Blazing new trails beyond the bushfires

Blazing new trails beyond the bushfires

Story by Eva Peroni.  Reprinted from Sustainable Food Trust

It’s hard to paint an accurate picture that encapsulates the scale and extent of Australia’s current bushfire season, and with more than 50 separate fires still burning across the continent at the time of writing, it may be some time before the magnitude of the crisis is fully understood.

Unprecedented in their intensity and geographical scope, fires have been burning across every state, but particularly fiercely through the coastal and eastern ranges of New South Wales (NSW) and north-eastern Victoria. As of 14 January, 2020, bushfires this season have burned through an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres), destroyed close to 2,500 homes, damaged more than 10,000 buildings and resulted in the loss of 33 lives. Air quality across the country has reached hazardous levels prompting a rise in people seeking emergency treatment for respiratory problems, with both Melbourne and Canberra’s air quality rated the worst in the world on several dates across January. The cumulative smoke from the bushfires has, on several occasions, surged more than 17 kilometres up into the stratosphere, blanketing New Zealand’s South Island and travelling approximately 11,000 kilometres (6,800 miles) across the South Pacific Ocean to South America. The ‘fire clouds’ that have formed as a result have stimulated their own weather systems, with thunderstorms and lightning strikes igniting new and unpredictable fires – and, at this writing, it’s only halfway through the summer.

As the driest inhabited continent on earth, bushfires have been a natural part of the history and mythology of the Australian landscape for tens of thousands of years. The fire conditions of the current 2019/2020 bushfire season, however, are without parallel on several fronts. Beyond the geographical scale and intensity of the fires, this season’s bushfires have burnt through areas and ecosystems comprised of typically fire-proof vegetation, such as wet eucalyptus forests, rainforests, heathlands and dried-out swamps. World Heritage-listed national parks that are considered some of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, like Western Australia’s Stirling Range, have experienced severe casualties of rare and threatened flora and fauna, and may never fully recover. While images of dehydrated koalas and singed kangaroos have captured the world’s attention, a (highly conservative) estimate of 1 billion mammals, birds and reptiles have perished, not counting the losses of bats, frogs or the invertebrates that make up the foundational elements of the food chain. The numbers are particularly harrowing considering Australia already bears the highest rate of species loss for any region in the world.

The climatic backdrop precipitating the spate of fires is one of several years of historically hot and protracted summers. Australia’s mean temperature in 2019 was 1.52 degrees Celsius higher than average, making it the warmest year since records began in 1910. Continental-scale droughts, affecting the eastern states most acutely, have been endured for several years, while water levels in key catchment areas, such as the Murray Darling Basin, have been at their lowest levels in a decade. Coupled with record lows in rainfall and soil moisture, and the soaring temperatures and wind speeds of this summer’s weather, the conditions were prime for small fires to become major infernos across large swathes of the country. Amid these conditions, Australian cities and towns in the past month alone have also endured tropical cyclones, hailstorms with stones the size of golf-balls, duststorms and heatwaves. Well and truly before this year’s bushfire season even began, the impact of droughts and flooding rains culminated in mass fish killshundreds and thousands of livestock losses and the decomposition of precious wilderness areas. A fragile and dry continent, Australia seems continually caught in the grips of extreme weather roulette, with the stakes likely to become more erratic in the context of a rapidly warming world.

A number of contributing policy failures and government inaction surrounding land and bushfire management have also compounded the risk and severity of the bushfire season. While the federal and NSW and Victoria state governments have announced independent expert inquiries into the bushfires, it should be noted that since 1939, there have been at least 18 major bushfire inquiries in Australia. According to former senate committees, ‘Previous inquiry processes have not resolved the issues that have been so consistently brought to the attention of governments.’ Some of these issues include inadequate protective burning and fuel reduction (both on public lands and around assets), insufficient resources for fire and land management agencies, and the disregard of local knowledge and experience – including traditional ecological knowledge and land management practices – in managing publicly and privately-owned land. These well-established concerns are likely to resurface in the next series of parliamentary inquiries, the question is whether the recommendations from these will be implemented.

