The Untrained Environmentalist: How an Australian Grazier Brought His Barren Property Back to Life

The Untrained Environmentalist: How an Australian Grazier Brought His Barren Property Back to Life

by John Fenton, Graeme Gunn

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Fifty years ago a young farmer named John Fenton took over his family's run-down sheep property in Victoria. Named Lanark, the property was barren, windswept, and environmentally all but dead. Fenton set about bringing the property back to life by bringing the environment back to life. He planted trees. He reinstated wetlands. He created wildlife reserves. Other


Fifty years ago a young farmer named John Fenton took over his family's run-down sheep property in Victoria. Named Lanark, the property was barren, windswept, and environmentally all but dead. Fenton set about bringing the property back to life by bringing the environment back to life. He planted trees. He reinstated wetlands. He created wildlife reserves. Other farmers thought he had gone a little mad, but Fenton pressed on. As time went on, he came to realize he had stumbled on something extremely important for the Australian landscape as a whole: an integrated, sustainable farming system that was in tune with nature. Thus, he became an environmentalist almost by chance. Year after year, the tree-planting continued. By the time Fenton handed over the property to his son a few years ago, he had planted close to 100,000 trees. He had turned a desolate, degraded farm into an oasis teeming with bird life. In this book he tells the inspiring story of how his miracle was achieved.

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The Untrained Environmentalist

How an Australian Grazier Brought his Barren Property Back to Life

By John Fenton

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2010 John Fenton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74269-068-1



* * *

Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land. By land is meant all the things on, over, or in the earth. Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators; you cannot conserve the waters and waste the ranges; you cannot build the forest and mine the farm. The land is one organism. ALDO LEOPOLD

Someone in the publishing industry described me recently as an 'accidental environmentalist'. I assume he meant that I acquired my interest in the environment somehow by chance. This is not quite true, although I can see what he was getting at. It is certainly a fact that I do not have a 'green' background: I did not start out with a special interest in the welfare of the environment. I started out as a young farmer who was determined to produce as much fine wool and as many fat wethers and beef cattle as possible on the 1715 acres (nearly 700 hectares) of grazing land that I had at my disposal. Before long, though, I came to see there had to be a compromise, some kind of balance, between a farmer's need for greater and greater output and the land's ability to supply it. In other words, I could see that the land was not an inexhaustible source of production. If you wanted the land to keep producing, you had to care for its needs. You had to give something back.

It was hardly a new concept, but it did start me wondering if the way I was managing my land — which at that time was the way nearly all Australian farmers managed their land — was really the best way. In other words, I began to question what previously I had taken for granted. Gradually, it dawned on me that my 1715 acres of land was really a part of the natural environment — a key realisation, incidentally. Indeed, the closer I looked at the relationship between my land and the environment, the more I realised that you could not separate one from the other. The health of one depended on the health of the other. This was how, bit by bit, I began to develop an interest in the environment.

Lanark, a family property, was a bare, worn-out, windswept place when I took it over as a 21-year-old in 1956. It was obvious that Lanark's land had been badly neglected for many years. The question was: how best to restore the land to good health? The answer that I more or less stumbled on was to start by planting trees. When I say 'stumbled on' I mean that planting trees was not a carefully thought-out solution to my property's problems. It just seemed the right thing to do at the time. To some extent I may have simply been reacting to the fact that the property looked so bare and desolate.

By planting trees I was reversing a process that had been under way across rural Australia ever since Europeans began farming here: clearing the land of trees. A few years ago, according to the Australian Conservation Foundation, more than half a million hectares of land, or well over a million acres, were still being cleared in Australia each year. Australia then had the fifth highest rate of land clearing in the world, higher even than impoverished nations like Burma, Nigeria and the Congo. Today, it seems the rate of land clearing in Australia has declined, thanks largely to an almost total ban on it in Queensland, previously by far the worst offender, which came into effect in 2007.

People who drive through districts like the Wimmera in Victoria must wonder why previous generations of farmers cleared the land so thoroughly. Why did they need to cut down just about every tree that was standing? Why not leave a patch of scrub here and there just for appearance's sake? Or as a windbreak? I am not sure, but I would guess that the farmers who did the clearing simply viewed all trees as obstacles to progress. They would have believed unreservedly in the idea that the more trees they cleared the more productive their farms would be. Let us not forget, too, that cleared land was extremely fertile. Farmers who planted crops in newly cleared land reaped the benefit of thousands of years' accumulation of nutrients in the soil. They did not realise that years of cropping would rapidly exhaust those nutrients.

