Why is everyone talking about natural sequence farming?


Ian Rutherfurd, University of Melbourne

On the eve of the recent National Drought Summit, prime minister Scott Morrison and deputy prime minister Michael McCormack visited Mulloon Creek near Canberra, shown recently on the ABC’s Australian Story. They were there to see a creek that was still flowing, and green with vegetation, despite seven months of drought.

Mulloon Creek was the legacy of a long collaboration between prominent agriculturalist Peter Andrews, and Tony Coote, the owner of the property who died in August. For decades they have implemented Andrews’ “natural sequence farming” system at Mulloon Creek.




Read more:
Government to set up new multi-billion Future Drought Fund


Central to the system is slowing flow in the creek with “leaky weirs”. These force water back into the bed and banks of the creek, which rehydrates the floodplain. This rehydrated floodplain is then said to be more productive and sustainable.

McCormack, who is also the minister for infrastructure, transport and regional development, was impressed and declared the success of Mulloon as a “model for everyone … this needs to be replicated right around our nation”. The ABC program suggested this form of farming could reduce the impact of drought across Australia. So, what is the evidence?

The promise of natural sequence farming

There are plenty of anecdotes but little published science around the effectiveness of natural sequence farming. What there is describes some modest floodplain rehydration, little change to stream flows, some trapping of sediment and some improvements in soil condition. These results are encouraging but not miraculous.

How much each of the different components of natural sequence farming contributes is not always clear, and the economic arguments for widespread adoption are modest. At present, there is not the standard of evidence to support this farming method as a panacea for drought relief, as proposed by the deputy prime minister.




Read more:
Helping farmers in distress doesn’t help them be the best: the drought relief dilemma


But if the evidence does emerge, why wouldn’t farmers simply adopt the methods as part of a sensible business model? Don’t all farmers want to do better in drought?

In the ABC show, and elsewhere, supporters of natural sequence farming argue that it is hard for farmers to adopt the methods because government regulations restrict use of willows, blackberries and other weeds, that they claim, are particularly effective in restoring streams.

Governments are correct to be wary of this call to use weeds, and some research suggests that native plants can do a similar job. This restriction on use of weeds might be galling for proponents of natural sequence farming but it should not be a fundamental impediment to adoption.

A more important frustration for natural sequence farming practitioners is how widely the approach can be applied. In Australian Story, John Ryan, a rural journalist, says:

I am sick of politicians, farmers groups, and government departments telling me that Peter Andrews only works where you’ve got little creeks in a mountain valley … I’ve seen it work on flat-lands, steep lands, anywhere.

Natural sequence farming arose in the attempt to restore upland valleys and creeks in southern NSW that were once environmentally valuable chains of ponds or swampy meadows. But these waterways have become deeply incised, degraded, and disconnected from their floodplains. Not only does this incision produce a great deal of sediment pollution, but it produces many agricultural problems.




Read more:
Spring is coming, and there’s little drought relief in sight


In reality, small and medium-sized stream systems across much of Australia have deepened after European settlement. If the leaky weirs of natural sequence farming are effective, then they could be applied across many gullied and incised streams across the country.

We’ve already been doing it

The good news is that landholders and governments have already been using aspects of natural sequence farming in those very gullies for decades to control erosion.

Since the 1970s, across the world, one useful method for controlling erosion has been grade-control structures. They were once made of concrete but are now usually made of dumped rock (called rock-chutes), and also logs.

Rock chutes in Barwidgee Creek, 1992, Ovens River catchment, Victoria. Source: T McCormack NE Catchment Management Authority.
T McCormack NE Catchment Management Authority
The same creek in 2002. It is now heavily vegetated and has pools of water, just like Mulloon Park.
T McCormack NE Catchment Management Authority

These structures reduce the speed of water flow, trap sediment, encourage vegetation, and stop gullies from deepening. These are all goals of natural sequence farming using leaky weirs.

There are thousands of such structures, supported by government initiatives, across the Australian landscape acting as an unrecognised experiment in rehydration and drought protection.




Read more:
We must strengthen, not weaken, environmental protections during drought – or face irreversible loss


Perhaps governments should already have evaluated these structures, but the rehydration potential of these works has not been recognised in the past. It is time that this public investment was scientifically evaluated.

We may find that natural sequence farming and the routine government construction of grade-control structures have similar effects on farmland and the environment.

But whatever the outcome, gully management is not likely to mark the end of drought in the Australian landscape.The Conversation

Ian Rutherfurd, Associate Professor in Geography, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Advertisements

The Nationals have changed their leader but kept the same climate story


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

After Barnaby Joyce’s demise as Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader, and his replacement by Michael McCormack, we might wonder what the junior Coalition partner’s leadership change means for Australia’s climate policy.

