May 8, 2014
Galilee Road Trip: farm hopping... and hoping
We had to find a place in the middle of nowhere in the dark: we didn't spot a ruined house supposed to be a marker. Again, we arrived late, tired... and dusty. We put up the tents with some illumination from vehicle headlights. Wise campers sported head lamps: it's hard to erect a tent and a stretcher bed with one hand while your other holds a torch.
We headed over to the homestead for supper. John and Diana have built their house from local stone and it's a very very very fine house. The chunks of sandstone (I think) make for thick solid walls that keep the family warm in winter and cool in summer. The stonework reminded me of farm houses in the dales of Northern England.
It was too late in the day to take notes, so I just listened. He had two clumps of grass as props, and proceeded to explain how his grazing animals help keep carbon in the soil. He spoke of his cows with an empathy gleaned from decades of care, including low stress stockhandling methods and paddock rotation to avoid overgrazing and nutrient depletion. He almost flitted from subject to subject, as relevancies occurred to him – drought, rough terrain, demand for organic beef, WWOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) – and his style was mesmeric after a while. I didn't want him to stop. This was, after all, what I was here for. But our dusty campsite eventually beckoned.
The contribution of grazing animals to soil carbon sequestration is a contentious subject. Some see grazing animals as destroyers of soil, vegetation and landscape. But others believe in the principle of 'rational grazing' (aka mob grazing, rotational grazing, short duration grazing, et al), originated by a French biochemist and small farmer, André Voisin, who spent some time simply watching his animals graze. He wrote a book called Grass Productivity in the 1950s. Voisin's ideas were picked up by a South African, Allan Savory, 20 years later. Essentially, it's more about animals grazing at the right time in the growth cycle of the plants they're eating than the number of animals grazing. If cows spend too long grazing in one place, or return to it too quickly, then overgrazing results. Their trampling also has benefits: hooves break up the soil and press dead vegetation and seeds into the aerated surface layer. Confining cows to one area at a time and then moving them on means their dung improves soil fertility while they're away in the next paddock.
So, overgrazed, degraded land means cattle have been mismanaged, not overstocked, the theory goes.
The next morning in the sunshine Withersfield looked completely different. A sizeable solar array on the outhouses was impressive (top of page). Everywhere looked dry. Dust followed us up the hill and away.
The region consists of sand and clay plains and sandstone ridges. Speculation has a number of farm ponds but relies mainly on two bores taking water from the Clematis Sandstone of the Great Artesian Basin. The area's primary industry is cattle grazing: it used to be sheep. Dry land farming here would necessitate considerable inputs such as fertiliser and weed control. The Curries try to operate as sustainably as possible, but production has to be profitable, Bruce adds.
Our tour of the property included a 650-kg bullock named Wag, who liked having his back tickled, cute but skittish goats, and a Maremma sheepdog. Maremmas are large white dogs that resemble feral woolly Retrievers. They are bred to bond with and protect (but not herd) sheep, or any vulnerable flock species for that matter – cows, goats, chooks, even alpacas. They are fairly aloof, independently minded creatures, and live with the flock, not a family. As pups, Maremmas spend three months penned with the flock, and then are allowed into a paddock with them. Fascinating.
As Bruce has always maintained, 'If the mines are so confident they are not going to impact on our groundwater, why is it so difficult to get a make-good agreement?'
The world now awaits the Ministers' responses. They are imminent. Hence the hoping.
In the meantime, the Queensland government has today approved the fourth mine of nine in the Galilee, the Carmichael.
If you enjoyed reading this – and there are several Galilee Road Trip posts still to come – please share with friends and connections. One of our principal aims in making this journey was to spread the word about the Galilee Basin.