Green Myths About Australian Farming

Excerpt from David F. Smith

Agriculture has a bad name in Australia. We are told that: It has exhausted the soil, and yields of crops have collapsed. It has caused massive erosion. It has polluted some rivers, made many others salty and used all the water from the rest. Its animals make methane, a main cause of global warming. Clearing the land has made too many species extinct. Put simply, we shouldn’t have come here—we should have left it to the Aborigines who were so much more in harmony with the land than we are. Popular writers such as Jared Diamond and to a lesser extent Tim Flannery have written books that widely promulgate such views.

How much of these assertions is loose talk? What is myth? What is the evidence?

Few media people have any concern to get it right. Sweeping statements are reported uncritically, serious errors go uncorrected. Some of the repeating is innocent enough, but much is by people who should know better, such as people with titles like “Environmental Editor”. Too frequently they write to whip up emotions, rather than to inform or educate.

Some statements are made, and repeated, when a little deeper thought shows them as meaningless. Some are valid in a limited context but are given status far beyond this. Some are true, but immaterial. Such as:

• The first Europeans and their descendants have simply tried to do European farming in Australia.

• Native is always best: farm kangaroos rather than sheep and cattle; dig out the roses; mimic nature in managing the environmental problems of our landscapes.

• Australia is the driest inhabited continent.

• The soils of Australia’s agricultural lands are old and poor.

• The European settlers have cut down forests over vast areas and caused massive soil erosion and widespread salinity.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Farming Like Europe

It is often stated that not only were the early European settlers in Australia hell-bent on making a little Europe/England, but also that the farming systems used since are still part of such an attempt and therefore should be abandoned. The argument then goes that many of the environmental problems in the Australian landscape will only be “cured” when farmers cease to farm. One example was Tim Flannery’s Australia Day message in 2002: “most of us live as people from somewhere else who just happen to inhabit—sometimes unsustainably, ignorantly and destructively—this marvellous continent … we have believed we could remake the continent in the image of Europe … force our truculent soils to yield”. Ross Garnaut’s work also has a touch of this attitude.

In fact the new settlers must have quickly realised that they were in a very different land needing new approaches. Just because they brought some familiar, well-tried garden plants from “home” does not mean they eschewed the things that were already here. And we need to remember that they would not have seen their “home” land farming as ideal—Europe had had its share of famine and still had severe shortages of food well into the 1800s. Modern humans, who accept different ideas and technologies—and people—from all over the world naturally also scan the global range for useful plants and animals. Some are pretty, adding to the wonderful variety of things already here—like roses. Some give deeper shade when needed and none when it is not—like plane trees. Some are easier to confine and manage—like sheep, rather than kangaroos.

The settlers were quite prepared to use things native: local trees for timber and honey, their bark for tanning; kangaroos for meat, native fish for food; but above all, native grasses for what was for nearly a century to be their mainstay, the sheep industry. They greatly valued these grasses, and soon called them by local names—kangaroo and wallaby grasses. Research was carried out on how to use them best—as late as 1930 the very first graduate student at the new Waite Agricultural Research Institute in Adelaide studied wallaby grass.

Granted they did not attempt to “farm” the kangaroo or emu—with hindsight, sensibly. Despite the occasional assertion that we ought to do so, for instance by Garnaut and Flannery, the extraordinary movements of kangaroos defy any system to contain them and regulate their grazing, even with the superior technologies of our modern times, and “farming” emus remains problematic in economic terms. Some make much of the kangaroo foot being softer than the sheep—ignoring the enormous damage done by the softest foot of all, the rabbit! It is grazing habit and pressure that matter.

Plenty of aspects of agricultural life in Australia would have constantly reminded the settlers that this was a very different place from Europe. Animals could graze in the open year-round; in Europe they had to be sheltered and fed in barns for several winter months. Moisture shortage was a dominant consideration for crop growth; in Europe it was rarely limiting. Existing vegetation had to be cleared and regrowth shoots killed, stumps dealt with and often stones picked—processes that went on for many years; in Europe the crop was planted into “old” land, long cleared of stones and stumps, farmed for centuries.

From the start, those involved (for example the acclimatisation societies) would have, sensibly, scanned the world, not to imitate and transpose whole systems, but to search for new species and to gather ideas to evaluate and possibly incorporate. Conversely, Australia soon became the place to watch, and many Australian inventions have been used elsewhere. Particularly notable ones are the Ridley stripper in the 1850s, the H.V. McKay grain harvester a little later, the stump-jump plough in the 1880s, the fertiliser spinner in the 1930s, and the corrugated-iron rainwater tank. Israel copied our rain-fed systems, not the reverse.

There was soon a distinctively Australian system for widespread grain growing and, especially since 1900, continual evolution supported by excellent research, now leading the world for drier climates. The first system was especially interesting—and different in almost every way from Europe, perhaps only similar in that the crop was wheat, the staple food of the people. A long log was transported from the coastal forests, sometimes hundreds of miles. A horse team or a bullock team at each end pulled the log through the low scrub, often predominantly eucalypt trees, knocking most down. Axemen followed to cut the odd tree missed. When dry, the debris was burned to kill as much of the eucalypt regrowth as possible. The land was then ploughed—with great difficulty, using a European plough—until in the 1870s a farmer in South Australia invented a stump-jump plough—it rode up and over the stumps, dropping back into the earth. This truly Australian invention led to a greatly increased take-up of land for development, especially in South Australia. It too was exported.

From the 1850s the crop was harvested using another South Australian invention, the Ridley stripper, taking the grain only, leaving the stalks (stubble) which when dry gave a burn hot enough to kill much of the remaining eucalypt regrowth. Stumps were progressively pulled from the ground by the ploughs and sold for firewood to supplement income. After two or three “clearing” crops a fallow-wheat rotation was established, the fallow a way of reducing the impact of soil moisture shortage on the crop (rare in Europe), and also extending the arid boundary for cropping (almost non-existent in Europe).

A little later came the close integration of cropping with sheep farming (not a feature in Europe) and by the 1900s the very widespread use of legume-based pastures which also avoided the costly use of nitrogenous fertilisers (normally used in Europe, even now, and an environmental black mark). Phosphatic fertiliser was spread on the legume pastures using a spinner (another South Australian invention, many units of which were exported to Britain).

In fact, visitors and new arrivals from Britain were critical of Australians for not farming the European way—not ploughing deeply enough, for example. In recent decades came minimum, even zero, tillage, now widespread in Australia, while Europeans tilled on. Australians visiting Europe today are critical of excessive tillage. Use of satellite guidance equipment to minimise impact on soils is very common.

The assertions of Flannery and his friend Diamond that our ecosystems are “farmed out” is ridiculous. Flannery suggests that when taking a taxi in Perth the driver is likely to be a wheat farmer who has abandoned his farm. In fact, well-farmed wheat lands support flourishing farmers and in 2008 Western Australia produced at least half of Australia’s wheat crop.

No critical analyst could claim these farmers were simply imitating or establishing European systems. The frequent repeating of this brings into question the speaker’s knowledge of history and understanding of Australian ecosystems—and analytical capability.

Much more HERE

Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me (John Ray) here

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