HeenanDoherty Charter

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Off the Contour #13 - 'Addressing the Needs of the Outer Zones'

Jervoise Station: an extensive family taking control of their destiny in an extensive landscape.

Most people’s application of Permaculture is to urban and smaller rural holdings. Imagine you have a really big holding, with tens of thousands of hectares in outback Queensland, Australia, how then would you apply Permaculture to it, and is it actually what the co-originators had in mind when developing the concept? The Johnsson family, own ‘Jervoise Station’, near Greenvale, Gugu Budhan country, 4 hours drive inland of Townsville in Queensland’s far north and asked that very question when actually they were already part way there.

‘Jervoise’ is in a beautiful part of the world, with its big skies stretching across some 26.000ha (64.220ac) right on top of Australia’s Great Dividing Range, draining via the mighty Burdekin River to the Great Barrier Reef. Go over the western boundary and between November and March the monsoonal, regularly cyclonic rains flood the Gilbert River into the Gulf of Carpentaria. Smack bang in the ‘Dry Tropics’ the rainfall at Jervoise ranges from 250mm in drought years right up to 2000mm + in bigger ‘wets’. Being between 500-700m above sea level the dry winter months (June-August) experience lovely clear days of 20-25°C, often plummeting to minus zero overnight. Summer is a different story with highly humid days and temperatures regularly exceeding 40°C, an annual picture making for a challenging growing and living environment.

Most people in these parts are involved in two industries: mining or beef. We often call Australia the ‘world’s mine’ and in both cases these industries well deserve that moniker. Australia’s current ‘prosperity’ and supposed ‘shielding’ from the global financial crisis are in large part due to these industries, especially the former. Nearly every family in this region has a son or daughter who has left to seek the often very highly paid employment (AUD$80-150.000+/year) in the mining industry, particularly coal extraction with Queensland having some of the largest reserves in the world. Many are now working in the development of Coal Seam Gas projects, an industry that promises to undo many of the these families livelihoods’ and environments’ altogether, for immense short term gain. Indeed Kerry and Greg Johnsson are not immune to this, with 2 of their 5 grown up children working from time to time over the years in the mining industry, such are the pressures to make ends meet for their own young families.

The Johnsson’s are a very different family in many ways, bucking many trends by having a very integrated, multi-generational family operated farm, where the current 3 generations who occupy Jervoise having a deep love for their property, matched with an infectious enthusiasm to have it succeed as a enterprise. Beef is their main business and in these often well-wooded rangelands, the raising of these beasts is very extensive indeed, Jervoise being one of the smaller stations in the district. Like so many people in agriculture, to survive the often appalling terms of trade along with the great ‘tyranny of distance’, the Johnsson’s have developed a high degree of resilience in their family that is now being directed to their landscape.

A few years back the Johnsson’s bought a small abattoir in the coastal town of Tully some 3 hours east of Jervoise, with the express purpose of killing and processing some of their beeves which they would then also market within the region. Jervoise has been certified organic for a number of years and so this seemed a logical step to the family to increase their terms of trade by becoming ‘price makers’ not ‘price receivers’. Matriarch Kerry and youngest daughter Christine manage this plant, both becoming qualified meat inspectors and employ local slaughtermen and staff to ‘break down’ the carcasses into various cuts, including making a range of fresh ‘gourmet’ sausages which have become their signature item. Patriarch Greg drives his big Nissan ute affixed with a refrigerated cooler the 4 hour stretch between Townsville and Cairns doing home deliveries and local markets in these cities with Tully being about half way between the two. Their 4-6 hour, 400-700km ‘foodshed’ is populated with numerous smaller towns and villages, many Aboriginal, with a total population exceeding 300.000 people giving them a viable market area from which to make a living. That said the volume and percentage of Jervoise livestock that goes through their own facility is relatively low reducing the full value that they currently get per beast. As with most things this family does they are not resting on their laurels and that is where next we head with this story.

In March of 2011, Kym Kruse of Free Range Permaculture, organised and led a 3 day professional development consultancy of Jervoise headed by myself, in order to increase the capacity both for himself and a team of government funded (and sanctioned) Natural Resource Management (NRM) organisation staff to understand the applications of Permaculture Design to extensive landscapes. The visit to Jervoise was preceded by most (senior) members of the Johnsson family attending the 4 RegenAG workshops of the previous year that Kym and his wife Georgie had successfully convened in the far-north. These workshops had as separate topics Holistic Management (Decision Making & Grazing Management), BioFertile Farms (Biofertilisers & Compost Teas), Keyline Farming (Land Planning, Water & Soil Development) and Local Farms & Community (Family Farming and Localised Marketing), the latter delivered by ‘the world’s best farmer’ Joel Salatin.