Farmers on the frontlines

It will take some time before the economic, environmental and social costs of the bushfires can be truly ascertained. Significant impacts are already being felt by the agricultural sector, the repercussions of which are likely to affect Australia’s broader food system. While farmers have been grappling with the ongoing impacts of low soil moisture, water and feed shortages for some time now, the localised impacts of bushfires have manifested in unprecedented and highly complex conditions. While tens of thousands of livestock are likely to have perished (or had to be euthanised) as a result of the bushfires, farmers must now face the grim task of burying the carcasses to prevent potential public health and biosecurity risks. The task is so considerable that Australia’s Defence Force has been assigned to dig mass graves, while 100 veterinarians have been deployed across the country to assess and euthanise thousands of stock injured by the blazes. Some farmers have been in imminent danger and continue to face the threat from multiple firefronts, but due to their daily farming enterprises cannot leave their farm. Notwithstanding the defence of their properties and livelihoods, farmers also make up a large proportion of the more than 70,000 volunteers of the Rural Fire Service. It is not uncommon for these volunteers and their families to suffer significant losses or be made homeless while protecting the homes and lives of others.

As food, fuel and water run low in bushfire-hit regions, and some communities are cut-off from electricity and telecommunications for days on end, everyday farming tasks such as milking cows, feeding cattle, weeding or watering crops are no longer tenable, impeding production. Damage to vital infrastructure, such as sheds, storage facilities or machinery is critical, while the destruction of fencing leaves farmers with no way to safely contain their animals. In the absence of physical damage, excessive smoke can taint fruit and vegetable crops, with wine grapes being particularly susceptible. Entire cattle holdings, timber plantations and vineyards have been completely wiped outand charred by flame. When the landscape is burnt and blackened, microbial populations in the soil, particularly fungi, can suffer extensive damage. Depending on the intensity of the fire, it can create bacterially dominant soils and may destroy organic matter, opening up areas for the take-over of invasive weeds. High-intensity fires can also impact water quality by increasing the sediment and nutrient concentrations in waterways. With all the ash and silt pouring into estuaries and waterways, several oyster farms have been closed for harvest due to higher readings of algae, ash debris and other contaminants. Production losses are just the beginning. A whole network of vital infrastructure involved in packing, cool-storing and transporting goods can become impeded by road closures or power outages. Consumers can expect to see higher food prices as the costs of the bushfires add up.

From the ashes: recovery, restoration and regeneration

As the bushfire crisis unfolded across Australia, the world watched attentively. But with the rapid-fire nature of news cycles (and now the downpour of rain and floods across NSW), global attention and conversation has already shifted. How can a transformative dialogue emerge and be sustained after the fires are out? One that not only considers the risks posed by nature on human life and property, but also triggers a re-evaluation of how people conceive of themselves and others in their relationship with(in) nature? Such a dialogue will likely involve deep questioning about cultural and social values and beliefs, regulatory, legislative and financial institutions and the interdependence of biological and environmental systems. As people begin the long process of recovery, restoration and regeneration, how can they stimulate conversations and activities that don’t necessarily dictate a particular pathway for ‘resilience’ or ‘adaptation’, but rather, opens up possibilities for more sustainable futures to emerge?

For farmers Penny Kothe of Caroola Farm and Vicki Jones of CSM Organics, it was the catastrophic fires of Black Saturday that raged through Victoria over a decade ago that sparked a total rethink of the way they approach their farmland, families and community. As they began the physical and emotional work of rebuilding their lives, homes, businesses and towns, both farmers made the choice to shift from conventional to regenerative agricultural practices. Predicating the interdependent relationship between humans and the landscape, regenerative farming systems utilise a set of farming practices not just to grow food but to progressively improve the ecosystem in which that food is grown. A holistic and diversified approach, regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic the natural, self-organising properties of a healthy ecosystem by focusing on diversity and the health of integrated natural and human systems.

For Penny Kothe, the Black Saturday bushfires were not only a catalyst for reassessing her farming practices, but they also spurred a deeper contemplation of her place on the land and humanity’s collective responsibility for managing it. ‘Losing everything in a house fire made me realise the important things in life – family, health and community – and from that, I started out on a whole new track. Whilst I’d previously read books on permaculture and holistic management, the fire gave me a whole fresh start and determination to lead my life the way I wanted. It made me reflect seriously on the question: what are we even here for?’ For Vicki Jones, the Black Saturday fires prompted contemplation of issues such as farm succession, learned helplessness among farmers and the link between rural isolation and mental health. The rising input costs of feed and fertiliser, the social isolation experienced in supplying long and fragmented supply chains, and the financial volatility of the market during the global financial crisis were factors to consider in the family succession of her farm. These cumulative pressures prompted a shift from conventional to certified organic dairy farming, as well as sourcing an alternative market for her products. Vicki now sells through Prom Coast Food Collective, a producer- and community-centric, low waste model that returns 95% of the dollar to farming families

