Have we unknowingly weakened the resilience of our Australian landscape?

Introduction

It is generally acknowledged that large areas of our productive heartland have been degraded.

Biodiversity, moisture and carbon retention are under major threat by many rural and urban land uses.

Our best land is being worked harder with increasing artificial inputs of imported fertiliser, fuel and chemicals.

Drought and climatic change are exacerbating the difficult situation.

There is increasing pressure on our limited water resources in the countryside and cities.

In most catchments, we have unwittingly depleted the ability of the Australian environment to conserve water and resist drought. Many of our land uses are reversing natural processes and increasing salinity.

The loss of wetlands has been especially critical in this loss of resilience. Most of these natural filters and fertility distributors have disappeared through clearing, filling and draining.

Extensive clearing of natural vegetation and the erosion of soils have accelerated the destruction of the fertile chain-of-ponds system that dominated many landscapes.

Creeks that were frequently flowing streams are often little more than deeply-eroded drains quickly removing water from local landscapes.

Most of the time, soil and nutrients are whisked away with little more than a moderate downpour.

There is barely a chance for local creeks to refresh the fertility of hillsides or floodplains as they once did.

There is not enough time for streams to replenish the freshwater lens that keeps ancient salts below the surface of the floodplains.

Our catchments desperately need to be rehydrated to work properly once again.

How did the natural Australian system work?

Plants govern Australia’s natural land and water systems. They are aided by the natural lifecycles of animals, including us.

Streams were once the healthy arteries of a catchment system that carried the environmental lifeblood from waterways to floodplains and billabongs.

Rocks, branches and sediment carried by floodwaters accumulated at narrow points in valleys, creating ‘leaky natural weirs’.

From this point, the Australian environment had time to do its productive work through a series of natural sequences. These sequences involve a complex relationship between soils, moisture, plants and animals built up over thousands of years.

The sequences resulted in a steady environmental flow of water in the streams and wetlands that replenished the shallow water table.

Natural reed beds teemed with wildlife and flourished with the latest arrival of fertile sediment from the streams.

In turn, the reeds cleansed the water flowing through the leaky weir to the next shallow pond or wetland in the valley chain.

The chain of ponds grew larger and more resilient, even to the efforts of early explorers who remarked on the dominance of what they called swamps.

From these shallow ponds, water flowed across the surface and through the soil. The floodplain and its billabongs were recharged with moisture and nutrients to enhance the biological diversity and productivity.

What happened to our resilient Australian system?

From a focus by several well-intentioned generations on short-term, hard-engineering, river-taming approaches we have inherited a long-term decline of the environmental resilience of the Australian landscape.

Quick fix measures have often worked against rather with the Australian environment’s natural processes.

The result has been reduced economic and environmental sustainability leading to threats to the future of our smaller rural communities and to the water supplies of cities.

Perhaps we have over-used production technologies initially developed for foreign environments without fully considering the impacts on the special features of our own ancient continent.

Natural Sequence Farming – the first step off the treadmill

Natural Sequence Farming offers an effective way of reversing the momentum of degradation.

It does so by applying observation and analysis to understand and work as part of the natural processes rather than against them.

Because of its low capital cost, Natural Sequence Farming is a viable approach for everyday farmers and urban dwellers.

Natural Sequence Farming offers farmers a way of getting off the treadmill of increasing costs of artificial inputs of fuel, chemicals and fertilisers but declining terms of trade.

Urban dwellers no longer have to suffer the frustration of watching precious water flowing out to sea while they wrestle with water restrictions.

What does the consumer want? Environmentally-sustainable systems of producing their food and fibre.

Traceability to the ecological source of production is increasingly becoming a mandatory requirement of international food chains.

Ecological branding is the new ‘clean and green’ but we know that much of our clean and green image is a myth when we look at the increasing injection of artificial inputs.

As we lose more and more of our best land to urban development and lifestyle pursuits the remainder has been worked harder.

Some say we’re creating agriculture on steroids and a biophysical desert in cities.

As a reaction, it is no surprise to find that the organics segment is the fastest growing market in food production and attracts a premium price.

More and more buyers are looking to be reassured of the environmental soundness of their purchases.

Ask the consumer – business as usual is not an option and they won’t buy it.

Natural Sequence Farming is based on holistic principles of economic, environmental and social sustainability.

Peter Andrews – a farmer helping mainstream farmers

Peter Andrews is a practical visionary. His development of Natural Sequence Farming is based on a deep knowledge of the past and an intense focus on the unique features of the Australian landscape.

Peter’s passionate focus on improving the sustainability of Australian farming has come at an enormous personal cost.

But Peter retains the courage of his convictions because of the outcomes he achieves on the ground.

His system of Natural Sequence Farming equips farmers with a cost-effective set of tools and a way of interpreting the landscape to achieve increased sustainability.

After training with Peter Andrews’ approach, landholders can work in partnership with the natural processes of the Australian environment.

Relatively simple environmental sculpting can restore or mimic the original sustainable processes developed over thousands of years to reunite waterways with their floodplains.

This is the key principle in restoring natural systems and re-hydrating the fertile processes of the original chain-of-ponds system.

But there are additional benefits. Through slowing and directing water flow through local floodplains, a freshwater lens is perched in the soil just below the surface. It feeds the roots of vegetation and keeps down salt.

Organic matter and sediment from upstream now has a chance to accumulate and form soil rather than being whisked away down deeply eroded creek channels.

Under Natural Sequence Farming, livestock is managed in harmony with the Australian landscape to spread fertility from the floodplain to the hillsides to rejuvenate the whole farm landscape.

Seen through the eyes of Peter Andrews, animal enterprises, crops, pasture, fruit and vegetable growing are ripe for Natural Sequence Farming approaches.

Natural Sequence Farming enables farmers to leave a real Australian legacy to their next generation.

Garry Reynolds