SA bushfires: Farmers fight to save topsoil after devastating 85,000-hectare blaze

SA bushfires: Farmers fight to save topsoil after devastating 85,000-hectare blaze

05 March 2016

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Australia–  A huge expanse of normally productive farming land in South Australia’s mid north now looks more like a desert after a bushfire tore through 85,000 hectares last November, killing two people.

“We’re pretty well looking at 55,000 hectares at least of bare land which is something we haven’t seen for a long time,” Mary-Anne Young from Primary Industries and Regions SA (PIRSA), said.

“In a drought there may be a paddock here and a paddock there or every second paddock, but in this situation all of the land has been exposed and it’s all drifting.”

Pinery farmer Andrew Barr lost his house in the blaze, which destroyed 91 homes.

He said watching his topsoil blow away was almost as devastating, after spending more than a decade nurturing the land.

“Most of us pride ourselves on having no erosion anymore with the conservation farming systems that we run and we haven’t seen our soils for probably ten years,” he said.

“This year we’ve got far too good a look at them.”

The insurance bill from the bushfire has now topped $170 million. The local agriculture industry was particularly hard hit, with thousands of livestock killed, hundreds of sheds, fences and farm machines burnt and more than $23 million worth of crops and fodder destroyed.

The soil loss that has followed the fire not only threatens the foundation of farmers livelihoods, it is also taking an emotional toll.

“As soon as the wind comes up the dust comes up and it wears you down,” farmer Mark Branson, who lost 1,600 sheep in the fire, said.

“When the winds are up they’re just blowing dust all day long. It’s not nice.”

Farmers try to prevent soil erosion

To try and secure his land Mark Branson is bringing heavier lumps of soil to the surface by ploughing his property.

It goes against the grain for the fifth generation grower who has not tilled his farm prior to seeding for 15 years.

But it is something many are resorting to in an effort to reduce the soil erosion.

Among them is highly regarded Suffolk sheep breeder Brian Fischer, who lost his entire ewe stud in the blaze.

He has come up with a very striking square cultivation pattern on his property at Wasleys.

“Whichever way the wind blows it can’t get a start ’cause it’s always at an angle to the furrows,” Mr Fischer said.

“My father did it back in the 1940s with a team of horses and a cultivator so I can’t take much credit for the idea.

“I just implemented it and it worked a treat. It stopped it completely.”

Farmers are trialling other methods to hold lighter soils together including spreading clay and piggery litter and sowing cover crops.

Mr Barr has put in temporary wheat and barley crops on his sandy country.

He is not sure whether they will last long enough to do the job, with more rain needed, but he said the small plants were a welcome sight.

“Green is just a breath of fresh air to us,” he said.

“We haven’t seen much of this for the last three months.”

Opportunity to redesign properties after fire

The top soil may have taken a hammering, but Ms Young said what’s underneath should have escaped relatively unscathed because of the speed of the bushfire.

“It probably didn’t hang around and start burning things underneath the soil,” she said.

“We think that probably the organic matter levels are still fairly intact.”

There is no mistaking farmers are still struggling to pick up the pieces.

But Mr Barr said they were also trying to turn the empty landscape into an opportunity and redesign their properties so they work better with modern practices and machinery.

“We decided that we would take the opportunity to consider the farm a blank slate,” he said.

“We didn’t want to just rebuild how it was because if you’re looking for a positive to come out of this then you need to think what this farm should look like in ten or twenty years time.”

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