Farmers and soil health

Over the past month while I’ve been here in Mackay I’ve met many people who are in some way connected with agriculture – soil scientists, environmental scientists, official representatives of the sugarcane industry, local food producers, Australian South Sea Islanders who are descended from the indentured canefield labourers of the last century, a local MP who comes from a farming background, sugar mill workers. In fact it’s hard not to be connected to agriculture here in Mackay – the canefields are so prevalent that there’s a good chance that you would be living in fairly close proximity to a crop of sugarcane wherever you are.

If this region is so heavily reliant on the sugarcane industry, then it makes sense that there should be an investment in its future, not only for its viability as a crop but also to meet its environmental responsibilities. One of the fundamentals of this is soil health. There are top-down incentives for cane farmers to align themselves with so-called Best Management Practices (BMP), but there seems to be a low uptake of this scheme for a number of reasons. Meanwhile, innovative farmers who are experimenting with ways of improving the health of their soils (prevalent chemical-based approaches to canefarming rob the soil of valuable ‘biology’) are showing the way for their farming colleagues. The Central Queensland Soil Health Systems organisation is a local, grass-roots group of farmers dedicated to sharing their findings and educating themselves and others through events such as ‘soil health field days’.

rudy mattsson
Rudy Mattsson listening to guest speaker Walter Jehne

I attended one of these field days on September 25th at Simon Mattson’s farm in Marian. About twenty people attended, mostly farmers. One of the farmers was Simon’s father Rudy Mattsson, an octogenarian who is still actively working his own farm. The guest speaker was Walter Jehne, a soil microbiologist working with the not-for-profit organisation Healthy Soils Australia. Walter quoted Roosevelt: “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”. He presented a fascinating explanation of soil chemistry, with terms like ‘cation exchange’, ‘rootability’ and ‘humates’. Of course carbon was a major player in this explanation.

walter jehne presentation
Walter Jehne’s soil microbiology presentation the CQSHS field day

No field day would be complete without venturing out into the field. After a delicious barbecue lunch we all clambered into various vehicles and headed out to the paddock where Simon is experimenting with multi-species intercropping. It all begins to make sense when you can see with your own eyes how plants are interacting – Simon explained what he is trialling, the difficulties he is encountering and the successes he is having.

simon mattson soil health field day
Simon Mattsson talks about his experiments with multi-species cropping for soil health

After Walter’s presentation, Lucas was asked to introduce us to the guest farmers and explain why we’re here in Mackay and what we’re doing. He made an eloquent speech to the audience about why we, as artists, are interested in farming innovations, and the joys and difficulties of being a sugarcane farmer. It must have had an impact – soon after I was approached by Michael and John Attard, brothers who run two cane farms in the North Eton area. They invited us to come and look at one of their farms, as they wanted to show us the success they’ve been having through brewing their own ‘biofert’ (a mixture of cow paunch, milk, molasses and minerals). This really piqued our interest, so on Thursday 6th October Lucas and I headed out to North Eton. We were greatly impressed by Michael and John’s brewing experiments with all sorts of things. Their house is surrounded by what looks like a large, sprawling outdoor macro-brewery. They see themselves as developing a holistic approach to agriculture, greatly influenced by the work of Gary Zimmer and his book ‘The Biological Farmer’.

Michael Attard and biofert
Michael Attard with home-brewed ‘biofert’

Michael and John are saving a lot of money by making their own fertilisers, soil microbes and stubble digester with ingredients such as cow paunch (part of the cow stomach which contains enzymes), molasses, milk, bran, fermented rice, leaf litter, fish frames and minerals. At the same time, these home-brewed goodies are increasing soil health and moisture retention, while still yielding a crop that they’re very happy with.

You could see their excitement when they tested one of their brews with a refractometer (a small device which measures sugar content – a higher reading is a good thing apparently). While they still use commercial urea as a fertiliser, they have greatly reduced their volume of usage by applying their home-brewed humate and fish emulsion. Their philosophy: for every minus (urea) you try to do two plusses (humate and fish emulsion).

Michael and John Attard and a good crop of sugarcane
Michael and John Attard with a good crop of sugarcane

They can see the improvements in their soil over the past few years, having done annual soil chromatographs to gauge changes to soil health. John will be speaking at the National Biological Farming Conference in Cairns later this month, sharing knowledge that they’ve been building through experimentation and research.

soil chromatographs
Soil chromatographs – a DIY method for gauging soil health