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This website aims to develop case studies of the development of farming practices and attendant transformations of local ecologies of defined blocks of land. Through these biographies of particular plots of land we are developing localised analyses of the wider historical trends in the political economy/ecology of the Northern Rivers.

Go to: Coming to the Northern Rivers | Market changes | Education: SoilCare and TAFE | Soil Health | Community | Land-use and the future of farming |

Soil Health

There was very little information I have to say, that’s why we had to do research. At that point SoilCare had not been formed. Tuckombil Landcare was our group so we actually joined with one of the scientists at DPI and we applied for funding to the Natural Heritage Trust, at that time, to do a research project on assessing soil health on farms ah… the effects from agricultural chemicals and management practises.

So that made us very unpopular in some places but this scientist was strong and said he could take it so we did that and through that project I think we learned a lot about how to ameliorate because that was part of the project. That project did work and did produce Ag Facts for things like making compost on farm, that type of thing. One of our particular problems, or specific to our farm which a lot of other farms didn’t have was very high copper levels in the soil.

From copper based fungicides being used over the years, so that we managed [high copper levels] through just additions of organic matter. So the organic matter has tied up the copper so it’s not available and now we have lots of earth worms and lots of soil biology. Someone once said there’s three things that are very important to soil health, they are organic matter, organic matter and organic matter and I’d have to go along with that. You just get all the organic matter you can in there.

Through the Good Soil Project which was the first project we did on ameliorating and assessing soil health on farms, that pretty much showed and the scientist said if we could just get enough organic matter into that soil we’ll be able to tie up that copper and that worked. Even though in a soil test, in a soil analysis the copper levels still show [high]; it’s not a problem now because we have overcome that with the organic matter.

Ok, and so that was as a consequence of fungicides that had been used, so then what did you do instead of using what they had been using in the past?

Well through the TAFE classes and a lot of reading and a lot of talking, yeah, we’ve just been very fortunate. We did a biological fungicide trial here with CSIRO so I learned a lot through their scientists that I got to meet. So between all the scientists that I talked to, all the books I read, the TAFE and all that, we decided that we were going to put all our efforts into soil health and soil health would give us a healthy plant, a healthy tree that would be able to protect itself. So calcium is a very important mineral and it helps build strong cell walls. We’re talking about a fungal pathogen (anthracnose) that the copper was used to control…, so building cell walls that are very strong to help withstand that pressure was something we thought would be important. We replaced the fungicide applications with calcium. So now we spray calcium.

Biological farming is a system of farming where farmers work with nature and they use biological processes to manage. So in the soil, that is, using soil biology to make your nitrogen, to recycle nutrients, to get the nutrients to your plants, and it’s encouraging and providing habitat for that soil biology. Above ground it’s using biological control of insects, pests. It’s looking after your soil, managing your soil health with organic inputs and it’s understanding what every practise you do, how that will affect your soil. So that’s where the knowledge comes in. it takes a certain amount of knowledge and understanding of the ecosystem processes to be a biological farmer. That’s why you have to go to TAFE and you have to learn these things or you have to do a lot of reading. There’s plenty of books out there but yeah, going to TAFE is a good way to do it.

So if I understand correctly, if you’ve got a strong enough, if you can get strong enough plants, you’re actually…you don’t need a lot of the stuff that was previously used.

Yeah, I’m trying to think ….it’s called ah…it’s a theory called Trophobiosis and that’s …I’ll send you something on it, I’ll send a pdf on it. It’s about plants resisting insects and diseases using their own mechanisms and to do that they need … they need certain things. They need certain minerals and balances of things to be very healthy, so it’s basically, it’s a French …Chaboussou, it’s his theory which I’m just about to test on a small area, it sounds easy to say “oh you just get your minerals balanced, you get enough of everything”, it’s not as easy, it takes a lot of knowledge and a lot of monitoring and testing to get your …to get the balance right.

It must take a long time as well that willingness to experiment with what’s going to work and…

Yes, yes but it’s fascinating, it gets you out of bed every morning, I can’t imagine a better way to spend your days than talking to your trees.

Right now we are in a research trial for a biological control of Fruitspotting Bug which is a major pest, all tropical and subtropical fruits and nuts…so um…this is a little wasp.

In the macadamias, for Macadamia Nut Borer we release a Trichogramma Wasp that parasitises Macadamia Nutbborer eggs. That works very well, it’s being used all over the district now. It was a major pest in macadamias and now it’s not. It’s biological control, the other nice thing about biological control is when people pay money to release a beneficial or a parasite, they think twice before going out and spraying for something else because they don’t want to kill what they’ve just put out, so biological control is fascinating. It’s amazing and fascinating.

If this research project that we’re part of now for biological control of Fruit Spotting Bug works, that will be it for us, we won’t need ever again to use a chemical but the Fruit Spotting Bug is a major pest and we still do hit hot spots. So we still use a chemical to hit hot spots for that but everything else we do is biological. All caterpillars are taken care of with a bacillus thuringiensis which is just a bacteria which gives them a stomach ache and they stop eating so yeah we are …its only just the hot spots we do… we would never blanket spray the orchard with an insecticide because we’ve worked too hard to build up the beneficial insects and that just hits the soil and then your soil biology is effected over time.

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