The 4 hour often steep drive up from Townsville to has you turn right at the small township of Greenvale heading north for about 40 minutes along a dirt track until you finally hit a flimsy old battered sign with ‘Jervoise’ on it. Down the relatively short 1km driveway you arrive at a cluster of 5-6 houses all huddled around a big open shed with a concrete floor and a whole lot of doors opening to Aluminium ‘dongas’ or portable accommodation oh so familiar to people living temporarily in these parts. Straight away we hear and see lots of kids wandering and chasing each other around, mostly barefoot on the relatively extensive and well-manicured Kikuyu (Pennisetum sp.) lawns that are often the only green areas in these often barren landscapes. Here the design team immediately gets out its maps and laptops and middle son Paul joins us to begin the job of applying Permaculture to Jervoise.

My first gaze over this large A1 size contoured aerial photo has me amazed at the resolution of the satellite imagery and in particular of the maze of 3m contour lines. It has been an immense frustration of mine over the years that despite the military having access to very high quality mapping and map technology with the purpose of ‘national security’ and warfare, that the true national security of stopping the destruction of wide expanses of agricultural land is beset with crappy highly pixellated imagery and 20-50m contour maps: hardly good tools for a job so important. Deep Sigh!! So looking at this map I can see clearly the pattern of the landscape: the western boundary is a main ridge from which a series of primary valleys flow eastwards toward the eastern boundary. The homestead envelope is in the north-eastern corner of the property close to the misnomer ‘Dry Creek’.

Casting my eyes over the map, immediately the Permaculture Zone’s concept comes to mind and I suggest that in reality we are looking to apply this concept onto a much broader scale than what it typically applied. In this case the homestead envelope becoming Zone 1: the hub of great levels of activity from which everything emanates; Zone 2 being the 20 odd hectares around the homestead with its workshops, old orchards, machinery and stock yards; Zone 3 being the immediate area outside of this where its clear some more intensive grazing and perhaps classic Keyline-inspired systems could be developed; Zone 4 being the remainder of the property with its open grassy woodlands, more open rangelands and but relatively distant open cropping country; Zone 5 being the Dry River riparian areas, the various rocky escarpments and few areas on the property not suited to grazing.

This approach resonates with all and now we go in a bit closer with our design: think of David Holmgren’s principle of ‘Design from Patterns to Details’. I quickly see that for a Keyline Designer like myself that this property is a ‘wet’ dream with Keypoints dotted across the entire landscape and by casting my eye over the horizon and rounded foothills in between I know I have a well watered, relatively humid landscape where the potential for high levels of development are very great indeed. Indeed when I am channelling P.A. Yeomans’ somewhat grandiloquent visions of developing country, as is indeed possible, I temper myself with the realisation that my prevailing view is of reducing man’s impact and not do all these things just because they are possible. So I come back to the Zones and ask ‘where are cattle currently finished?’ Paul and Greg tell us that a small portion of steers and heifers go straight to their abattoir, older animals also heading there to become mostly mince and sausages, with the bulk of the beeves heading off in open trucks a few hours south to be finished on grain ahead of slaughter, processing and anonymous distribution.

So for now we decide that we’ll concentrate on the ‘Zone 3’ Keyline development of two ‘very long’ paddocks of 236ha, which are perfectly suited to Keyline development. ‘Very Long’ paddocks as it is over 2km from the main ridge to the creek with a 500m interval between primary valleys. I remotely designed this system and emailed the GPS coordinates to the NRM surveyor, Trevor Parker, who set out the first 72 Megalitre (1ML = 1 million litres) dam in this system. This dam with its 600m long catchment channel falling at 1:400 will irrigate some 30ha through its 300mm Ø cement lined steel lockpipe. Work has already started on this with the family using its own equipment and family labour: a handy residue of mining experience! Another similar sized dam will be completed next year. This system will enable the Johnssons to grass finish their beeves at any time of the year.

