David Marsh – A Farmer’s Journey

5 February 2019 Geoffrey Craggs, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Land Care Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Matching stock rates to carrying capacity (a dynamic relationship), is key to maintaining grazing landscapes with full groundcover and avoiding expensive feed bills in the variable Australian climate.
  • Long-term farming goals must include a decision-making process that improves human health and well-being, promotes business stability and improves biodiversity.
  • The adoption of regenerative agriculture supports the re-establishment of the natural capacity of ecosystems.

 

Introduction

In 2018, our Institute Director and CEO met with David Marsh, a grazier from Boorowa in New South Wales. David has discovered that by changing his land management philosophy and incorporating a holistic approach to agriculture, his farming business has improved, his land is increasing in diversity and the anxiety he often felt in the past has lessened enormously.

 

Interview

FDI – How would you describe your farming outlook when you first started and why was this so?

David Marsh – I left school in 1967, surprising my tutors by following a life of jackarooing, instead of an academic pathway as my parents did. My parents, who both graduated as doctors, did not encourage me to follow anything in particular, but to pursue my dreams. As a boarding school student, I made friends with boys who came from farms. I was fortunate to be asked to stay with several of their families in school holidays. Also, I regularly visited a young couple who were farming in the black basalt hills on the headwaters of the Talbragar River in central west New South Wales. This was where my real passion for farming began.

As a jackaroo I was hungry to learn everything I could about livestock and farming. Like most young men of the time, I wanted to learn the ropes so that when I went back to my family farm, Allendale at Boorowa in New South Wales, I would be able to achieve better than the district averages in yields wool, meat and grain. It was what I now call an economic relationship with the land. My philosophy was ‘apply the right agronomy, add sufficient products in the form of the fertilisers, herbicides, drenches and dips presented by the latest research, and profit would ensue’. Unfortunately, however, on beginning my farming career in 1971, wool prices were at an historical low, wheat had been oversupplied and a quota system was in place Consequently, it was difficult to make a profit out of farming. Coupled with this scenario was another problem that I didn’t recognise until years later – we were running fixed enterprises in the most variable climate on earth.

My father was really an organic gardener, which meant he was also a keen compost maker. The chook’s sawdust from under their roosts and their dung were important ingredients in the various compost and leaf-mould bins around our large garden in Bowral, New South Wales. He had an incredible garden with fruit trees, berries of different kinds and a myriad of flowering shrubs and trees. Everything was recycled; it would have been a good model for the yet-to-be-thought-of concept of ‘permaculture’. My father’s attitude to the land, the importance of diversity, abundance and his view of the health-giving food coming from healthy landscapes, must have seeped into my being. But I was not able to understand and express my understanding until later.

FDI – Where do you see yourself today and where do you go from here? What has caused this to happen?

David Marsh – My journey into agriculture began with an unquestioning belief in what we now know as the ‘industrial model of farming’. I just followed everybody else in my farming practices and thought it was what we should all be doing. I suppose in some ways I was a crowd follower. My contemporaries and I seemed to be behaving the same way, so it had to be right, didn’t it?

The germ of conservation and a different line of thinking began to emerge when a number of our old and beautiful native Yellow Box trees began dying in the late 1970s. In 1971 Allendale had three per cent tree cover, after being heavily over-cleared of its original coverage of perhaps twenty per cent pre-European settlement. My wife Mary and I counted trees in several paddocks and calculated that at the rate they were dying, very few trees would be alive on Allendale in about seventy years. Due to our unplanned grazing, stock was often left in paddocks for months at a time and as such any seedlings that may have germinated were grazed off. Thus, since European settlement, there had been no natural regeneration for about one hundred and thirty years (1835-1970). We resolved to plant trees. In 1981, we planted dwarf Sugar Gums near to the shearing shed. Unfortunately, some 38 years later, most of those sugar gums have died, illustrating the risks associated with planting non-endemic species.

I had read An Agricultural Testament by Sir Albert Howard, the practical English researcher. He discovered the mycorrhizal association, whereby fungal hyphae (roots) communicate directly with the roots of many plants. The fungi can supply elements from the soil, for example phosphorus, directly to the plant, in exchange for the sugars exuded from the plant’s roots in the process of photosynthesis. This is an important symbiotic relationship. The fungi are one of the ‘five kingdoms of life’ and are a fundamental influence as recyclers of carbon from the structures of dead plant material. Howard had worked in India for many years and also understood the use of compost to bring land back to a healthy state.

I wondered whether it would be possible, and practical, to use a sort of sheet-composting to increase organic matter in our cropping land. The district practice in those days, before chemical fallows, was to flog a paddock out with sheep and then plough it in the Spring, before any plants had made seed. The reasoning here was to have a ‘clean’ start to crop rotations. So, nothing going to seed and as little plant material as possible turned in by the plough. Back then, there was no equipment that could handle heavy trash when cultivating and sowing. The trash would block the flow of soil and it just didn’t work. The idea was to have the sheep reduce the vegetation to almost bare soil, before ploughing or burning the stubble country from the previous season.