As both farmers attest, authentic regenerative agriculture requires the broader community to adopt an ethos in their approach to food, landscapes and culture. ‘Regeneration’ in this sense, requires a reshaping of the human journey, one that cultivates the values of environmental stewardship alongside more localised economies that strengthen solidarity between farmer, eater and the Earth. It encourages farmers’ social participation and connectedness with their local communities while instilling a strong, collective ethics of care in response to the social and ecological challenges of our time. As Kothe reflects, It is through such disasters that we re-evaluate the meaning of our lives, come together as communities and divest ourselves of our consumeristic attitudes that have become so ingrained in our way of life.’ 

It is the collective experiences, voices and defined action of people from impacted communities that will help shape the vision for long-lasting, impactful, transformative change. For frontline farming communities, the solution starts with building thriving local economies which provide farmers with dignified livelihoods that are ecologically diverse, healthy and resilient. It continues beyond the farm through opportunities for integrated land management that draws on indigenous knowledge and the best of modern science. The local and global impact of Australia’s current bushfire crisis is being felt through grief, stress, frustration and disbelief. But perhaps from the ashes, transformative dialogues and new narratives can emerge – ones that create opportunities and pathways for a regenerative future.

If you would like to help farmers affected by the fires you can donate or volunteer with the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal.   You can read more of Eva’s work here

You can keep updated with our ongoing stories around the Bushfire Appeal via Instagram

Photograph: Ian Barbour

Organic Farmer’s Bushfire Appeal update

Organic Farmer’s Bushfire Appeal update

Great news!

Certified organic fodder due to arrive Christmas Eve!

When we launched the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal two weeks ago, our aim was to raise $14,000 to purchase and transport a B-double load (approx. 50 tonnes) of certified organic fodder to farms in need in NSW.

Since then, thanks to the momentum our supporters have created through the support of this appeal, we’ve had an amazing 120 tonnes of certified organic fodder donated by generous organic producers in Victoria – worth over $60,000!   And thanks to the fodder being donated, we’ve also secured $40,000 worth of transport subsidies through the NSW Govt Rural Assistance Authority.  This means for every $1 dollar donated – it has created $15 directly to these farmers!

The first of six truck loads of fodder will be delivered to organic & biodynamic farms just in time for Christmas, next Tuesday!

This will help keep stock alive and businesses afloat over the next few months at the following farms:

– Marrook Farm

– Benmar Farm

– Oxhill Organics

– Tony, an organic farmer from Comboyne

You’re helping to save these farms – thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

Your donation will go so much further than we could have anticipated when we launched this appeal. As summer rolls on, this means that we’ll be able to provide further support to more farmers affected by drought and bushfires, as needs arise.

You can share details of our Appeal with your local organic retailer or grocer with this flyer, please encourage them to support us!

Thank you!

Carolyn & the ORICoop team

Marook Farm – it’s all in the tub!

Marook Farm – it’s all in the tub!

A reflection from Heidi, of Marrook Farm.  A Certified Biodynamic Dairy in NSW, near Taree.

Our situation currently is that we have been in drought for the last three years with increasing severity. In many previous years we have been self-sufficient in feed, making silage for winter feed. However due to the ongoing drought, we have had to bring three large loads of hay from Victoria.  Currently, we are contemplating another load as feed in the pasture is minimal from the drought. We are lucky to have running water, unlike others nearby.

At present the Bulga Plateau, where we live, is surrounded by fires. Since the fire went through our neighbouring village, Bobin, just a few Friday’s ago, we had spent days in preparation, keeping the cows near the dairy and feeding more hay than we would normally have been. That Friday, the power and all phone communications went out. We have a generator at the dairy and factory so continue to milk twice a day.  The phones came back on Thursday last week, which helps.  We were not able to send out our truck with the week’s milk production due to the fire situation, and the danger to the drivers and trucks.  Luckily, yesterday, due to the great help of friends and a vehicle going ahead to clear trees off the road we were able to send the truck out, so all our products will have a week less use by than usual. Last week I made fetta rather than yoghurt, as we had no space in the cool room to store any more and our workers have left the mountain due to the fire situation. Today I have made kefir as usual hoping to get orders out next Monday.