According to Keyline principles the area below the catchment and irrigation channels will be established to a contour strip forest, but not just to any tree system. Rather it will be planted to Pongamia sp. Which is known locally as the ‘Diesel Tree’: a endemised legume which like Jatropha curcis can have the oil expelled mechanically but unlike Jatropha the seed cake is not poisonous to stock. The family hopes to replace all of their fossil diesel with that sourced from Pongamia within the next 5-10 years and this Zone 3 Keyline system is perfectly placed to do so.

There are literally hundreds of millions of hectares of land like this across northern Australia (and every inhabited continent) are currently being overgrazed with laissez faire ‘management’ of beef cattle that would take strong note of what will happen at Jervoise over the coming years. Applying Permaculture Design ethics and principles to these massive rangeland landscapes is as appropriate as it is on smaller urban and lifestyle property’s.

‘Accelerating Ecological Succession and Evolution’ by increasing stock density (not numbers!) and getting more ground cover and perennial grass establishment. ‘Use of Biodiversity’ by using frequently moved, high density livestock to break soil surface capping, increase grass trampling (instant soil cover) and increase water and mineral cycling. ‘Applying Limits to Population and Consumption’ by not building the massive dam and instead building size and budget responsible structures. You may not like beef but it cannot be denied that when you remove these modern day Diprotodons under good Holistic Management biodiversity does suffer. These are landscapes that have been managed with livestock and humans for millennia not just sustainably but regeneratively.

Off the Contour #13 - 'The Dalpura Forestry System'

Back in the early-mid 1990’s our primary means of marketing was attending the various alternative farming field days and fairs across south-eastern Australia. These days by virtue of the foundation of those efforts we are fortunate that we don’t need to go to that kind of thing to get new clients, with word of mouth being main means of gaining the attraction of all manner of folks who kindly support us around the world. Of course some of these field days had me standing around for hours on end, with people filing by I am sure thinking ‘what the heck is this guy trying to sell? Permaculture Farm Design & Development, yeah right like I need that!’... So it was in Geelong, the bayside city where we found ourselves about to pack up after a weekend of virtually no inquiries when up walked the softly spoken George Howson.

Soon after this George invited us to consult on his newly acquired 50ha (140ac) property ‘Dalpura’ just 10-15 km inland from the famous surf beaches of Bells Beach, Jan Juc and Torquay in Victoria, Australia. From the outset it was clear George’s vision was one beyond his own lifetime, though we didn’t anticipate just how much would be achieved whilst we were both still above ground!

Dalpura lies on shallow (0.5-1m), poorly drained, laterised, infertile Tertiary sediments, better suited to gravel production than to agriculture. This is one area that, truth be told, should never have been cleared. Located at the western, droughty end of the otherwise humid Otways forests, the mildly undulating Dalpura sees many rain-filled skies uplift and bisect, leaving it with an average rainfall (mostly winter) of around 550mm (20”). Despite this, the year-round coastal influence with its heavy dews and sea mists, which whilst not bothering the rain guage, do make this property moderately humid.

Prolonged rest (like 2 years or more) from grazing results in a succession back to forest which starts with Bracken (Pseridium spp.) and then spiky Acacia’s (A. paradoxa & A. verticillata) and Tea Trees (Leptospermum spp.) followed with various Eucalyptus (eg. E. obliqua, E. nitida) and the longer lived Acacia mearnsii, the famed ‘Morishma’ of Fukuoka san. Summers are long and temperatures reach the low 40’s though in the main are in the low to mid 30’s and winters are wind swept and rather bleak with about 20 light frosts a year and temperatures ranging from around zero to days of 10-15 degrees centigrade.

At this stage of our journey I was in partnership with Ben Boxshall, a bright young Forest Scientist, relatively fresh out of his Melbourne University degree who had (and still does!) a keen interest in more regenerative forestry systems. Ben and I conducted the first assessments of the property in 1996 and completed our design and ‘Environmental Management Plan’. This plan divided the property up into two distinct zones: the back half to be developed as a mixed species high quality timber plantation and the front half as a wide spaced ‘silvopastoral’ system with a wide variety of production tree crops (pod, fruit & forage) integrated with diverse pastures.

Together we hired a couple of Ben’s alumni who we had set up in a business called ‘Silviculture Victoria’. Brett Davis and Neil Meadows, who remain friends to this day, were charged with establishing the first forestry systems. Unfortunately due to a lack of communication and our collective lack of experience, they chose to use a bulldozer to clear the emerging bracken, acacia’s and tea trees, placing it into contoured windrows every 150m or so across the slope removing the very shallow topsoil along with it. Silviculture Victoria lasted for about 8 months before falling foul to too little experience and too many jobs with indifferent cash flow being the final straw.

