Sunday, January 17, 2010
Water for Every Farm
Welcome to Richmond, New South Wales: the former “granary” of Sydney, and home of University of Western Sydney’s Hawkesbury College, the oldest agricultural college in the country. I spent the last three days here with 80 Australian farmers from around the country learning regenerative farming methods designed to increase a farm’s fertility through innovative water harvesting and topsoil building techniques.
The farmers discussed the effects of prolonged drought, unpredictable commodity markets, and the impact of industrial agriculture on their mid sized family farms. All too often farmers get boxed in to the downward spiral of increasing dependency on fertilizers and pesticides, watch their land become depleted, and become desperate to find a viable way to work themselves out of the hole of debt. In fact Australia, along with other countries like India, has a very high rate of farmer suicide in rural areas.
Anyhow, I digress, and this was a fairly hopeful bunch. Farmers in Australia are supported by Farm Ready, a progressive program supported by the national gov’t that subsidizes primary producers to attend workshops and trainings that build farmers’capacity to adapt to climate change and drought. We should have something like this in the 2012 Farm Bill, don’t you think?
Together the class dug into the nitty gritty of keyline design, an integrated farm planning methodology developed by PA Yeomans in the 1950s. Yeomans recognized that Australia’s salinated groundwater combined with highly undependable rainfall made farmers vulnerable to water shortage. He also recognized that farmers were losing topsoil at an alarming rate, and that soil, carbon, and water have a closely interconnected relationship - for one, the more carbon you have in the soil the more moisture it can retain. The guy was just a wee bit ahead of his time!
We visited several farms designed by Yeomans, and it was amazing to see pastoral irrigation systems that passively provide water to hundreds of acres through a simple system of dams, channels, locks, gravity, and keyline pattern plowing. Many elements of Yeomans design methods are brilliantly applicable to the dry California hills...I can't wait to come home and find some farmers to worth with!
In the meantime, I've made my way to Allyn River Farm, north of Sydney. I'm working with a farmer named Peter who is developing a 17 acre farm (he has a little tractor and a Yeoman's plow too!). Tomorrow we'll do some surveying and earth moving to dig a few swales...