We are accustomed to hearing tales of the old cockie who believes in the saying that goes something like this:
“If it grows, then cut it down, and if it moves then shoot it.”
That might have been the thinking years ago, and we still see farms where trees seem to be regarded as weeds, and where every native animal is regarded as a pest. But there is a new breed of thoughtful and educated farmer who believes that conserving the natural world in and around the farm is not at all incompatible with the running of a thriving commercial enterprise.
Chris McRae and son James are two such farmers. Between them they run a successful dairy farm a few kilometres from the small village of Barrington.
Not only do Chris and James believe that nature and farming are not incompatible- they take the view that looking after nature promotes better farming outcomes.
Raelands Farm has been owned by the McRae family since the 1860’s, not long after the Barrington area was first settled by Europeans and has operated as a diary farm since early in the 20th century. Both Chris and James grew up on the farm and now run it as a partnership. Chris largely learned the basics of the business on the job, although he has attended many courses and workshops over the years, and has always been keen to learn new and different ways of doing things. James says that he was interested in agriculture from an early age and studied agriculture/business management at Charles Sturt University before focussing on the dairy farm about ten years ago. He comments:
“Whilst I learned a lot abut farming and agriculture at university, I think the most valuable thing I absorbed was the ability to think critically and to analyse problems and issues.”
The McRae property comprises 450 acres made up of irrigated pasture, dry run and remnant bushland leading up to and onto the Buccan Buccans, otherwise known as the Gloucester Bucketts, at the rear. It presently carries about 175 cattle with 96 milking cows.
Chris’s says that his father always cared for his local environment, being on a national parks committee, and from an early age Chris had an interest in nature, sometimes heading up to the Barrington Tops for a bushwalk.
It was in the early 1990’s, particularly after the 1994 drought, that he began to realise that some parts of the farm had become degraded, particularly in the gully areas. It was at about this time that Landcare became active in the Gloucester area. He says:
“We had one badly washed-out gully that had vertical sides of about twelve feet, and it bothered me a fair bit, and I thought that we could do better, and so I got some advice and encouragement from Landcare about how to plant and fence the problem areas. The main motivation at the time was to stop erosion, although now it’s probably more about creating habitat as well as preventing erosion.
Once you fence an eroded gully to keep out the cows, the grass and other plants start to grow, which slows the flow of the water and prevents erosion.”
Chris was president of the local Landcare group for about ten years, and the group carried out weed control and planting on other local properties. He comments:
“You really need to have the interest of the landowner for regeneration work to be successful. I remember we’d carry out privet and other weed removal, but if the farmer wasn’t committed it would just grow back. I became a bit discouraged with some of the lack of interest and decided to focus on our own farm. We’ve planted over two and a half thousand trees in the last 20 years.”
I asked James what benefits he saw from tree planting and gully fencing in relation to the cattle:
“They provide much needed shade and cool the surrounding areas, and they are very important in improving water quality. When the water runs, it runs clear and not cloudy, and the nutrients are filtered out.”
I asked Chris and James about funding of their regeneration activities. They told me that funding help had come from several sources such as MidCoast Water, Landcare, private sources, and even from Woolworths.
In a few weeks’ time the Gloucester Environment Group will be carrying out a tree planting with the assistance of MidCoast Council through the group’s koala program.
It became obvious from chatting to Chris and James there was nothing amateur or ad hoc about the way they now looked after their farm and its environment. It seems that on Raelands dairy farm, computer programs and technology are more vital than gumboots. They employ arial mapping to track everything that’s going on, and to help them plan about where fencing and planting should be carried out, and where water troughs should be located. As little as possible is left to chance.
I asked what Chris and James saw as the main philosophy behind the way the farm was run. James’ response was illuminating:
“I learnt at Uni that if you want to have a productive and profitable farm then you have to balance the triple bottom line which is profit, people and the environment. If one of those three is out, then things will start to fall apart. We can’t care for the environment on our farm if we are not profitable so that we try to have productive paddocks surrounded by biodiversity. But you also must make sure that your people are properly cared for and we make sure that Dad and I look after each other and have time for family.”
Chris indicated that he had noticed a significant improvement of the farm’s biodiversity over the last 20 years, particularly its birdlife, insects, frogs, reptiles and wallabies. They recently invited MidCoast Council to undertake a koala survey using sniffer dogs and encouragingly they found a significant amount of koala activity in the forested areas.
The forested part of the farm has now been dedicated as a biodiversity conservation site with the Biodiversity Conservation Trust.
It is clear that Raelands Farm is very much a work in progress. As Chris said:
“While we seem to have done a lot, I think we are only really scratching the surface. There is much more to do but you just have to do what you can, when you can and within your budget. We are now looking at further ways to reduce the emissions generated by our cows, such as the use of seaweed supplements. We have a 24kw solar system and are working towards net zero emissions.”
So often we seem to expect environmental problems to be dealt with by governments or by someone else. People such as Chris and James McRae show that the task of restoring our ravaged environment often starts in our own backyard. What an inspiration.
(Photos kind permission of Dallas Kilponen)