It’s important to share our catastrophic failures

I started writing this column but decided it would be better for you to hear it from the farmer himself, my husband Carlos. So here he is: 

It’s no surprise, but a key learning since we became farmers is that big-scale farming in a truly sustainable way is not as simple as you might see on a Netflix doco, or be told by someone who runs a lifestyle farmlet.

When we decided to embark on this journey, we decided we wouldn’t be satisfied with running a small-scale lifestyle farm that could produce just enough for a farmers’ market.

Instead, we have attempted to grow food, en masse, using big equipment alongside the best-known farming practices. The goal has been to create a living case study to provide some confidence on what practices could work (or maybe, work at all) on a large-scale, sustainably and ethically focused farm.

In truth, it’s been anything but beer and skittles.

We’ve had some big wins, specifically with some spray-free cereals going great guns with 8-9 tonnes of hassle-free yields, our sunflowers requiring minimal input to grow and to harvest without issues, and our direct-drilled, diverse cover crops being cheap but nutritious winter feed for our sheep. 

But just like a gambler who will only talk about their wins, it would be remiss not to mention some of our catastrophic failures. 

This year, we have terminated six hectares of autumn-sown barley due to slug damage, and have a further 25ha that will be reduced in yield by as much as 40 per cent due to fungi damage (we think largely due to a relatively warm and wet winter). So, we’ll likely be 130 tonnes off the pace just in our barley production, equating to more than $50,000 in lost revenue. That’s all because we opted to not use synthetic chemicals over the crops.

I admit, I had visions of us being wholly organic, growing and raising food with no synthetic inputs (such as synthetic fertiliser or sprays), deemed harmful to health and the environment.

We took over the running of the farm two-and-a-half years ago and have, in that time, converted what was once a conventionally run (and hard-driven) sheep and barley station into a diverse, mixed-system farming operation

We produce everything from eggs to lamb, wool, green produce, honey, seeds, and cereals. Our focus has been regenerative and spray-free, with the market gardens being organic, although there are still negative aspects to our farming practices (for example, some light tilling/discing of the soil) that we just haven’t been able to avoid.

That is the balance in food production, a tightrope to walk, between being pragmatic and getting a crop, or simply gambling on a whim for the best. 

If we have learnt anything, it’s that nothing is black and white. Take organic, for example. While this is commonly deemed better for the wider environment as it uses no synthetic chemical, it does have a tendency to be destructive to the soil that’s being farmed. 

Weeds have to be removed for a successful crop to be grown. The options are either mechanical tillage or spraying herbicide. Not using herbicide generally means mechanical tillage, which upturns the soil, disrupting beneficial microbial and fungal networks, as well as releasing soil carbon as the soil is ploughed or disced (in the same way you might turn the soil in your own garden with a fork). 

There’s also exposure to the elements and erosion with soil laid bare and large quantities of diesel being spent to drive big machines around on a field, leading to more carbon dioxide expelled and more soil compaction than what would happen if you sprayed off a paddock.

Likewise, what’s the “right” way to feed people when food costs and world hunger are a major issue? Should you spray a fungicide to ensure the crop will mature safely, or not spray with the risk of a devastating fungal infection leading to an entire crop failure? 

Should you plant a hectare that grows 1-2 tonnes of organic wheat that feeds those who can afford it, or a hectare of conventionally farmed wheat that provides 10-12 tonnes that’s more affordable? When does “sustainable” farming become poor land use due to shatteringly low yields, and what does the term “sustainable” even mean? Fewer chemicals, less soil disruption or less carbon dioxide? 

It’s a challenging debate, and one that may be all too easy to comment on about food production and the rights and wrongs of farming. It’s much harder to grasp a true understanding of all of the moving pieces, and even harder to then implement. 

In the meantime, like many others, we will keep experimenting, and will share our wins and losses.