Acotanc: Niche Tree Crops

Tree Niche Crops as the Saviour of Country Towns

Author: Phil Bellamy
E-mail: [email protected]

How We Got to Where We Are!

The Western Australian landscape has been converted from environmentally stable bushland to cleared agricultural land in a very short period of time, much faster than the environment was able to adapt. The European settlers removed the bush following the mores of the day and government policy, establishing a much more delicate system on the land, trying to replicate a foreign environment. Very few parts of the cleared agricultural land in Western Australia are more than 100 years from the original bushland.

The earlier Australians had also made changes to the bushland, but in a much more benign way and had developed an extensive use of the wide diversity offered. That the later settlers imposed farming system wasn't benign is evident in every district in Western Australia, with the biggest difference, the loss of diversity and alteration to the hydrological cycle following removal of the deep rooted woody perennials.

The current agricultural system is a series of monoculture crops, grown in succession, relying on expensive artificial fertiliser to maintain high production and quality. Broadacre farming methods is the norm. Within this system we are good farmers and the World to a large degree relies on our production: this may be a cliche from the 60's and 70's, but it also happens to be true. We are increasingly vital for world pulse production and every year we increase our markets and market share along with the cereals.

We developed a stock system that was more in keeping with the modified environment, and being good farmers utilised our stock management skills grazing more animals. This system is labour intensive and the first stage value adding is still done in the district, creating jobs and a mystique about it. We may have a surplus of wool and we certainly have cheap sheep meat but there are jobs in the industry, to the extent that rural districts import labour. Some small rural based enterprises additionally carry out second stage value adding, creating more employment. Eleanor Junk from Beacon uses natural dyes from native plants to value add to the processed wool and makes up jumper and cardigan packs for sale.

Sheep, unfortunately, have an environmental downside in that their hooves cause degradation of the surface soil structure and contribute to the creation of a compaction hardpan. These are management issues and can be tolerated. The worldwide greenhouse ruminant gas, methane, is a bigger issue and needs to be dealt with in a worldwide context.

Cattle, especially meat breeds, in large numbers are a more recent introduction, and good management including a way of processing the manure could prevent major problems developing. The methane is still an issue though. Beef production does little by way of job creation other than transport, but it may contribute to the overall financial viability.

Social Development

Large scale clearing of land in the wheatbelt didn't really start until after the First World War, when the government opened land up for farming. One criteria of the land release was extensive clearing the land for broadacre cropping, although due to lack of large machinery, not on the scale of present farming operations. Labour was cheap and the Rural Banks and Stock firms backed the farmers even though by today's standards the ratio of debt to asset wouldn't be acceptable. What was achieved, in what was a short time, was a farming system that evolved to be one of the most energy efficient for cereal and sheep production in dryland conditions.

The system slowly developed larger farming units with the State Agencies and others motto in the 70's and early 80's of "get big or get out". Farm machinery got bigger and more efficient and many farms were amalgamated as less and less labour was required to operate the farm. Individual farmers required access to more finance and this fueled the get-big cycle. Towns and rural populations diminished in size. Not so long ago there was a tractor manufacturer located in Merredin but it was unable to compete with the multinationals; the tractors were comparable, the company was just too small.

The farming system that developed relied on an export market and since 1940 has allowed the lifestyle of all Western Australians to be leisurely. Primary production income from export crops is still a significant source of income for the State. We don't have a manufacturing industry and the only significant source of income today is still from Primary production. Yet we export basically raw product. Obviously the mining sector is larger than agriculture in export earnings, but mining is primary production by economic definition.

Farmers generally have little effect on the price they pay for farm inputs, fertiliser, chemicals, machinery etc. You either pay the price or go without. We are dependent on inputs that we have no real influence over. The prices that we receive for our produce are also determined by others and bear little relation to the cost of production. In fact we are to a degree dependent on somewhere else in the world having a crop failure to get a realistic income margin.

