Should Australia give up on the bush?

AS the 2010 election looms, the fate of rural Australia seems all but politically irrelevant. It’s been decades since the bush had a strong political voice and neither major party really understands or is committed to the country.If push comes to shove, they will always act on behalf of their urban base. And that urban base is more alienated from regional Australia than ever before, its understanding going no deeper than the stories of drought, fire and farmer suicide that pepper our media.For most of our history, white Australia’s relationship with the bush has been a kind of rape and pillage. During the 19th century, vast flocks of sheep and cattle were driven on to the inland plains and overgrazing destroyed entire ecosystems. The soil simply blew away, painting the snowfields of New Zealand pink.For a century, agriculture was then a series of booms and busts. Each cycle left the inland more degraded. One of the biggest booms occurred in the 1950s, when wool was worth a pound sterling per pound in weight. The country rode upon the sheep’s back and, in the Mallee towns, graziers drove prize rams about in Rolls Royces. What are now dimly remembered places to most – Dimboola, Birchip and Patchewollock – had enough young men to field several football teams.Yet all the while, the underpinnings of regional prosperity were being nibbled away – by poor stock and farm management, by rabbits and by the collapse of the ecosystem. By the 1980s, they had transformed once productive countryside into a moonscape, along the way driving 10 per cent of Australia’s native mammals to extinction.But now a revolution is occurring in regional Australia. Innovative land managers are finding ways to undo the damage, restore rural prosperity and contribute to the fight against climate change. Their success can be measured in part by the increased production of beef and grain during the past two decades – despite the drier climate – and in the rebounding populations of native plants and animals wherever the new practices take root.At the heart of the revolution lies a recognition that paddock and plough, as traditionally used, are weapons of mass destruction. Traditionally, livestock is kept in paddocks for weeks or months. They nibble away at the most nutritious plants, giving the noxious weeds an advantage, destroying both biodiversity and profitability.A new, holistic approach reverses this. The herds are moved from one small cell to another, as often as every day. The livestock eat everything in a cell but, over the following months, the pasture is rested and the grass grows back luxuriant and sweet. Cattle are better fed, less worried by parasites (because the moving disrupts the parasite cycle), calmer and seemingly happier (perhaps because the animals live in a more natural herd structure). And farmers are happier, too, because their workload is more evenly spread and their businesses are more profitable.In times past, ploughing was a declaration of war on biodiversity. Everything was killed, leaving a bare surface into which the crop was sown. Chemical fertilisers were then applied and pesticides and herbicides sprayed to keep other species out. That destroyed not only plants but soil fungi and bacteria, which are essential for healthy soil. If the rains didn’t come, the soil could end up in Sydney or across the Tasman.Traditional ploughing is being replaced by kinder methods such as ”zero kill”. Michael Inwood, a farmer near Bathurst, showed me how it works. You can’t see where the plough has been in his fields, for the native grassland remains thick and green, and his crops spring healthy from among the tussocks. You might think the wheat or oats would suffer from competition with the grass but instead they benefit from the extra soil moisture and soil carbon.Inwood has gone a step further. He’s done away with fossil fuels, dragging his specially modified plough behind a solar-powered ute. His entire property runs on energy from the sun and it remains as profitable as ever. Life is a lot richer than it was before because the environment is now home to fantastic biodiversity and includes hawks – which accompany him as he shifts his sheep between grazing cells – lizards and other wildlife, which all benefit from the luxuriant native grasses.In pioneering such changes, it’s as if the best Australian farmers have discovered Norman Lindsay’s legendary magic pudding. The more productive they make their farms, the more the pudding that feeds them grows. The secret is using biodiversity and soil carbon as allies rather than as foes or resources to be mined. We are seeing the first steps of a movement to restore the bush as an economic and environmental powerhouse of the nation. This time, it will be a sustainable one.The future Australian farm will not only be sustainable but it will draw income from diverse sources. This year, Simon Holmes a Court launched Australia’s first community-owned wind farm, near Daylesford in Victoria. In future, wind farms owned by farmers’ co-ops may be an important source of energy. Farmers are also looking towards biochar as a means of generating electricity. It can be made from any crop waste to form a syngas, a bio-oil and charcoal. The oil and gas can be burnt to generate electricity, while the char can be returned to the soil. The potential scale of carbon storage using biochar is vast but more research and development is required before we’ll know its full extent.Preserving Australia’s biodiversity is a national imperative. Last year, we lost a mammal species – a bat, the Christmas Island pipistrelle – the first to become extinct in 75 years. For a continent that has already lost so much, this is a tragedy but ordinary Australians are now doing something about it.The Australian Wildlife Conservancy, a non-profit organisation, controls 1.5 million hectares throughout Australia and employs scientists to study and manage ecosystems. By controlling fire, livestock and feral cats and foxes, it has achieved amazing things. After a few years of management, surveys a record presence of native animals and, with their return, the ecosystem flourishes. Plants not seen for years spring up, soil structure changes and a tortured ecosystem returns to health.With innovation and potential, the bush is a national opportunity but governments need to become more engaged.The endless energy resources of the inland – including solar, geothermal and wind – could be unlocked by the development of a high-voltage direct-current power line connecting the continent from east to west. This would bring renewable energy to the grid and it would do away with two of the nation’s four daily peaks in energy demand. We should develop a city in the Cooper Basin – a Geothermia – as a hub for minerals processing dependent entirely on clean, renewable energy.There is so much government could do. The Wentworth Group’s suggested water reforms – including large purchases of water licences and diverting funds from infrastructure such as pipelines to broader community support – would hasten a return to economic and environmental health of the Murray-Darling basin.Placing a price on carbon is indispensable in the climate-change fight and strengthening co-operatives would help farmers harness new energy resources. Most of all, however, we need a new kind of politics. Nation-building initiatives such as an east-west electricity interconnector are important not just for the opportunities they create but for the message they bring: we’re a nation united and by working together we can bring opportunity to all.Professor Tim Flannery is an author, scientist and was Australian of the Year in 2007.
Nanjing Night Net