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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.

It contains reflections on Land History | Markets | Profitability | Climate and the needs of the fruit vs the big markets | Ecosystems: soil and bush regeneration | Succession

Ecosystems: soil and bush regeneration

Lance: If you look at the clearing of the scrub between Lismore and Bangalow and that, out to Eureka, is it, all that area was giant, if you walked through there, it was just a giant forest. Yes, the soil – so many of the nutriments are water soluble, so they’re basically just, as soon as you take that, I mean, it’s the classic example anywhere round the world that if you’re in a high rainfall area, like, you take the Amazon and that, the clearing that’s gone on over there, and the same thing happens. The soil is extremely fragile, yes, so you lose the nutrients.

Geraldine: But by the time your Dad got there, really, a lot of that had already happened in the area.

Lance: Yes, but it’s still good pasture on the place. It’s amazing. I wish I had some more of the old photos, because it was just all grassland when we were kids, and it’s all timber now. The re-generation of the timber is absolutely amazing.

It tells you straight away that that’s the natural, that’s what the land wants to do, so naturally it’ll grow timber if it’s left alone, because it’s a high rainfall area. That’s the best way of protecting the land, is to have timber cover.

Geraldine: We looked at – sorry, this is the complete opposite side, but it is about land usage – there was a property in Burringbah which, if you look at it on Google Maps you can see it is just camphor laurel, totally, totally, but about ten years ago there was a concerted effort to clear the camphor – to no avail, it just came back thicker than ever – but I went across this piece of land with a person who can identify the rainforest that is regenerating of its own accord, and he was really quite impressed at the, I think it’s the riparian rainforest that’s growing under the camphor laurels.

Lance: They’re all under there.

Geraldine: It’s quite amazing, yeah.

Lance: You just need to break that canopy and they’ll come up.

And they’ll shade out anything else?

Lance: Yes, it’s like the camphors are, they’re an introduced species, but probably played a really important role—

Geraldine: In providing that protected environment for the emergence of the rainforest.

Lance: And also helping with stopping too much erosion, because the soil is so fragile, you know, like, I look at that area where we are, and all through the, well, it must have been for fifty years, there was so much land cultivated and all the banana plantations, like, right through the ‘70s, I mean, we did the same. We were clearing the land, steep forested country.

The first year when you’ve got young plants sort of half grown with the bananas, there’s just an enormous amount of wash soil that just goes down the streams, and now with the change in land use up where we are, you just look at the colour of the stream when you get a flood, and there’s nowhere near the erosion. The streams are much cleaner because the land was just nowhere near as disturbed. It’s covered, it’s sort of covered back in with forest – bare soil.

Geraldine: Which is possibly an interesting intro into how your farming practices are different to your father’s?

Lance: Yes.

Geraldine: And the advent of ground covers and recognising, you know, high rainfall and soil degradation because of it, so—

Lance: Yes, with the use of Round-up, like, we had around 1,000 avocados on the steep country, and you were probably losing about that much soil every year.

About an inch or—-?

Lance: Yes. You could walk across the slopes there and you could see after a rainfall event, you could see these rocks sticking up, and straight away you’d think, ‘Oh, hang on, that was covered before the rain,’ you know, so if you’ve got bare soil—-

You’re just losing it, yes.

Lance: And that’s what I’m saying about the fragility of the soils. We learned, we basically learned a lot about ground covers and, like, pasture leg-ins, that you mix in with grass cover to help build the soil. I suppose I’ve just picked up a lot of knowledge as I go along.

Seeing the rocks showing, like, that’s the classic, and it’s sort of scary when you see that amount of soil going down the streams, and you sort of realise that, like, your topsoil layer is, you know, like the actual area that plants are using, it’s got most of the soil flora and fauna at that thickness or even less, so you realise you just can’t have that happen; otherwise, you’re basically just using your soil as a medium and applying chemical to it to force it to produce, yeah, because the soil is just dead.

It’s that realisation that your soil is a living organism. That’s the real crunch when you start learning that stuff about soil biology, and just the way it works. I mean, I don’t claim to know, you know. I’ve got a pretty limited knowledge, probably, but it’s just the most, you’re dealing with something that’s absolutely amazing, but at the same time really fragile.

Geraldine: I was in a patch the other day, part of which dates back to the 1920s, at continuous production, and when you’re in the bananas in a relatively new patch, you’ve got fairly distinct rows and you can find your way through. This patch was so old the rows were non-existent, and I said to the farmer, “How do you find your way back to the road?” and he said, “We just follow the dog.”

Anyway, it was a really old patch, but they’ve just got some funding to do some research, and they’re doing composted organic matter and composted chicken manure on two sections, and then going to actually – in the initial instance it’ll be, you know, what happens within sort of 12 months or two years, but I think what would be interesting research will be how the soils measure up over a longer period of time. I think this is something that is particularly difficult in terms of farming and producing in viable amounts.

Lance: Yes, that’s right. It takes time.

Geraldine: It takes time to rebuild that organic matter and to address soil degradation, but also, even if in relatively healthy soil, the application of the organic fertilizers is a long term concept as well, so that’s one of the difficult things for farmers, needing to address an economic imperative to stay viable.

Lance: That’s right, yes, because you do need to produce fruit.

So that example that you gave us, that research that they were doing, do you know if that was through the DPI or through the CSIRO or—-

Geraldine: I think it was through – is there an organisation called SoilCare?

Yes.

Geraldine: I think it was through SoilCare, and this fellow made an application to them and said, you know, ‘Hey, send us out a truck load of each and we’ll go and put it out.’

Yes, they’ve done a lot of research in the area in this region.

Geraldine: These guys are down in Coffs Harbour.

Yes, right, they’re really good.

Geraldine: It’s interesting, though, just as a bit of an aside, in terms of the support that farmers have for conducting their own research, and that’s why I was asking you where do you get your information, whether it’s your own trial and error. These guys are, you know, they’re in their, probably, late 50s, these guys that are doing the experiment, not particularly tech savvy, and I don’t know how much assistance they’re actually getting in their data collection and record keeping and the like, so I’ll be interested to see in terms of if there’s technology made available to them. There’s things like bar-coding that’s available now and different ways of keeping track of the data, so it’s good to see them actually get some sort of support in terms of that data collection as well, but, yeah, hopefully through the program that they’re on – there’ll be some sort of support for them in that.

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