Urban people have at times commented to me that if the price for produce is too low to make any sort of profit then farmers should just charge more. That would be nice!

So rural communities decline due to lack of real work, farmers leave the land due to low returns, technological machinery requires less people to operate a farm and the end result is the farm infrastructure declines as too few people are busy doing too many jobs and the cycle repeats. The end is the degradation of the land and impoverishment of the rural community, both economically and socially.

At a recent National Local Government conference, an academic expert stated those towns with communities less than 4000 people should be closed and populations relocated to places with enough people to be viable. In Western Australia that leaves Perth, Bunbury, Albany Esperance, Kalgoorlie, Narrogin, Geraldton, Manjimup, Mandurah and very little else. The State would be broke in a very few years. Basically we can't let the little communities and towns disappear. They are the heart and soul of the country.

A sign of the malaise and befuddled thinking process that develops from frustration or desperation is the example of bringing an auto-electrician to a particular small country town using scarce Shire Council funds. Six months later the work for the auto-electrician had run out, as he was a good tradesman, leaving him doing roustabout work, the only work open. After 18 months the auto-electrician left town. The Shire has a population of about 300 people, (the Shire not the town!). This was a very expensive exercise for everyone involved, especially when the cost of relocation and the social disorder are factored into the enterprise.

This particular town is now conducting another survey to identify what services or trades are needed most: the indications are that a Panel Beater Spray-painter will be next and the result will be the same.

What is really needed is an additional 2000 people in the town to generate the work for the trades, the need will be genuine, sustainable and the tradespeople will establish themselves in the town. The town already has the necessary infrastructure for about 4,000 people and at one time about 2500 people lived in the Shire.

Rural Western Australia has a common set of factors that require treatment that have been belabored by people more expert than I, so I will just list some.

Environmental Factors

  • Salinity, water and land
  • Soil Acidity
  • Lack of farm diversity
  • Increasing size of economic enterprise

Financial Factors

  • Increasing costs of farming (no real input into costs)
  • Decreasing farming income (no real input into prices : price taker)
  • Increasing size of farming enterprise
  • Reliance on non-diverse cropping systems

Social Factors

  • Age of farmers and rural communities
  • Declining town and rural populations
  • Youth exporters along with our crops

In ironic jest I once stated at a local rural forum that a sign of a successful community in a rural environment is a young male suicide rate the same as the urban rate. We, rural communities, normally have a rate greater than double and in some communities nearly triple the urban rate and this follows the feeling of despair that exists in rural communities.

What Can And Needs To Be Done.

Diversification is the key! Basically our present approach isn’t working and we need to change. That famous philosopher Anon, once stated “a definition of madness is to continue to do things in the same way that we’ve always done them, but to expect a different outcome.”

Diversification of the farming enterprise with "new" crops that are environmentally beneficial, developing new farming operations and systems to permit/encourage radical new ways of farming is needed. Broadacre farming of cereals needs to continue where appropriate, integrated with woody perennials, in line with the land's capability. We are the best farmers in the world, as far as cereal and pulse production is concerned and we don't want to change that: we need to add to that fact.

Along with the new crops, we need to develop the cultural practices and crop management skills to obtain the best economic return and not make environmental mistakes. The new crops need to be environmentally benign or beneficial.

Value-adding to the product in the rural district that it is grown should be an integral part of the crop development, as this will increase the social and financial return to the district that makes the investment. If we develop a new crop or produce that is shipped out as bulk produce then we are starting on the well-worn path that got us to where we are now.

Examples of the range of new niche crops being grown or could be grown include;

Oil Mallees: Eucalyptus Kochi plus
Specialty timbers Eucalyptus rudis
Leaf and bark for natural dyes Eucalyptus capulosa
Fat Eucalyptus systems Eucalyptus botryiodes

Acacia flour Acacia microbotrya
Bush tomato Solanum species
Native pepper Tasmannia lanceolata
Coffee substitute Brachycriton gregori
-- can't be worse than many of the instant coffees in the marketplace!