So my wife Cicely and I started planting trees at Lanark in large numbers. And we kept on planting them, year after year, decade after decade. We also reinstated wetlands to provide a habitat for water birds. Here, too, we were going against the trend. In those days Australian farmers were not only hell-bent on getting rid of trees, they were also madly draining wetlands. They wanted to maximise the area they had available for grazing and cropping, and one simple way to do that — or so they believed — was to drain any land that was too wet for grazing. The ideal farming landscape, as viewed by many Australian farmers, was a bare expanse where grass and crops could grow unhindered. Here and there they may have left clumps of trees to provide shade for the stock, but that was about all. Swamps were got rid of as a matter of course.

Having begun planting trees and native shrubs, we then expanded into agroforestry, by which I mean that many of the trees we planted were grown to be harvested eventually as timber and, accordingly, were pruned regularly. We also set aside 65 acres (26 hectares) of land as a wildlife reserve and planted it out with native trees and shrubs. All this was unconventional farming practice to say the least. In fact, most other farmers regarded me as an eccentric. Yet, despite this and various other difficulties, Cicely and I pressed on, encouraged by the fact that what we were doing was showing results. Environmentally, the property was transformed. Bird life and insect life multiplied at an amazing rate. Our land became healthier, more fertile. Our sheep, too, were healthier. By the time my son David took over the property in 2003, around 20 per cent of the property's 1715 acres were covered by trees — not in large plantations, of course, but mainly in woodlots and rows.

Today, I am satisfied that Lanark is as healthy in an environmental sense as any working farm can be. I am also satisfied that this healthier environment has translated into a more productive farm. The evidence for this is overwhelming. I thought an RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) University publication summed it up well a few years ago. It said: 'Today Lanark provides an excellent demonstration of the value of trees and water on farmland and the balance that can be achieved between agriculture and conservation. The Fentons have created a significant sustainable ecosystem that integrates agriculture, forestry and wildlife.'

Do I think it would be a good idea, therefore, if every Australian farm became as environment-friendly as Lanark? Yes, I do, for the farm's sake as well as for the environment, but this is not to say I would advise every Australian farmer to do what I have done. Having done it, I know better than anyone how hard it has been — physically, financially, even emotionally. If I had been a wealthy businessman who farmed for pleasure, it would have been different, for I could have devoted as much time and money as I liked to environmental work without worrying whether I could afford it. Genuine farmers, though, are already stretched to the limit financially. I believe very few of them would be capable of doing what really needs to be done to protect the environment without going broke. I speak from personal experience here; on one occasion I nearly went broke myself.

So what is to be done? In my view, there is only one option: if Australians want to see their unique and fragile environment cared for and protected, as I am sure most of them do, then the Australian Government has to pay farmers to do it. There is simply no alternative. Farmers are the only people capable of doing the job, and as things stand now most farmers cannot possibly afford to do what needs to be done. A government initiative is essential.

On their side, farmers have to accept that, although their title deeds might show that they own their land, the reality is they are merely custodians of it during their lifetimes. The land was there for millions of years before they were heard of, and it will be there for millions of years after they are forgotten. The American environmentalist Aldo Leopold expressed this thought in his famous 1949 book A Sand County Almanac, which I bought in the mid-1960s and have quoted from ever since. He wrote:

That the land is a community is a basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known but latterly often forgotten ... We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see the land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to see it with love and respect.

Farmers are often reminded that they have a responsibility to look after the land. This is true, although I personally prefer to see it as a privilege rather than a responsibility. This is how Lars-Eric Astrom, a leading figure in Sweden's forestry industry, once described it. He was speaking of forests, but he could just as easily have been speaking of any farm. He said, 'Anyone owning woodland in any country is responsible for a small part of our world. This is a privilege which requires knowledge.'

For the past 200-odd years we Australians have viewed the land as a commodity to be exploited. This attitude, I believe, has been primarily responsible for the degradation of the Australian landscape that is evident everywhere. I am convinced that we must fundamentally change the way we view the land if we are to change the way we manage it. My own belief is that we should view the land as the Aborigines did. They regarded it with reverence, so they treated it with reverence. We must do the same. We need to feel an emotional attachment, maybe even a spiritual attachment, to the land. We need to nurture the land and its resources, not exploit them. The land will reward us for doing so, for if the land is healthier our farming will be more productive and sustainable.

The truth is that most Australian farmers do have an emotional attachment to the land. They might not admit this, of course, but I have no doubt it is true. It is the reason they are farmers. What other reason could a farmer have for working 50 or 60 hours a week for not much money? Of course, it might be said that farming is a lifestyle choice, that farmers choose to be farmers because they like the lifestyle. In my opinion — and I speak as someone who has been a farmer for more than half a century — one of the main reasons they like the lifestyle is that, in their own way, they love the land. So the idea of farmers attaining an Aboriginal-like reverence for the land is not really so revolutionary. They are already halfway there.

