Derek Palmer is part of a quiet revolution sweeping the farming community.
Derek Palmer is part of a quiet revolution sweeping the farming community.

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 or  subscribe to the regular efoodlink newsletter by emailing info@northernrivers

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 or by ringing Greg Reid on 6672 2770.

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