This case study was originally published in: Bradshaw W (2001) ‘Critters & Crops: The critical connection’, Greening Australia Perth, WA
Payneham Vale is a 552 ha property situated 15 km north of Frankland in South Western Australia. Average rainfall is 580mm. The Watkins’ family farm enterprise consists of sheep for wool and meat, beef cattle, canola, oats, lupins, olives, and mixed vegetables – currently carrots, onions, and potatoes – all organically certified.
For the past 18 years, the Watkins have radically changed their thinking and management of the farm. The catalyst for change occurred when the house dam, that Ron’s Mum used to water her vegetables, went saline. The paddock that used to grow a 30 bag/acre crop became salt affected. So Ron started asking questions about water run off and realized that all land was recharge. He decided to turn the excess water – which was causing the problem – into a precious resource.
So he drew up a plan, the aim of which was to control and use the water productively, through a contour drainage system, installing dams for catchment where necessary, and planting shelter belts below the drains to use the deeper water. The drainage system links all the dams, so that no water is wasted. They have the added advantage that they can now farm on the contour.
He then looked at all the benefits of the plantings, of shelter, protection for the soil from major flood and wind events, and the improvement in biodiversity. Bird life can now move through the property without flying in open space at all.
Ron has noticed that water holes offer a lot of opportunity for natural processes, to act as an ‘engine room’ of activity around which many broader acre benefits may occur. While the sheep still feed from most dams, Ron has several key dams, which are fenced out from stock, and a trough system is used where necessary. Through natural processes, reeds are now growing around these dams, possibly introduced by ducks. The Watkins’ vision is to integrate the high dam into an aquaculture enterprise, where birds and ducks are encouraged to use the dam, their droppings feed the fish, and the nutrient rich water is used to grow their organic vegetables. In other words, to actively encourage natural ecosystem processes to assist them to be sustainable in the long term.
Implementation of this plan has been gradual, as finances have permitted. Whatever money was left over from running the farm and educating their children went into implementing this system. This was the priority, rather than an air conditioned harvester for example.
“We’re not making millions, but we’re having fun”, said Ron.
Ron says it is too early to be able to say he has noticed an increase in productivity, but he has definitely increased his ‘biological wealth’. With the biological system working well, Ron grows canola without the use of pesticides. “In nurturing the bird life and insects, the ecosystem has a better chance of maintaining a natural balance”.
Figure 36: Contour banks and plantings on Payneham Vale.
Source: Greening Australia Ltd.
Ron, Sue, Brad and Lynne are noticing the increase in natural processes all around them. The bird life is deafening at times, and you are battling to talk over them. Several years ago when he cut his lucerne, the mower was covered in masses of ladybirds. One day when they were having a cuppa in the tree belt, they observed hornets working constantly bringing in cutworm to the nests. While they were having smoko, the insects were still hard at work!
Ron emphasises that it’s not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight. The development so far is what Ron calls a ‘Macro protection system’. The next progression for them is to go into organics. The interconnectedness of the soil, water, plants, animals and air with human survival are clear to the Watkins family.
As Ron says, “man lives with an ecosystem and what we put in that system is what we get back. We continue to try to do it better, the job is never finished”.