The closest the fire has come is one kilometre away from us two days ago.  So we were on high alert, especially as we also have a 93 year old neighbour staying with us as his sons fight the fires. Thankfully there was a lot of water bombing and crews on the ground, and they held it at the road. Most days it is a waiting game and the situation changes with the wind.   They are hoping to have the power restored by Thursday this week, which would astound me, as it is very rugged terrain they have to traverse, and they have lost a lot of poles.   We are communicating by intermittent mobile phone mainly and a satellite NBN. UHF radius with neighbours was a great help

People must understand that farmers are feeling exhausted from the intense drought situation in NE NSW, and adding a fire to this will be financially & environmentally catastrophic for years to come.

**  Support Organic & Biodynamic Farmers, donate to the Campaign HERE.  Buy local.  Support farmers that are resilient and surviving one of the toughest droughts in history.

 

 

 

Black Barn Farm reflections

Nestled 750 metres above sea level, in the cool climate of Stanley, Victoria, Black Barn Farm is a biodiverse orchard, nursery and learning space. Home to the Showers family, Black Barn Farm is a permaculture-based horticultural operation, where they grow a rich variety of apples, pears, quince and berries, among some perennial herbs and vegetables, with more than 50 varieties spread across their 23 acres. Their produce supplies the local farmers markets and is open to the public for pick-your-own adventures. The Showers also operate a fruit tree and perennial plant nursery and run regular feasts, gatherings, workshops and other events, often in partnership with other local fair food advocates. Fostering a diverse orchard ecosystem, the Showers understand that healthy, nutrient-dense food comes from maximum tree nutrition which comes from super healthy soils – that takes time, biomass, biodiversity and carefully managed disturbance. Stanley Apples, pears, cherries, chestnuts, walnuts and berries all have a long history in Stanley, where the locals turned to horticulture after the gold rush. At its peak, there were more than 30 families earning a living as orchardists, but as the Australian food system became more centralised and concentrated, these farming families have been whittled down to just a handful. Moving to Stanley 18 years ago, the Showers watched small family-owned operations struggle to make a living in a supermarket dominated world, pulling up walnut trees and their families’ history with them. After a study tour of Vermont, USA, where they experienced a truly localised and resilient food system, the Showers decided to start their own orchard business and community-owned food co-operative in Beechworth, the start of a big journey for improved food security and sovereignty in North East Victoria. Life on the Farm Cold sub-alpine frosty re-setting winters with regular snow is downtime on Black Barn Farms, a time for hibernation and renewal in preparation for the busy year ahead. Spring slowly arrives with short-lived bursts of warmth kicking off the tree grafting season, before arriving in full wonder with amazing orchard blossoms, bees and fruitlets giving an idea of the fruitful bounty to come. Summer sees the orchard spring to life with berries, cherries and early apples for picking, days spent swimming in the dam and checking irrigation lines. Autumn is into the thick of apple, pear and quince season as the harvest hits full swing, with the end of a hard-working season leaving the family looking forward to a rest again over winter. Why Regenerative? The Showers Family are motivated to live a simple, rewarding, community entrenched and seasonally-based life where they can earn a living from a sustainable and regenerative source. Part of the local food revolution and building a sustainable local food system, the Showers have chosen a farming system that best aligns with permaculture-inspired philosophy and goals to increase food security and build community in their local area. “We are not certified, we are radically transparent and operate with the full trust of our customers who buy direct from us in full knowledge of how and why we farm the way we do. We believe in simple, minimal overhead approaches where relationships are valued and supply chains are purposefully short! We don’t farm organically because of opportunities or premiums, we farm regeneratively for the permanence of our culture.” “We joined ORICoop to support the development of an organisation that changes our food system for the better. Promoting and driving new investment in organic and regenerative farming starts to change the way our culture values its food system, improving food security and food sovereignty. Reflections with Thanks to Charlie Showers & Eva Perroni ”

Find Out How Organic Farming Benefits Farmers, Consumers, Buyers and Traders!

Find Out How Organic Farming Benefits Farmers, Consumers, Buyers and Traders!

June 13, 2018
Organic Without Boundaries

We are Mr. Sengsavang Luangphachaleun & Mrs. Sinsanga Keo Vong Kot organic farmers from Laos. We live with our 19-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter on a farm in Savannakhet. We rent about one hectare of land from the government, where we grow a variety of vegetables and rice, and also keep ducks and chickens. We eat a lot of what we grow ourselves and sell the surplus at a local market. READ MORE