Good News 2 – Regeneration

Twenty years ago, I was the proud owner of a new house sitting on a few acres outside the metropolitan area of Melbourne.  The house was custom-built, a standard design amended to suit our needs, set high up on sloping ground with views across a valley.  Naturally, we invited friends and family over to share in our enjoyment.  When one daughter arrived, she said it looked like we had moved to Kansas!  I looked outside, and saw her point:  our block was bare, and had probably once been used for grazing, with only a modest cover of native grass to be seen.  The same was true for the other new housing blocks in the valley.

We contacted the local shire council, and they were very helpful.  There was money for replanting, provided we used natives, and they gave us links to suppliers.  Off we went to a nearby nursery, Western Plains Flora, that specialised in local trees and plants.  It was an eye-opener.  They questioned us about our block, the land characteristics, and more, all to ensure they were able to suggest what we might grow that would suit our ‘micro-climate’.  Some of the plants they suggested had been harvested from alongside railways lines, one of the few areas where local growth hadn’t been replaced by lawns, European flowers, or non-indigenous fruit trees.  Over several months, we bought nearly one thousand trees, shrubs, and plants, every one of them a tiny stalk in a plastic tube.  And we started planting!

To revegetate that large block took a long time.  It was hard work, the weather often very hot, and the ground was like iron in many areas.  We had instructions on how to plant each variety, and how much watering was needed to help these tiny items flourish and become established.  Every single planting was sheltered by a transparent plastic sheet, held in place by three stakes.  I look back at that year with amazement, at the way we persisted, especially as the short-term result was a garden covered in plastic protectors.  To my surprise and delight, the seedlings grew:  in the end, I think we might have lost around 15%.  Steadily, bushes appeared, and trees began sprouting.  We left that house a few years later, but when I checked on Google maps, I could see that block was covered in greenery, as were several of the neighbouring places (I’d like to think we’d shamed them into acting!).

One of the virtues of what we had done was that our large garden didn’t need watering, once that first planting had been established.  These were natives, used to hot dry weather, the very reason they had been suggested.  Knowing that, I shouldn’t have been surprised, a few years later, to see a band of trees at the bottom of the block that were at least ten metres tall.  As time went by, we learnt a little more.  The development had been poorly planned, and the road and the areas close to it were subject to flash floods on those rare occasions when there was a substantial rainfall.  The first time that happened, we lost several trees, another 15% at least, and felt somewhat disheartened.  Then we went back to work and tried to construct better water channels.  Eventually, contractors came and fixed the roadside drainage.  Despite this, it was an important lesson.  We had the right mixture of natives, but Australia is a harsh place.  Very quickly, our beautiful sloping block could turn into a waterfall gully!

As we lived on a ‘no through road’, we were advised that Country Fire tenders would be unlikely to come up to our house if a bush fire broke out, as they will not enter a road without the ability to exit in either direction.  Reluctantly, we had to remove some trees close to the house, planned to instal a second rainwater tank for firefighting, and bought a petrol pump and hoses.  Before housing, fires would have raced through the area, clearing away ground cover and collapsed trees, leaving an area safe from bush fires for many years.  Without the cycle of natural clearance, we had to be ready to manage a fire unless it was too fierce.  Part of our laundry was filled with firefighting equipment, which included ‘adult’ water guns to put out internal spot fires.  If there was a bushfire, some of those trees we’d planted would go, but many would survive:  I can still remember driving up near Woodend after the terrible fires there:  within days you could see green shoots appearing on the blackened trunks.

By planting trees, we were one small household making a tiny contribution to regeneration.  One other strategy was almost serendipitous.  Our new house was well away from the metropolitan sewage network, and so we were expected to put in a septic tank.  Then we read about a ‘worm farm’.  Possibly not for the squeamish, but the idea was great.  Anything organic could be tossed into this tank, which also received water from the sinks and baths, and the effluent from the toilets:  once in the tank, everything was munched up by the worms.  A sloping blog was ideal, as gravity was important; given this, the resulting rich liquid was slowly distributed, underground, to parts of the garden.  Health regulations suggested those areas should not be used for growing any vegetables or fruits for human consumption:  not a problem, as this wasn’t kitchen garden territory!