One of the biggest frustrations of trying to explain — or justify — why I have invested so much time, effort and money in protecting and rehabilitating the environment at Lanark is that many people assume I am a head-in-the-clouds greenie and always have been. This is why I am quick to tell people how badly I used to treat the land when I first took over the property — how I did not hesitate to use chemicals and how I allowed it to be severely over-grazed. I want them to know that I have done the other thing — that I know the ins and outs of it from personal experience and I know the debilitating effect it has on the land. Maybe you could get away with flogging the land in, say, New Zealand. You cannot get away with flogging it in Australia. The ecosystem here is just too fragile.

This book is not really my story or Cicely's story. It is the story of Lanark, a 1715-acre block of land in Victoria's Western District that was all but dead and was brought back to life. I hope the story may help others who want to return life to their own land.



* * *

Looking back, I realise now that Lanark was essentially an experimental farm. Most of the work that Cicely and I did there — the tree planting and other environmental projects — was experimental in the sense that we did not know for sure what the outcome would be. No other farmer that I knew of had done what we set out to do, so there was no past experience for us to rely on. Cicely and I were flying blind. We could not be certain that the huge investment we were making in the environment at Lanark would not prove as big a waste of time, effort and money as all the sceptics around us seemed to believe it would be.

Lanark was not an ordinary experimental farm, however. Having made a mistake, perhaps by planting the wrong trees in the wrong place, we did not simply remove the mistake and start again. All our mistakes — wrong species of trees, badly located fences and so on — are there today. In this sense Lanark has always been a work in progress. If you were to drive around the property today, you could trace its entire history over the past 50 years, for it is all still there, the failures as well as the successes.

So what exactly do you see if you drive around Lanark today? How is it different from other Australian sheep properties? Well, the thing you would probably notice first is that there are a lot of trees. I estimate that we have planted 100 000 of them over the years, and many others have grown naturally through regeneration from my early plantings. About 30 per cent of the trees, occupying an area of about 75 acres (30 hectares), have been grown for timber and will eventually be harvested. There are another 35 acres (fourteen hectares) of shelter belts, consisting of various native tree species, both indigenous and exotic. The rest of the trees, all native species and mainly indigenous, are in wildlife habitat reserves totalling about 90 acres (36 hectares). In all, about 200 acres (80 hectares) of land at Lanark, representing just over 10 per cent of the property, are covered by trees.

Then there are the reinstated wetlands. All in all, they occupy almost 120 acres — or around 7 per cent of the property. There is a seventeen-acre (seven-hectare) lake, named Lake Cicely; about 30 acres (twelve hectares) of seasonal water meadows; and 70 acres (28 hectares) of swamps. The rest of Lanark, amounting to just over 75 per cent of the property, consists of grazing land.

I said in the previous chapter that what we have done at Lanark has been good both for the farm and the environment. Now, it is not hard to see why reinstated wetlands and tens of thousands of trees forming bushland reserves would be good for the environment, including, in particular, bird life; but it has also been good for the farm in a number of important ways, which I will discuss at greater length later in the book. Trees shelter the stock from the worst of winter weather, which, among other things, means that the stock do not need to eat as much grass to stay warm. If they are aligned in windbreak formation, trees are able to shelter crops and pastures from the wind, thereby reducing evaporation from the soil in summer and generally encouraging growth. Trees create fertility by raising minerals to the surface and by simply dropping their leaves and branches. They can eventually be harvested as a cash crop if they are planted and managed as timber trees.

Trees also raise the capital value of any farm where they are planted. In 1983 I arranged for the Victorian Farmers' and Graziers' Association (VFGA) (later to become the Victorian Farmers Federation) to conduct a study of land values at Lanark. The aim was to compare the value of land where there had been an intensive planting of trees and a restoration of wetlands with the value of land that was bare. The valuations were done by a registered valuer. I had the same portions valued again five years later. The value of the land with trees and shelter was then 78 per cent higher than the value of the land with none. What I found even more interesting is that during that five-year period — a period in which, of course, the trees grew much bigger — the value of the land with shelter and associated wetlands rose by 119 per cent, whereas the value of the land without shelter rose by only 29 per cent. The study appeared in Financial Benefits of Farm Trees, published by the VFGA and the Victorian Garden State Committee.


Excerpted from The Untrained Environmentalist by John Fenton. Copyright © 2010 John Fenton. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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