Peter Andrews: one of the scientists sent to assess the scientific merits of Andrews’ work, concluded: “The results are startling.”

July 15, 2009 – The two-part story aired on ABC TV’s Australian Story – Right as Rain – highlights just how far bureaucrats will go to protect the status quo even when the evidence is smacking them in the face.

In stubbornly refusing for decades to recognise the land rehabilitation work of farmer and horseman Peter Andrews, the powers that be may well have missed an opportunity to combat land degradation brought on by poor land management practices, drought and, now, the looming threat of climate change.

Certainly, that is the view of thousands of landholders, a section of the scientific community and some prominent Australians, including former Governor General, Major General Michael Jeffery, and businessman Gerry Harvey, who spoke to Australian Story. They not only believe Andrews’ “natural sequence farming” method works but that it could transform vast tracts of depleted land across Australia.

The evidence appears to be there and all from the application of seemingly simple methods.

Presented over the last two weeks, the Australian Story episode showed a farmer, horse trainer and passionate maverick who, thwarted at every turn by bureaucrats determined to protect their patch, has continued to take his message to the people who have the most to lose from land degradation – those on the land.

Now, scientific test results are providing persuasive evidence that the methods can work and some people in government are starting to listen.

Andrews’ method of bringing life back to eroded and depleted farmland involves planting whatever plant species will grow rapidly until the land recovers – often weeds declared noxious by the authorities – and slowing down runoff by capturing and redirecting water.

The result is a return of soil fertility, a slowing of erosion and the regeneration of waterways.

One journalist who has been following Andrews’ work for years and has witnessed the strong resistance to his ideas is John Ryan, a reporter for WIN TV Dubbo. He told Australian Story:

“It has been said that there’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. And Pete’s idea came and it’s what everyone’s screaming for. I’ve heard from friends in the bureaucracy in Canberra, they can’t believe that a fellow who’s been sidelined by the system keeps getting up. And people keep saying ‘What about Peter Andrews?’ And they’re thinking, ‘Haven’t we stopped this bloke?’ They’re absolutely seething that Peter Andrews looks like he’s going to reincarnate again. They’re furious that people in powerful positions are saying, “hey, we’ve got to support this bloke….

“The bureaucracy was dead against what he was doing. He was planting willows, when you get Government grants to take them out. He was planting reed beds, when people thought you pulled them out of swamps. Everything he did was contrary to what everybody was being told by the authorities. He was seen as the heretical bloke up the valley. The nutter who wouldn’t listen to anyone, and who just did his own thing.”

But the “nutter” has kept on going and now he has the support of some prominent Australians who are determined to see his work taken further.

Gerry Harvey, businessman and horse stud owner was originally sceptical of Peter Andrews’ approach but was prepared to take a chance with him on his property Baramul. He is now reaping the rewards as he told the Australian Story team:

Gerry Harvey, businessman and horse stud owner, was originally sceptical of Peter Andrews’ approach but was prepared to take a chance with him on his property Baramul. He is now reaping the rewards.

“I’ve been a great sceptic in the early part because I’m thinking, this guy, he’s away with the fairies, but I’ll back him because I like him and maybe he’s right. And I’ve backed him over all these years and now I’m seeing there’s no doubt he’s right, no doubt whatsoever. “

The first thing Andrews did on Harvey’s property was to put barriers in the creeks made of rocks and old logs. He then planted reeds and grasses – in fact anything that would grow there. The next time there was a flood the water level in the creek rose by metres, said Harvey.

“So originally what used to happen is the water would come down the creek. It created all this erosion and the water would come down and go zoom and straight to sea and take a whole heap of soil and fertility with it and plant life. Now we’re blocking all that, we’re holding it and we’re creating this environment that allows us to retain all of this water and build all the plant life and the fertility.”

Professor Richard Bush, one of a team of scientists sent to Harvey’s property to assess the scientific merits of the work, was also converted:

“We started monitoring Peter Andrews’ natural sequence farming at Baramul in 2004. There was anecdotal evidence of success with what Peter Andrews was doing but there was no scientific evidence. And the State and Federal Government wanted to see if there was some scientific evidence to support Peter Andrews’ ideas. I’d resisted going out to see Peter Andrews for about nine months only because I was aware that the mad farmer who, once you got involved with him, would not let up. So I sort of come to the table kicking and screaming. But we started to get surprised within 12 months by the change in the landscape.

“Some of our findings are startling.”

What the team found was that the river on the property was recovering by “developing pools and riffles”.

“That’s taken place on Baramul in a period of two years. And from a textbook understanding of these types of landscapes, you’d be thinking 10 or 15 years for this sort of change. And in fact, it’s turned out that that has resulted in a river recovery to our knowledge unprecedented in Australia,” said Professor Bush.

The recovery that has taken place on Gerry Harvey’s property, Baramul, would normally take 10 to 15 years, says scientist Professor Richard Bush. “And in fact, it’s turned out that it has resulted in a river recovery to our knowledge unprecedented in Australia.”

The Saudis are backing Andrews all the way, inviting him to “green” the Sahara desert.

But on his own patch, despite anecdotal and scientific evidence of the effectiveness of his approach, government departments responsible for land and water management have refused to officially recognise Peter Andrews’ methods or adopt them in land rehabilitation.

But none of these bureaucrats seem keen to speak out publicly. When invited by Australian Story to give their opinions on Peter Andrews they declined to comment.

It brings to mind climate change sceptics waiting for the scientific evidence to come in that global warming is caused by human activity.

To see the two part episode of Australian Story go to the ABC website.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au