Once we decided to put in a worm farm, we had questions from friends and children.  Some were concerned about the worms!  Within a few weeks, I’d stopped thinking about them:  when I tipped organic waste into the tank, I might see a few, but any deep philosophical questions about their life experience seemed rather foolish.  A more relevant concern was the issue of odour.  Poking out from the top of tank was a tall pipe, with a wind-driven ventilator.  The only time I could detect any smell was when adding kitchen waste, but that took no time at all.  Perhaps this wasn’t quite the same as regeneration, but it felt good to be putting back into the soil, and our garbage collection requirements were small and infrequent.

In recounting these steps, I am not seeking to be seen among the ecological-living vanguard.  I wasn’t.  Rather my point is simple:  if thousands, even millions do what we did, then the task of restoring Australia becomes a little more feasible.  From ground cover to huge eucalypts, the native vegetation of Australia protected the land.  Of course, the great majority of the country is covered with stony or sandy deserts, but even there plants have adapted and survived.  Now, as temperatures are increasing, the ideal types of vegetation are slowly changing.  Smart people today are introducing new varieties to Australian gardens, hardier and more resilient in the face of hotter weather.  A million tiny steps will make a difference.

If that sounds feasible and worthwhile, it is because it is easy to be swept up by recovery, by putting things back the way they were.  However, I think it is also fundamentally and deeply mistaken.  It is the core of the conservative agenda:  “if only we could get back to the way things were”.  Nostalgia is a dangerous emotion.  It plays on our sense that we have lost something, something better than what we have today.  That might make for a good movie, (although The Way We Were was a shambolic and unconvincing story), but it makes no sense in real life.  We can’t go backwards, nor should we try to do so.

The task of regeneration is not to recreate what had been there before.  The approach is partly about restoration, but it is also about renewal.  In that garden I wasn’t trying to return to the way that hillside had been before people, sheep, or other invaders had changed it.  We were using what was known about how things grew in that part of Victoria to renew the hillside, to establish something for the future, rather than try to drag it back to the past.  Re-creation has its place, and it is good to study the ecology of an areas to better understand the necessary interdependencies between soil, climate, and plants.  However, I am a firm believer in change, change for the better.  If that sounds rather abstract and idealistic, then let me give two examples.  In choosing these examples, I am hoping to make a second point:  while lots of individual efforts are praiseworthy, the massive efforts required to regenerate are the result of corporate initiatives, too.  The private sector can be a force for positive change.

My first example is a company called Regenerative Australian Farmers.  Like any modern organisation, it has a vision statement: “To contribute to a global reversal of the current trend in land degradation through regenerative agricultural practices that build soil carbon, increase water retention, support soil biology and ecosystem biodiversity”.  For once in my life, I was delighted it did, because when the website went on to explain more, I was almost lost!

“Regenerative Australian Farmers (RAF) is a leading facilitator and service provider for integrated agricultural solutions to build and monetise soil organic carbon, soil health and rural prosperity. This includes cost effective soil carbon evaluations, soil carbon field coring, baselining expertise & targeted implementation plans to support long term soil carbon contracts. … [it] works with landholders and partner service providers across all stages of a carbon project’s lifecycle … [and] offers landholders a comprehensive and affordable suite of soil carbon measurement and emission reduction services (from an initial diagnostic, soil carbon baseline, implementation plan to on-going monitoring and reporting and energy efficiency) of which the central focus is building soil carbon and helping farmers secure a competitive commercial return on their investment through both a carbon price and increased productivity”.

Whoa!  Still reading?  What caught my attention was their belief that

“regenerative agriculture is one of the best kept secrets in our collective response to climate change, widespread land degradation, water retention, loss of diversity and declining regional economic growth, and our desire for food security that is clean and non-toxic …  Given that humanity is sustained by just the top 15cm (6”) of soil, if we fail to ensure that this precious veneer of the earth’s crust [is protected], reversing the current oxidative farming practices [by] working with nature not against it, the consequences are neither desirable nor unacceptable. …  Since 1840 the soil carbon levels in southern Australian have fallen from around 4% to less than 1% … RAF’s agenda is to inform, educate, motivate, and participate in restorative farming practices that result in atmospheric carbon being returned to the soil, the soil sponge rehydrated, emissions reduced, and farm productivity increased. Healthy soil; healthy plants and animals; healthy and affordable food; healthy humans. It’s that simple – together we can.”