Niacin Duboisia hopwoodii
Vitamin C Atriplex nummularia

Herbal Medicine
Rutin Eucalyptus youmannii
Nicotine patch Duboisia hopwoodii
Asthma treatment Euphorbia hirta

Specialty crops

Medicinal crops
Cardiac alkaloids Erythrophleum chlorostachyum
Essential oils Santalum spicatum
Atropine and tropane Duboisia myoporoides
Contraceptives Solanum laciniatum

Industrial crops
Condensed tannins Acacia and Eucalyptus bark
Gums & Mucilages Acacia acuminata

Corn dollies

New Skill Development

Before starting on this heading I need first to mention the cultural revolution that has occurred in the mindset of rural people over the last 15 years or so. The impact of knowledge gained about environmental factors by farmers and rural communities has followed an active search for the reasons for the current environmental problems. The solutions however haven’t become obvious and in reality there will be a range of options that fit the individual situation and psyche. A key point to this revolution is the degree of ownership of the issues by the rural community.

One common factor to the range of solutions is the need for extensive revegetation as a significant part of any solution. Brendan Lay established that plant species native to an area or from aligned drier areas are generally the best option for plantation establishment. This was further backed up by Paul Redell, especially considering the fairly specific mycorrhiza of Australian soils.

In reality very few Australian plants, and fewer Western Australian species, have been investigated as plantation crops and this needs serious research now.

The new skills that need to be developed are;

Seed provenance identification for superior quality product, (this is different to the seed provenance issue for revegetation of natural stands of bush. One uses seed from a specified area and the other uses seed with the desired superior qualities. The degree and effect of crossing of these two sources needs to be addressed.)

The identification of exactly what the desired characteristics are is the first issue to be dealt with, especially for Australian species as the variability within a species and the range of geographic regions where species occur could result in widely varying characteristics. This is evidenced by Aboriginal knowledge, where in one locality a plant is regarded as being poisonous and yet in another area a staple food.

Nursery cultivation practices for many or most Australian species is an unknown and due to the nature and complexity of plant and animal life and their interaction, germination, and growing many species is a ongoing challenge. The recent identification of smoke as a trigger for germination is an indication of the complexity of plant life and these and other techniques need to be developed and refined.

Plant management practices in the field specific for the new crops need to be identified, developed and applied to obtain the greatest benefit, both economic and environmental from the crop. The experience gained through the general revegetation activity over the last few decades by farmers and conservation groups is a source of information that can be built on. Mycorrhiza species identification for soils needs to be done and practices beneficial to sustainably manage the mycorrhiza adopted.

Harvest techniques that are applicable to the specific crop and the extractable components need to be identified and tested. Harvest technique will affect the quality of the food value, the timber value, if harvested inappropriately. The value of many of the solvents, alkloids, sterols, flavonoids, terpenoids, glycocides, phenols, oils and resins decreases rapidly with inappropriate handling and storage during and after harvest.

Plant extraction techniques need to be developed into commercially applicable and viable techniques that assure quality and the highest economic benefit.

Storage and handling of extract or produce is an essential component of the new way of thinking going beyond just growing, harvesting and delivering the crop.

Waste material management that gives a return for processing of the waste, even to the point that organic matter is returned to the soil, building the soil's organic matter content to the levels that existed prior to the introduction of broadacre crop systems. Value adding to normally valueless waste material is viable.

Marketing and sales of product, through long-term contract will encourage investment in the infrastructure in rural areas extending the benefits gained through growing the new crops.

A distribution and orderly sales system based in the rural areas is possible.

In conclusion, the message that I try to get across is simple. We have to revegetate extensive areas of our cleared farmland to deal with environmental issues. This revegetation can easily be done in an economic manner that adds to the range of possible enterprises, building a sustainable future for rural Western Australia.