Perhaps the answer is “not a great deal”, given the apparent similarity between the two men’s outlooks. But then again, confident predictions about the future of Australian climate policy are a mug’s game.




Read more:
Shattered Nationals meet to chart their post-Barnaby course


Joyce joined the Senate back in July 2005, as part of the tranche that gave the Liberal and National Coalition absolute control. At the time, another new senator, the Greens’ Christine Milne, was ready to talk with the likes of Joyce, arguing that both of their parties should share common concerns about climate change, drought, salinity, loss of native vegetation, and more.

Joyce evidently didn’t see it that way. When federal Liberals Brendan Nelson and Alexander Downer tried to get a debate going about the purported climate benefits of nuclear power, Joyce joined with Queensland’s Labor Premier Peter Beattie in arguing that nuclear power should not be on the agenda while Australia’s coal resources remained plentiful (although he opted against echoing Beattie’s “clean coal” push).

A year later, however, Joyce was more attuned to Milne’s concerns. In the context of the seemingly never-ending Millennium drought, and with Nationals leader Mark Vaile urging his cabinet colleagues to spend at least another A$750 million on drought relief, Joyce fearfully noted that:

The drought really has to be seen to be believed. It’s a case of creeks that haven’t run for months, sometimes years, (and) bores that are going dry. There is a real concern amongst a lot that maybe there is a final change in the climate. That’s really starting to worry people.

Six months later, with the “first climate change election” looming, Joyce used some leaping logic to describe proposed rail spending as a climate measure:

We can go up to every mother and father and ask them if they can drive their tree to work and see how they go… I think that rail is greenhouse friendly. It is going to be taking all prime-movers off the road.

Roast boast

Of course, this support for rural industry didn’t mean that Joyce supported any form of emissions trading put forward by either Liberal or Labor. He instead voiced fears that Australia “could soon resemble communism” unless farmers are paid properly for the carbon stored in their land.

In 2011 Joyce voted against Julia Gillard’s voluntary Carbon Farming Initiative, which in 2014 was absorbed into Tony Abbott’s Direct Action program. A 2017 report argues that it is now helping farmers, but not reducing emissions.

Perhaps his most (in)famous claim came in 2009, as Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme staggered towards its demise, bleeding credibility and support at every lobbyist-inspired softening. Joyce predicted that with the advent of carbon trading, the Sunday roast would cost A$150 (a figure that was later downgraded to a far more measured and believable 100 bucks).

The same year, Joyce told political journalist Laurie Oakes:

Everywhere there is a power point in your house, there is access to a new tax for the Labor Government – a new tax on ironing, a new tax on watching television, a new tax on vacuuming.

In November 2009, the Nationals told the Liberals that support for carbon pricing could lead to a split in the Coalition. The then Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull was challenged by Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott, the latter winning by a single vote. The rest is history.

Joyce joined in the ultimately fatal attack on Gillard’s carbon pricing scheme by upping the ante on his Sunday roast claims. Using some impressively creative reasoning, he argued that the A$23-a-tonne carbon price could lead abattoirs to end up being slugged A$575,000 for slaughtering a single cow.

A party of one mind

Of course, Joyce is far from alone among Nationals for baiting the greenies. Fellow backbencher George Christensen’s dangerous and lamentable Facebook post is just the latest in a long line of provocations.

Back in 1997 Tim Fischer, then Deputy Prime Minister, spoke at a conference in Canberra organised by climate denialists called Countdown to Kyoto. Years later, at about the same time that Joyce first entered the Senate, his party colleague Julian McGauran reportedly flipped the bird at Greens leader Bob Brown after the Coalition voted down a Senate motion criticising the government on climate change.

More recently still, the Nationals have joined in many Liberals’ hatred of renewable energy, despite the fact that it would make a lot of money for farmers.

Will anything change except the climate?

Joyce is gone, but the Nationals don’t exactly have hordes of tree-huggers waiting in the wings. The efforts of Farmers for Climate Action to influence the Nationals’ leadership succession seems to have amounted to nothing.

Michael McCormack (who was interviewed by Michelle Grattan for the Conversation) is already under Twitter scrutiny over his maiden speech in 2010, when he said:

When it does not rain for years on end, it does not mean it will not rain again. It does not mean we all need to listen to a government grant-seeking academic sprouting doom and gloom about climate changing irreversibly.

The journalist Paddy Manning has given an overview of his positions since then. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same (unlike the climate).




Read more:
Under McCormack, the Nationals need to accept they are a minority and preserve their independence


It is impossible to predict how and when the Nationals’ policies might change, especially in places where One Nation is waiting with open arms for any wavering voters.

The ConversationBut as ever, it is the voters who hold the key. If enough of Barnaby’s “weatherboard and iron” rural base decide that climate change is a serious, vote-deciding issue, that will be the day when the Nationals finally give up their cast-iron opposition to climate action.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.