Ol’ Smokey

Anyone would think that the district is ablaze like it’s mid-Summer today. The smoke haze in our part of the world is thick and still, stinging the eyes and back of the throat. Asthmatics beware!

I was driving back from Bendigo and became more and more incensed by the increase in smoke haze as I travelled towards ThisLittleFarm. We live in an area with many vineyards, but also large cropping properties further north. I was dismayed by the burning off of the crop residue and vine prunings that I saw as I drove. What a lovely opportunity for carbon sequestration going up in smoke!

By chipping the vine prunings and reapplying them to the vines as a mulch layer come spring, any rainfall that we get from now until then will have a fighting chance of remaining in the soil over the dry summer period, instead of evaporating straight off. This has the benefit of reducing irrigation requirements to the vines, and preserving ground water in the local aquifers. Keeping ground water in the ground reduces salination of that aquifer and also the soil above it. By stockpiling the mulch prior to application on the vineyards, it will also be partially composted, which will increase the organic matter in the soil under the vines as well, assisting with water penetration into the future, further reducing irrigation needs and recharging the ground water supply.

Instead of burning the crop stubble, there are a number of other options available to farmers. As the stubble is already dead, there is no competition with a new crop that is to be planted soon. Ideally, the farmer would direct sow this year’s crop into the stubble of last year’s, which could then provide shade to the soil to help increase germination rates, and also provide a standing mulch to minimise weed growth in this year’s crop.

Alternatively, if plowing must be done, the crop stubble could be turned into the soil to help improve the organic matter level. As crop stubble is pure carbon, it would be best if these paddocks were sown with a nitrogen-fixing green manure this year and cropped again next year instead. A call for good paddock rotation if ever I saw one.

Unfortunately, around here, most farms are managed in a conventional fashion with set stocking rates and minimal rotation of paddock uses. This means that old, poor soil (lots of old gold mining country around here) are becoming more compacted and thus shedding more water in what is already a brittle environment. When farmers have to squeeze as much money as they can from the land they have in order to survive, they often feel that they can’t afford the risk of changing their management plans. All the more incentive for me to be and demonstrate the possibilities that changes in management can bring.

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