At the risk of overstating what has already been made clear, the approach is to enhance soil quality, not to return the landscape to the way it was 150 years ago.  RAF wants to ensure farming practice can be healthy, effective, and financially rewarding.  My tree planting might have been helpful in restoring the landscape, but their project will increase farm productivity.  Nice views or affordable food?  I suggest we need many more RAFs at work.  Perhaps good news from the corporate world isn’t your favourite source, but without the contribution from major business activity, we won’t do enough to restore land and slow down climate change.

My second example covers a couple more business initiatives.  As we are facing increasing temperatures worldwide, using water with the greatest efficiency possible is even more important.  For years, farmers have explored better systems, but now we are learning how even more can be done.  For many years, hydroponics has been popular, growing plants without soil in a nutrient solution, either with the roots simply extending into the liquid, or held in an inert supporting base, such as a loose gravel.  Hydroponics can decrease water usage significantly, typically using 10x to 20x less water than conventional agriculture.  It’s an old idea.  Francis Bacon discussed the topic back in the early part of the 17thCentury, and, with continuing research and development, by 1929 the approach was being mooted for crop agriculture.   There were challenges to be overcome, especially developing the right kind of nutrient solutions.  I was fascinated to read one of the earliest successes of hydroponics was on Wake Island, a Pacific Ocean atoll, where hydroponics was used in the 1930s to grow vegetables for Pan Am passengers, a necessary technique as there was no soil at this transit point, and it was prohibitively expensive to airlift in fresh vegetables!

Recent growth in hydroponics has been extraordinary.  As one example, Canada now has hundreds of acres of large-scale commercial hydroponic greenhouses, producing tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers.  The global hydroponics market is forecast to grow to $750bn in the next couple of years.  Innovation continues, and I was struck by the emergence of aeroponics.  A New Jersey business, AeroFarms, grows green vegetables in vertical farms which don’t require sunlight, soil, or pesticides. Instead, water and nutrients are misted onto the plants, which grow on reusable cloths under LED lights in spacious warehouse-style buildings, allowing growing and harvesting all year round in the climate-controlled environment.  One of the founders commented, “The way we can optimize a plant to influence not just yield but taste, texture, and nutritional density is changing the way the world looks at farming.  Vertical farming won’t solve all the world’s problems in feeding humanity, but it is certainly part of the solution.”  Business hydroponics and aeroponics are important steps forward.

For Aero Farms continuous data monitoring is critical.  While their system is innovative, information is their key resource, as it is drawn on to assess and report on the performance of the other relatively straightforward technologies they use.  Data sits at the centre of another area of development, remote sensing satellites. I have written about this amazing technology before.  A remote sensing irrigation scheduling service informs farmers how much water their crop has used and how much irrigation is needed, monitoring crops on a daily basis.  Low cost or free and easily accessible remote sensing technology is what has made programs like IrriSAT in Australia so successful.  IrriSAT was initially targeted at cotton farmers in NSW and Queensland with the goal of improving water conservation by processing satellite imagery and pairing this with weather information and local paddock data to track the daily soil moisture requirements in near-real time.

The IrriSAT technology also provides data feeds to other agricultural service providers around Australia, who have developed other value-added services for their customers. One company enables farmers to measure, monitor and alarm every point of water entry and exit across their farm, treating and managing water as an asset. The range features state-of-the-art weather stations, rain gauges and temperature sensors, dam monitors, meter monitors and fuel tank sensors. All these sensors, combined with an analytics platform, provide real-time measurement of total water stored on a farm, crop water usage per day and water evaporation from individual storage areas.  In some regions, it is also used to schedule growth, staggering fields readiness so that harvesting can be spread over days, managed with less equipment.

Have I made my point?  Individuals replanting indigenous local vegetation, that’s good news.  Major companies developing systems to restore soil depth and quality, growing foods using hydroponics or aeroponics, or minimising farmers’ water usage – that’s Good News!  Australia is at the forefront in these areas because we don’t subsidise farmers to a ridiculous extent:  farming businesses must compete with others overseas by being in the vanguard of productivity and efficiency.  Hey, many Australian agriculture stories are Great News!