ALONG the road that links the Phillip Island race track and the Penguin Parade stands a decaying brick and iron structure, a barn pretending to be a church perhaps. It marks the entrance to a spot the original inhabitants knew as “Bimbadeen”, place of good view.
The building is a chicory kiln. Chicory was grown on Phillip Island from 1873 for the coffee trade. By 1920 there were 25 kilns on the island. But the industry was unsustainable. It took three tonnes of firewood to dry one tonne of chicory root. Planting, harvesting and firewood chopping were labour intensive and contributed to the deforestation of the Island. The early venturers gave up and their abandoned land became cattle and sheep grazing pastures.
Now a 200-hectare, carbon-neutral cattle stud farm owned by the Davie family, Bimbadeen features in Against the Grain, a new book that tells the stories of 14 farmers taking action on climate change. The challenges that lie ahead are the next part of their journey.
Bob Davie began his farming career on Phillip Island at 15. Long hard days bought little reward except for a few pounds and the scars of knowledge. “It was the hardest time of my life,” he says, shaking his head. His employer didn’t respond well to questions from the enthusiastic youngster. In answer to a query about smudging paddocks, Bob copped a face full of soft manure. “That’s not ready yet, is it?” the farmer laughed as Bob trudged back to his duties.
Anne was a physiotherapy student when she took a holiday job waitressing at Bob’s parent’s guest house on Phillip Island. After her graduation, the city girl married Bob and moved to Bimbadeen to milk cows.
“It was pretty much all cleared land,” Bob says. “The Department of Agriculture was the font of all wisdom back then. ‘Feed the starving world’ was their slogan.”The department’s well-intentioned advice was to plough the tea-tree into the ground, put up some fences, feed grass to as many animals as the land could bear, sell the milk and breed some pigs on the surplus.
Which was fine, for a while. Bob and Anne raised a good herd and worked the herringbone shed. Cream went to the Archie’s Creek butter factory and the skim milk went to the pigs. It was long hours and hard work.
But even then, Bob was developing new processes, feeding the pigs through an automatic system. The cows were productive and happy; a favoured one used to sneak through the fence to calve outside Anne’s bedroom window.
The income from Anne’s physiotherapy practice in Cowes helped sustain the farming operation through the ups and downs of the industry. When butter fat output rose, the department restricted production, which coincided with a drop in the price of milk and an increase in the price of grain. They might have got more cows and spread the costs over a greater volume of milk. Instead, in 1968, Bob and Anne decided to change direction and switch to beef.
The hardest thing for a dairy farmer to do is get rid of their cows. They reared all the calves on the cows before loading the herd on to trucks. “All the kids were crying at the window when they left,” Anne says, looking out their lounge room window.
The well-constructed dairy yards are now used for weighing and loading cattle. The sides are rubber lined and regularly checked for protrusions that might injure the animals.
They have often challenged the orthodox view. Bob was one of the first farmers to feed silage to beef cattle. “They all thought I was crazy.” He laughs. These days, using Bimbadeen-grown silage and grass, his cattle gain up to a kilo and a half in a day.
Beef farming worked well through to the 1980s until the effects of land clearing increased salinity levels. Production levels dropped. Animals in the paddocks weren’t thriving as well as their forebears.
That’s when Landcare came into their lives. The Phillip Island Landcare group was set up in 1988, one of the first in the state. Then environment minister Joan Kirner made trees available for revegetation. “Most farmers thought more trees meant less paddock for grazing,” Anne says, “but Joan Kirner was smart; she told the famers the Government would pay for the fencing.”
With the help of Landcare and community members, the Davies planted more than 35,000 indigenous grasses, shrubs and trees. Anne, who today is president of the Phillip Island Conservation Society, tells me the improvements to the farm wouldn’t have happened without Landcare. “They’re like an extended family.”
“Production improved, animal welfare improved ... cattle prices were fairly good. It began to make a difference in the look of the farm.”
About 40 hectares on the flats and lower slopes was badly salt affected as a result of land clearing in the middle of last century. About 90 per cent of this pasture has now been rehabilitated by planting native trees and shrubs, trialling salt-tolerant pasture varieties and pumping groundwater to remove saline water from plant roots.
Saltwater Creek runs through part of the property and an underground aquifer also carries salt. Bob has built a large trough within the creek that is replenished by syphoned fresh water to reduce the amount of salt transferred across Bimbadeen.
Bimbadeen now consists of 92 neat paddocks bordered by rows of tea tree, good drains and electric fences. There’s a wildlife corridor and Land for Nature signs attest that this is sanctuary for native animals. The other day Bob inadvertently set off an aerial stampede of several hundred Cape Baron Geese resting in a paddock when he tried to get a photo.
Everything was going well ... and then they heard about the effects of climate change. Anne and Bob had always met ethical, economic and environmental challenges head on. Once more, they changed practices on the farm to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
THE CARBON CHALLENGE
BOB Davie knows Gippsland can be an unrelenting environment. As a young apprentice he asked for a hat to fend off the rays of the sun. The farmer wouldn’t spare the time. Bob ended up flat on his back atop a hay stack, done in by dehydration. A lesson in preparation and the perversity of human nature.
The Ventnor property, Bimbadeen, could be a case study in planning. An extreme example of preparedness was during World War II when a fearful German farmer included a gun turret in his house construction. Renovated in the fifties, the building became the Davies’ first dairy.
You can measure a farm against many standards: acreage, bank balance, stocking levels, dollars per kilo. The Davie family are preparing for the future by ensuring the family property does not harm the environment. They run Bimbadeen to an environmental management system (EMS) that audits sustainable practices.
As we discuss an upcoming audit, Bob and Anne Davie reflect on their journey. Their passion for the land and the environment often cause them to question the status quo. When Government policy has changed they have examined the merits of different philosophies and gone in their own direction.
