late?

Diverse vegetation on Contour

We were shocked at the state of the land whilst we went through this area. The solutions are there, it is just a matter of getting people to listen to them. And it is hard for farmers that have farmed in a certain way for generations, ever increasing the chemical and fertiliser use, to change their ways overnight. All we can hope for is that governments and farmers see the light soon, and farmers start looking after their soil. Otherwise what was once a breadbasket, will just be a dustbowl.

©2012 Permaculture Research Institute Sunshine Coast – Soil collapse in WA, erosion and mismanagement.

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