Soil - the next big thing in food
There is a farm-to-fork movement sweeping Australia at pace. But at its heart you’ll see growers and producers battling climate change, rising fuel costs, water shortages and more.
Add population growth and it’s no surprise to find experts now tipping that the nation may face food insecurity by 2050. Look a bit harder still and you will also discover a quiet revolution within the farming community. And it’s all to do with the soil in which our food is grown.
Meet Derek Palmer – a Clarence Valley small crops producer. Derek has taken a 50 acre forested block and turned it into an organic vegie growing business.
“Shallow, silty topsoil overlaying a heavy clay sub-soil is not a promising foundation for small crops, but that’s what we had”, says Derek.
“We purchased the property about 10 years ago and understood the challenges ahead (well mostly) – in the first year of production our return was less than 1kg per plant. That’s not good.
“Four years on we are averaging 5kg return per plant and there’s capacity to increase that result. This has only been possible with an investment in organic soil improvement”, says Derek.
On the farm today open woodland pastures surround the central cropping area and 1,000 olive trees are in a new orchard.
Dams in each paddock (six in total) are linked to back up the main irrigation supply.
Productivity in the pastures has been boosted by the use of a home-made spike aerator so that rain from spring storms is absorbed by the soil instead of being shed as runoff.
The grazing stock on the property pro vides manure which is supplemented by poultry litter from a mobile shed and castings from a worm farm. The manure is blended with biochar that Derek makes from woodland waste in a modified 200 litre drum.
“I decided to make my own fertiliser after doing the sums and realising that purchasing off the shelf was just too expensive and didn’t really do half the job that my own stuff can”, says Derek.
Ten per cent of the farm is managed as a wildlife refuge and is planted with natives to the local area to encourage a healthy wildlife population.
Derek also rotates cucurbits with a green manure crop (for example - Indian mustard) followed by Russian garlic. And after a bad experience with storm erosion he installed grassed cross drains in the beds to reduce erosion and wash.
“For me, all of this underscores a really important point - small farms can be sustainable and we farmers can still make a reasonable living if we are smart and get our farms functioning well – organics has been my solution and I’ve proven it to work”.
Derek is one of the first producers to complete a Sustainable Farm Management Plan.
“I decided to put up my hand because I really needed an expert opinion on what I was doing and to check that I’m headed in the right direction. The experience has been an eye opener and given me great encouragement to keep going”, says Derek.
This opportunity is funded by Northern Rivers Food Links and delivered by project partner the NSW Department of Industry and Investment.
“Instead of trying daily to fix holes in a leaky bucket - Northern Rivers farmers can get help to integrate their farm systems, reduce costs, head off developing problems and mitigate against seasonal variations”, says Greg Reid, a project officer with the NSW Department of Industry and Investment.
“Soils are very often the weak point. Relatively small management changes combined with new forecasting tools can make a big difference over time to food security”, Greg says.
The Department has received funding from the Northern Rivers Food Links project to deliver detailed on farm planning by experienced staff from their primary industries section. There are a total of twenty farmer packages on offer. Farmers based in the northern rivers, in any location, with a farm of any size can apply. On a consultancy basis the service would cost $2000 per farm.
With funding from Northern Rivers Food Links the service will be available to successful farmers for just $100 (that’s less than cost of a good pair of boots).
The region needs a resilient and secure food network and Northern Rivers Food Links sees a need to crank up support avail able to growers and at the same time increase knowledge and learning about new practices.
“There are very few things more important than helping our food producers remain viable and achieve long term sustain ability. The farming community needs support now to stay in the game for the long haul,” says Greg, who will be a keynote speaker at next month’s Northern Rivers Sustainable Agriculture Forums across the region.
The Forums, hosted by Northern Rivers Food Links, will showcase successful, innovative and sustainable food production practices in a changing climate.
The forums will be held on Tuesday, May 3 and Wednesday, May 4 in Murwillumbah, Ballina, Casino and Maclean.
This is an opportunity to share knowledge with industry experts and see on-farm showcase models for more sustain able food production.
Northern Rivers Food Links, a Northern Rivers Council cooperative initiative is all about addressing local food production, distribution and consumption in the Region and has given a massive boost to community sustainability with projects being deli vered during 2010 and 2011 to secure a more sustainable food future.
More information on the Northern Rivers Food Links project, forums and funded projects can be found on the Project website www.northernriversfoodlinks.com.au or subscribe to the regular efoodlink newsletter by emailing info@northernrivers foodlinks.com.au
To be considered for a detailed farm consultancy, farmers should lodge an expression of interest. Forms are available from the Food Links website www.northern riversfoodlinks.com.au or by ringing Greg Reid on 6672 2770.