"We don't base our decisions on what the government thinks,” Bob Davie told ABC radio last year. “We feel it is the right thing; we want to be an environmentally responsible, sustainable property."
Meeting the challenge requires discipline. Every single farm operation is recorded in a diary, then the records are updated on iFarm. Next week, auditors from ALMS (Australian Land Management Services) will descend on Bimbadeen to measure its performance against the EMS. They check adherence to procedures defining water management, animal welfare, emergency procedures and waste management.
“Everything on the property has to be in its place.” Bob illustrates the point with a wide sweep of his arm. “If the auditors find anything out of place, bang!”
Minimal spraying is done. Bio-solids from outside the farm occasionally introduce weeds, which are sprayed before they can spread. To minimise the threat, the Davies only use hay and silage grown on the property.
Bimbadeen is accredited free range, hormone free, antibiotic free, carbon neutral and ISO 14001 compliant. A quick scan of their website lists pages of awards and prizes for their cattle and farm.
Cattle on Bimbadeen lead a peaceful existence. They graze in paddocks that provide shelter from the wind. No electric cattle prods or plastic sticks are used to control them. All the cattle yard fences and rails are rubber edged. There are no cattle dogs to harass them. The only dog at Bimbadeen is Bonnie who placidly guards the front door of the house.
Bob drives me out to Hurricane Hill, the second highest point on the island. It’s a good spot to get an overview of their life’s work.
Bimbadeen comprises 10 titles from the original Phillip island sub-division that are bifurcated by Troutman Road and cut into 92 paddocks that average two hectares. Troutman Road is a wildlife corridor and we have to drive carefully due to the abundance of wildlife.
The paddocks are bordered by good drains and trees. Bob favours melaleuca. The cattle trim it through the electric fence and it suckers so it’s easy to extend revegetated areas. Cattle are moved every two days as part their management plan.
Crossing the farm, we get the odd glance from cattle that feed in the wake of the tractor. “They are all in good nick; we keep the silage up to them,” Bob says as we pass some very healthy and happy looking beasts. A quiet, stress free life leads to a good product.
Bimbadeen participates in the national Greenhouse gas challenge. Methane from livestock represents 86.5 per cent of total farm emissions. Strategies for reducing emissions include lower cattle density, cell grazing and pasture selection. They periodically feed cattle on molasses to improve digestion and have trialled grape marc and vegetable oil to reduce methane emissions.
Soil is enriched with carbon through a combination of growing legumes and deep-rooted crops. Bob reports that sowing a crop on a dry farmland puts seven tonnes of dry matter back into the soil. On irrigated pastures this increases to more than 16 tonnes.
As well as helping to control salinity, the tree planting aids carbon neutrality. “Only sequestration in trees and soil can take the existing carbon from the air and store it safely. Emission reduction is important but it’s the carbon dioxide in the air from the past 80 years that’s doing the damage. And farmers control 65 per cent of it.”
Bimbadeen follows a documented carbon sequestration plan. The average across the whole farm is 100 tonnes and the goal is to average 150 per hectare. Bimbadeen currently stores more carbon than necessary for certification but why stop there?
The plan for Bimbadeen is to reduce emissions from animals (20 per cent), soils (10 per cent), energy and machinery (5 per cent), with a total of 35 per cent by 2020. The remaining 25 per cent to reach the Australian target will be achieved through the tree planting program.
Greenhouse gases on farms are also produced by vehicles, waste products, building and equipment. Tillage can make up to 40 per cent of total fuel consumption on farms so operating as a minimal tillage property is great step forward. Bob also pays particular attention to maintenance of the tractors as this lowers fuel consumption. They use the farm bike whenever possible. Waste is minimised through recycling and composting. Silage wrap goes off farm for recycling.
Under previous Government policy they were able to fund many innovative changes that have been good for the environment and helped reduced the bottom line. A windmill and a solar pump on a bore transfer water to overhead tanks. It is then reticulated to stock water troughs across the property. “The previous Government was serious about renewable energy,” Anne comments.
An ethically run business still needs to make a profit. In 2006, they became involved with Gippsland Natural Meats, a group of 10 environmentally minded producers who aimed to produce meat of documented quality with outstanding tenderness, feed efficiency and excellent marbling. The pasture-fed cattle are certified free range and free of growth hormones and antibiotics.
Gippsland Natural received a fantastic response at farmers’ markets but, after the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks failed to set legally binding commitments for reducing CO2 emissions, was dropped due to the costs of marketing and distribution.
Three of the original group members tendered for the Gippsland Natural brands. It is now owned and managed by two of these farmers, Crockfield Pastoral and Bob and Anne Davie. Several renowned Melbourne steak houses (including the Mitre Tavern), along with Etihad Stadium, and Rod Laver Arena at the Australian Open Tennis, use Gippsland Natural. It is available locally at Prom Meats in Foster, and used at the Cape Kitchen Restaurant on Phillip Island and Cuccina A Isola Restaurant at San Remo.
“You’ve got to get people who really like your product, know your product and will stick with you,” says Bob.
Today more than 30 Gippsland farmers supply the company. Ideally Bob wants another 10 to 15 suppliers, including pork and lamb producers. He sees exports as means to subsidise the costs of local marketing and production and pay suppliers a premium.
“We want to get them accredited, get the carbon on board and go for export. Japanese consumers will pay a premium for a carbon-neutral product.”
Having achieved so much, Bob and Anne hope Bimbadeen can continue to be a family farm that is innovative and relevant. These days their son Richard is in charge of the day to day management of the property. He and his brother Stephen are planning to build farm stay accommodation on the property so more people can share the journey that Bob and Anne have taken at Bimbadeen.