News from the front desk: No 394 – When the town of Wangaratta in Victoria experienced an inundation of mature seed heads of a native plant nicknamed “hairy panic” in 2016, the images of homes buried up the eaves in the stuff went viral around the globe.
But the whole scenario is in some ways a snapshot of exactly what’s wrong with how we understand and relate to this landscape we inhabit.
The headlines called it a weed, but actually, hairy panic – Panicum effusium – is one of three native varieties of millet that were staple foods for Aboriginal people for uncountable generations.
Back in the day, people would have been harvesting the seeds and using them to make flour and other grain-based food stuffs.
Wangaratta was actually inundated by a food that is no longer recognised as such by many of us.
The NSW Department of Industries categorises hairy panic as a high value fodder plant. It is high in protein, does well in dry conditions and self-seeds readily. However, where it is the dominant species where sheep are grazing paddocks it can lead to a disease disconcertingly named “big yellow head”.
So DPI recommends that farmers spray it with Roundup once it is mature and then let the stock in to graze.
Just let that sink in for a minute. Graziers are given advice to cover plants with a carcinogenic, bioaccumulative chemical, glyphosphate, and then let animals destined for our dinner tables graze it.
Recent research by US oncologist, Dr Zach Bush, is showing that ingesting glyphosphate could be hehind the severe rise in inflammatory gut conditions such as coeliac disease and gluten intolerance in humans. Inflammation in the gut is also being touted as a potential driver of a multitude of cancers.
Scary stuff. But why does hairy panic reach pandemic proportions anyway?
According to DPI, it tends to dominate when soil fertility is low and other grasses and plants are in decline. This is not unusual on a property where monoculture-based industrial agriculture has been the dominant land management style.
So in that one plant, we have a microcosm of many of the factors that are compromising our land management, our food supply, and our emissions trajectory.
The push for the chemical solution for a problem caused by over-use of industrial and chemical approaches compounds the issues caused by a lack of understanding of what naturally grows well here, what it’s used for and how Aboriginal people so successfully managed the landscape.
But the tide may be turning. Recently, there has been an explosion in the canon of literature around Indigenous land management and how Australian farming can learn from it. Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu has gone into reprint and is back on the shelves following the slow-burn popularity of farmer Charles Massy’s Call of the Reed Warbler.
What they all have in common is acknowledging a new paradigm of land management in Australia is needed, but it needs to take into account the successful practices of the former land managers.
The new ecological literacy for farmers, as Massey terms it, looks at farming as a process of working with the inputs of sunlight and water along with a focus on soil health and landscape resilience as the fundamentals for producing food, fibres and fuel.
The result of implementing this approach is not only improved farm viability and higher returns due to reduced industrial inputs, but also a carbon bonus.
The whole approach of “clear it, burn it regularly and pour on the superphosphate and glyphosphate” needs to change.
But when it comes to BBQ stoppers, nothing is more likely to turn a pleasant sausage sizzle into an all-in roasting in regional Australia than the topic of land clearing.
As Queensland grazier Bloss Hickson told The Fifth Estate, many farmers just don’t like trees. One of her neighbours, for example, had a Tordon crew on his property full-time for six months to poison regrowth.
Trees are seen as taking up valuable land that could be used for pasture or cropping. Research and demonstrations by organisations like Greening Australia, as well as individual farmers have, however, shown that a farm is actually more productive and profitable when there are strategic areas or retained or restored biodiverse native vegetation.
You get more carbon going into the soil, water penetrates better and is retained for longer, nutrients are brought up to the surface, salinity problems don’t occur and a greater diversity of grasses and forbs is encouraged.
The culture of clearing however doesn’t have its roots in what farmers believe or don’t believe about trees. It has its origin in the dispossession of the original land managers. One of the conditions of obtaining and retaining land in the new colonise was to clear trees and institute European crops and grazing animals.
Bruce Pascoe eloquently narrates how land holders saw their land change as a result – sometimes within just a few years. Suddenly, fertility went down, erosion appeared, weeds flourished and formerly soft and permeable soils became compacted and hard.
The clearing mantra didn’t stop with successful annexation of the continent, however.
