150 years or more of farming practices has left much of Australia’s grazing and crop-growing land badly depleted. Our arid land is expanding, with rapidly diminishing water tables and rising salinity levels. New initiatives are seeing incredible improvements in soil quality and water retention with some innovative new practices.
For every 100 drops of rain that fall on Australian soil, 50 are evaporated back into the atmosphere before they can replenish our aquifers and hydrate vegetation. 14 of these 100 drops end up in the ocean, or feed into lakes, depending on location. That’s a whopping 64% of our rainfall which is being lost before it can play a role in our agricultural hardiness.
Was it always this way?
According to Soils for Life, Australia is the driest (inhabited) continent on Earth. Over time, our farming practices have drastically changed the way that our soils retain water. Water runoff into the sea from rivers was very minimal before our modern-day agricultural practices; as our in-soil reservoirs used to effectively capture and distribute water, as well as leach away salt. Thus, rainfall on Australian soil used to, in turn, replenish aquifers and feed inland deltas, wetlands and lakes. Nowadays, thanks to a hundred years or more of farming practices on our fragile landscapes, these wetlands and lakes have been largely drained; our landscapes do not retain water; rainfall is lost to the sea and evaporation; and the delicate balance between vegetation and farming has been lost.
What does this mean for farming and water needs?
Around 70% of our water needs are agricultural, and frighteningly, demand for water is due to outstrip supply by 40% around the world in the next 20 years, unless something is drastically changed.
Australia’s farming industries contribute 93% to our domestic food supply. Without sufficient water supplies, not only will we struggle to meet basic household water needs, but farmers will be unable to produce crops and cattle sufficient enough to maintain exports and feed the country. This worrying trend towards water shortage is not just an Australian problem, and these threats are faced around the world in both developing and developed nations.
Another consequence of inefficient water management on Australian farming land is the erosion of topsoil. Topsoil accumulates at a glacially slow pace—around 20mm every 1,000 years. Unfortunately, it’s eroding much more quickly than it can be replenished.
“You’re never going to get that soil back in your lifetime – probably not in your kids’ lifetime or your grandkids’ lifetime” John McPhee from the Tasmanian Institute for Agricultural Research.
As rain and flood waters wash over paddocks, they take with them this valuable soil. Replacing topsoil is expensive, at over $15 per cubic metre (that figure does not take into account transportation costs). However, regardless of the cost, topsoil is in shortening supply. Without effective water management plans, the ability to grow crops with any efficacy will continue to become more limited for Australian farmers.
What is being done?
Organisations dedicated to this problem of water management are continuing to investigate, trial and implement solutions to the problem—and with some amazing success.
One of these good news stories comes from Soils for Life who, as a not-for-profit organisation, work to foster innovation of regenerative landscape management initiatives.
“We support innovative farmers and land managers demonstrating high performance in regenerating their landscape whilst maintaining or increasing production. We believe their stories are compelling and can provide confidence for those who want to make a change from conventional practices.”
In a recent interview with ABC, chief of staff for Soils for Life, Natalie Williams spoke about how a recent project of theirs has seen regeneration of soil which had been slowly degraded over 150 years. In 15 short years, Ms Williams has been able to turnaround the damage done to her own western Queensland property, through concerted landscape management. She has been able to increase the carrying capacity of her grazing land from around 100 when the property was bought in 1994, to 3,000 since undertaking the regeneration efforts.
“When you’re trying to fix landscapes, nothing happens quickly. Fifteen years seems like a long time, but in the area where we are located, there’s been grazing happening for 150 years, to run it down to where it was. It’s only taken 15 years to bring it back to up to a highly productive landscape.”
There are a number of solutions available to farmers which can help to buck this trend of water wastage and degradation of landscapes. These include:
- Planting ground cover which prevents runoff and erosion
- Rotating crops which promote deep root growth
- Reduce the use of chemical fertilisers, as well as pesticides to encourage a healthy biodiversity within soil
- Increase vegetation which produces higher organic carbon levels
- Minimise soil disturbance (zero-tilling and minimal tilling practices)
- Get in touch with organisations such as Soils for Life and Natural Regeneration Australia, who can provide resources to start your own soil regeneration project.
What are the benefits to farmers?
Natalie Williams has seen clear and obvious benefit to her lands, since applying regenerative initiatives on her property.
“By managing the landscape properly, you also then pick up profitability, environmental outcomes, resistance to disease, resilience after drought, being able to manage high rainfall events,” she says. “It actually is a triple bottom-line benefit, [from] improving and re-hydrating landscapes.”
There is not doubt that ignoring these trends will result in less productive land, and widespread shortages in food and water. The benefits of employing soil regeneration practices are more than simply financial for farmers, and for Australia and the world at large. By improving soil quality and preventing unnecessary water runoff, we can ensure that our farming lands and water supply are sufficient well into the future. Natalie Williams’ example is a beacon of hope for Australian farmers, and goes to show just how quickly a hundred years or more of degradation can be tuned around.