I didn’t want to do that; the notion of bare soil was not what I wanted for our paddocks. I knew that green plant material would break down fast in the presence of moisture and in the process should add nitrogen to the soil. So, I began taking stock out of our crop paddocks in September, to allow the plants to get big and would plough all this ‘green manure’ back into the soil in early October. It might have been better than bare fallowing, but I failed to recognise that the green material I ploughed in caused a massive bloom of soil microorganisms. These not only broke down the fresh green material, but also went to work on the soil organic matter, leading to an increase in soil carbon.

Around this time (late 1980s), the landcare movement had begun to get going and I was one of a group of farmers and others who started the Boorowa Community Landcare Group Inc. The community organisation continues to this day. A major group activity was to get speakers in to try and understand soil processes. One speaker was a microbiologist from the University of New England, Dr Kathleen King. Kathleen inspired me to go on a quest to try and understand the workings of life in our soils and its importance in agriculture. Along this journey I began to understand that many of our agricultural activities (for example, tillage, herbicides and the use of inorganic fertilisers) produced negative effects on soil life. These negative effects have led to a simplification of the living community, which is the opposite of the trend of evolution since life began 3.7 billion years ago. This raised serious questions for me about the direction that agriculture was taking. Although the ‘industrial model’ has benefited humanity, especially over the last two hundred years, it is eroding the capacity of the living component of the biosphere to keep the world in a state friendly for life. Those who doubt this, should ask why we are now in the sixth biggest extinction event since the beginning of life on earth.

In 1999, I attended a Holistic Management course and also enrolled in a Graduate Diploma of Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Sydney. After graduating, I completed a Master of Sustainable Agriculture Degree in 2001. Both courses provided me with a lot of reading that I would never have come across had I not taken the leap into life-long learning. The Holistic Management course was really about looking at the whole picture of management in every decision we make, instead of just thinking about the money.

Our family developed social, economic and landscape goals, towards which all our decisions must lead. We wrote down how we wanted to live, based on our values; what we needed to produce (this part talked about things we produce other than the things we sell, such as time for recreation, time to allow habitat to develop, as well as making a profit from plants and animals); the third part spoke about the future landscape must be in the long-term, while improving in diversity. It described the building blocks of ecosystems, the water cycle, the mineral cycle, the dynamics of species change and the capture of solar energy. To enable us to make meaningful goals, we learnt about ecology, and how functioning ecosystems occur in the natural world and how we can manage the land in a way that allows this to happen.

Our property was mostly a livestock farm, but it also had 25 to 30 per cent cropping. We wanted increased diversity and no bare ground, but our crop program delivered the opposite; we wanted to move away from products that were inconsistent with our desire for a landscape increasing in life. This knowledge made it easy to stop our cropping program and to sell our machinery. I had become concerned about the effects of high levels of inorganic fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides that seemed to be an essential part of zero tillage farming. While some features of the no-tillage model offer improvements compared to multiple-pass cultivation, the worrying part for me was the total reliance on products that all have severe negative impacts on soil life. Around this time, I read Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, a world changing book exposing the immorality of the indiscriminate spraying of DDT and its bioaccumulation in the food chain.

Managing our one or two mobs of livestock required sub-dividing our land, to create the time that our plants needed for full recovery after grazing (between 60 and 180 days). The unreliability of surface water dams informed a decision to install a piped water scheme and to subdivide our existing 26 paddocks with three-wire electric fences. This work resulted in our property having 104 paddocks, with water points in every paddock. We now have movable troughs, and moving stock, water and the electric fence energiser takes about an hour for each move. The fencing and water provisions were funded by diverting our fertiliser and chemical budget over a two-year period, a one-off cost that has given long-term benefits. Our costs are now very low, because the farm runs on the two free resources – solar energy and rain.

My willingness to adopt a different philosophy of relating to land was driven by my disquiet about the processes I had to indulge in to try and make a profit from agriculture. The change happened as I learnt there were other pathways to profit, than continually chasing higher yields and about ecology, and how farming is about managing plants, sunlight and time, rather than just livestock. Learning that it is the time animals stay in one place, and the time needed for land to recover which dictates the trajectory of life in farmed ecosystems, rather than the just the number of animals. Learning how to recognise the dynamics of plant species and fauna that our farms support, and how to allow them to be expressed to their potential in each changing season.

Trying to run fixed enterprises often cost us dearly with feeding programs when trying to run too many stock in dry conditions. Previously, we did not know how to work out our grass cover. Now we constantly monitor how much grass is on Allendale as the seasons change and can always see about seven months ahead so can match our livestock to the grass by selling or bringing in more stock as conditions change. Doing this has meant we now go through dry times with appropriate numbers, don’t lose ground cover, don’t get into expensive feeding programs, and have very little anxiety because we are confident in our planning processes. As an example, in the dry years of 2002-2010 we changed our stock numbers to retain groundcover and did not have to feed any livestock. In this current dry period, we reduced numbers in November 2017 and again in May 2018 and have again not needed to feed.