Soldier settler blocks allocated after World War Two across New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria also required the new landholders to clear the bush.
Even the language of land management in the 1990s was still calling any species of native trees “woody weeds” and making clearing of it a requirement that was enforced by state and local government agencies.
Queensland required landholders to remove native trees permanently, right up until the 1980s, with the horrendously destructive method of “chain clearing” involving a heavy chain run between two bulldozers a popular approach.
According to The Wilderness Society’s Towards Zero Deforestation report, there were also low-cost finance and tax concessions to further incentivise deforestation and land clearing, and “many financial institutions (including government-owned) even made access to farm finance conditional on clearing.”
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation back in 2008 called for governments like ours to rethink the approach to soil, carbon and vegetation on agricultural lands as part of mitigating carbon emissions and climate change.
“It is essential to … increase the resilience of present food production systems … We urge governments to create opportunities to enable the world’s smallholder farmers …. to participate in , and benefit from financial mechanisms and investment flows to support climate change adaptation, mitigation and technology development,” the FAO said.
However, even private sector finance is still not coming to grips with the value of carbon, according to Dr Tim Moore, director of Biodiverse Carbon Conservation.
Overall, there needs to be more understanding of how carbon is integrated into farming, Moore tells The Fifth Estate.
“More than 50 per cent of everything that leaves the farm gate is carbon.”
It’s about a language change, seeing primary production as being about managing nutrients and energy and carbon in an efficient and effective way.
And there needs to be a discussion about the public benefits of better practice.
The banks need to recognise that because vegetation can increase productivity, it is actually a capital asset that has productive value in and of itself.
His organisation is in discussions with the National Australia Bank around this very concept.
Currently, Moore says, the valuation community looks at trees and “blacks out that area” and takes it off the value of the farm. So when a farmer plants more trees – he actually loses capital value.
“We need to change that understanding of value from cost to capital asset.”
He says NAB is hosting a workshop this week where scientists are coming together to “road test” the model of how having native trees increases lamb survival developed in partnership with Greening Australia.
If the model proves sound, it can then be used by the valuation community to appreciate the capital worth of trees by giving a metric for increased survival rates and the resulting farm income gains.
Once we get the valuation perspective right, we will see private investment in trees, he says. People will be “chasing them” for their value as a carbon-sequestering, productivity-boosting asset.
If the public benefits case is clear, then farmers will be able to go to government and the philanthropic sector and gain investment in their vegetated areas.
“It changes the nature of the investment environment in conservation.”
Banks would also be more likely to lend to farmers for vegetation as it increase’s a farm’s resilience and its profitability.
For example, shelter belts reduce lamb mortality during a sudden cold snap or major wind events. That in turn reduces income variability for the farmer and ups the farm’s resilience to change.
Ultimately, that then reduces the risk profile of the loan.
Another example Moore gives is wattle seed.
“Sheep love it!”
It also reduces the parasite load in a sheep’s gut, which means they “get fatter faster”.
So not only might there be a saving on parasite drenches, but faster and fatter means better returns at the saleyards.
It’s another form of harvesting, Moore says.
It’s also another example of how at the grassroots, some farmers are starting to look to native plants as viable crops.
Salt bush, native to drier areas, is now recognised not as a native pest that gets in the way of introduced pasture grasses, but as a fodder that actually produces a very marketable product.
Another example Moore gives is how native vegetation can be used as part of an integrated pest management strategy. It results in a different pest load, which can reduce the need for the use of chemical pesticides.
That means a lower pesticide load for the farm, and lower input costs.
It also brings a farm closer to organic production methods, which can add to its value.
Hickson is already seeing the benefit of using organic methods.
Her organic beef is exported to the USA, Korea and possibly also Europe, she says.
She gets a premium price, and even as more and more people get certified the price remains better than other niche markets.
She says she finds the whole method of looking for bigger and bigger agricultural machines so more can be done faster “just weird”.
“And people are so manipulated by the same couple of companies. They control everybody and all of their food.”
Her driver is to have a long-term “healthy” approach that creates a long-term sustainable farming system.
“I am just going to do what I believe in – but it is hard to convince everybody else [in the farming community] of what’s happening.”