The job was to be planted the previous spring and now with Ben off working for the government and with our partnership now over this project was not looking too rosy. So in April of 1998, with 22, 000 trees to plant (about 20 different species) I took over the final ground preparations and then the planting, both of which were not conducted at our preferred time of year. I assembled a team of about 10 people, and we set up camp and got to work planting this wild assembly of species, selecting their placement according to aspect, ‘partnering’ throughout nitrogen-fixers with non-nitrogen-fixers and slow with fast. I do reminisce fondly of our times back in the 90’s when were planting hundreds of thousands of trees per year and the strong friendships we made as a result as a sideshow to the essential activity.

Come forward some 2 years and following some pruning of this planting we decided to plant some more of the plan. The original 1998 planting was going very well despite the poor start and only encouraged George and I to keep the planting program going. We attributed the success of this planting to the Keyline pattern plowing and the orientation of the rows that are part of this process. That is that we plow a line that results in a slight descent from valley to ridge resulting in a much more effective distribution of rainwater across the landscape. Also because of this “geometree” we maintained equidistance between the rows, something that simply can’t be achieved when using a contour-guided row orientation.

On this next planting we used a heavy duty, tractor powered ‘bush-hog’ or mower to ‘drop’ all of the emerging pioneer vegetation and let it rot on the soil surface. This proved to be a masterstroke as we retained a lot more moisture along with encouraging a bounty of saprophytic fungi: the perfect start for a new forest! In the spring of 2000 we then planted another few blocks of mixed species forest, including a few species we hadn’t tried before, using inter-planting as opposed to the largely inter-row layout of the 1998 systems.

By the early ‘naughties’ we had been in the Permaculture game for 10 years and were about to enter the era of managing the full rotation of some of our client’s forests. Surprisingly the first property to enjoy this was Dalpura. We never anticipated the growth rates that we encountered in some of the species, despite the poor start and terrible growing conditions. All we can still attribute this to is the Keyline pattern.

We’d broken many of the conventions: we didn’t control ‘weeds’ with herbicide, nor did we cut the vegetation between every row, preferring to leave every second row to the emerging pioneers, deciding that this encouraged biodiversity and promoted the hastier decomposition of the pruning’s and thinnings that we applied to this Keyline strip. Awfully convenient too that we could fell thinned trees into this strip, absorbing the energy of the fall, reducing the damage to the tree from the impact, allowing us to extract some very fine stems of Acacia dealbata and A. mearnsii which were of millable size just 6 years after establishment.

Given this George and I went halves in a Logosol M70 Portable Chainsaw Mill, costing about $2000AUD each. What a fantastic machine in that we could recover full value out of these 3-5m long 200-300mm thinnings, which we promptly stacked and seasoned in the shed ahead of sending them a year later to a furniture maker who then made them into kitchen cabinet doors, coffee tables and all manner of other items. George also decided to use the smaller diameter stems for his Zone 2 ‘Walled Garden’ inspired by his travels to Sweden and the fencing systems he encountered there. Milling recovered around 60% of the log with the remaining material providing a bounty of sawdust and ‘flitches’, the later used for garden seating, edging and firewood.

The whole thinning exercise over the winters of 2003-4 had us set up our camper van in the forest that we had created, with our whole family coming down a couple of days a week. As a family we thinned and processed, along with establishing the now iconic TC4 & 5 (‘TC’ = Tree Crops) agroforestry system on the front half of Dalpura. A family of Kookaburra’s would wake us a 5-6am every morning, sitting on the branch of a tree right outside the camper that just a few short years before had been a pastoral wasteland. That’s part of the great joy of this 120 species forest wonderland: that the local wildlife have benefitted enormously from what we’d established, proving that we can create systems that are economically and ecologically profitable, not just one or the other.

We continue to manage the forests at Dalpura, now the main tasks are in high pruning, thinning, selective harvesting and coppicing. The coppice management is a throw-back to my childhood where on our family farm that was a job my grandfather charged me with: thinning the regrowth back to one straight stem and then managing that stem to be straight and worthy of the mill.

One of the true delights of my job is that I can wander through these beautiful systems a couple of times a year with George, having a yarn with a great friend discovering at every turn something new, seeing the results of our decisions first hand and wishing we had more area to plant.