One of the hallmarks of our effective management is to realise we have achieved what is inherent in ecosystems: to self-organise; to self-complicate; and to self-repair. This has been the trend of evolution since life began 3.7 billion years ago. The trend of evolution is always to elaborate and diversify life forms and I think that could be the most important information a farmer could have yet, most are unaware of it. It is certainly not taught to students studying agricultural science.

The effects of our livestock management have been to allow the inherent capacity of communities of life to be expressed. What does that look like? In 1999, I mapped the extent of the native grasses on Allendale: there was only one hectare.  Since practicing holistic planned grazing for twenty years, we now have native grasses appearing across this farm in increasing numbers. Earlier managers were unaware that their unplanned constant stocking led to the almost complete demise of the native species that evolved in Australian landscapes.  Also, by planting tube-stock and direct seeding, the tree coverage on Allendale has increased to almost 20 per cent. An important spin-off is that many of our very old eucalypts are beginning to produce volunteer seedlings, which seldom happens when stock are in paddocks most of the time.

I started speaking to farmers, scientific and technical people at conferences and field days about what I was learning. Initially, I spoke about trees and dryland salinity, but later discussed managing holistically and drawing comparisons with how the land can look different by a change in our philosophy based on changing knowledge. I also joined several advisory bodies, some natural resource management bodies and a catchment management authority. Along the way of this journey I was the recipient of the Central West Conservation Farmer of the Year Award in 2004.

In 2017, I won the NSW Individual Landcarer of the Year award. In 2018, I was fortunate that my efforts were recognised with the Australian Individual Landcarer of the Year Award; my family were very proud of me. Although I have only done what I believe in and because I care, I felt it was rather poignant that my dear parents had passed away. They would have been very pleased that I was recognised for something they both cared so passionately about.

FDI – Do you think other farmers are having similar thoughts to you?

David Marsh – This question goes to why people are willing or why they are resistant to change; there is always the group who are game to take a risk and jump into the unknown. I must be one of them. I cogitated for ten years before committing to our current management. I look for information and I have an insatiable drive to seek out knowledge. Finding out how the world functions is a rich field that many writers have addressed. I have read a large number of books to try to be informed and I have had the privilege of observing the natural world as it relates to what I am learning. The trajectory of evolution has the answers to our current dilemmas, if we are open to observing them. Our philosophy is to fit our activities into the way nature functions, rather than trying to bend nature to our will.

Worldwide, the loss of soil organic carbon is an indication that the model of ‘industrial agriculture’ is out of kilter with the way ecosystems naturally function. Organic carbon in soils is like a buffer against shocks; it allows natural ecosystems to bounce back to a previous complex state after disturbances. The constant disturbance of agriculture, however, leads to simplified farm ecosystems, which is the opposite of the trend of evolution. A vibrant future for life on Earth will be achieved when we adopt a form of agriculture that leads to increasing diversity, not the opposite. The lack of observable diversity on farms is mirrored by the decrease in soil biodiversity; only in complex and diverse communities will the soil life be fed and supported by diverse communities of plants.

I think it’s impossible to say how many other farmers are thinking towards the future I have described. Perhaps a guide to understanding the level of disenchantment with the current ‘industrial agriculture model’ is revealed by the number of people seeking out courses in subjects like Holistic Management, RCS (Grazing and Farming for Profit), Permaculture, Natural Sequence Farming, Keyline farming and Biodynamics.

FDI – What advice would you offer farmers who are disenchanted with their current farming model?

David Marsh – Firstly, they should seek out and talk to people who have already adopted a more holistic approach. They should be open to change; it’s amazing where openness will take you. Farmers also need to be their own leader, because relying on the government and other institutions is unlikely to take you where you want to go.

You also need to take accountability for your decisions and responsibility for the outcomes. I used to be in a farmers’ group with several others. We employed a good agronomist, but it was taking me further down the industrial agriculture path, which was the source of my disquiet.

Writing down what we wanted as a family, what we needed to produce and what sort of landscape we desired to live in, put us in the ‘driver’s seat’. Previously we had abdicated the process of thought and were paying others to do our thinking for us. Now, all decisions are aimed to take us closer to what we desire for ourselves, for our business and the future landscape. Using this decision-making process, we have made more frequent profits and have very little debt.

Learning how to manage our farm holistically was one of the best decisions we have made.

 

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About the Interviewee:

David Marsh is an award-winning professional speaker, author and has been a regenerative farming practitioner since 1999. David holds a Master’s Degree in Sustainable Agriculture (U.Syd, Orange Campus 2001). He is a founding member and co-ordinator of Alliance for Regenerative Landscapes and Social Health and has published blogs on many land-related issues and as hosted many groups to his property Allendale.

David has served on the NSW Sustainable Grazing on Saline Land Committee; NSW Native Vegetation Advisory Council; Lachlan Catchment Management Authority; Soils for Life Board; current member Growing the Grazing Revolution Board (Mid Lachlan Landcare).

 

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