Thinking Outside the Square In Wagga Wagga: Thoughts on Contour

Permaculture solutions have come to life at a Wagga Wagga farm in the midst of a heated debate over water. What Kevin Rudd Claim’s will help the Murray Darling River system and the Lower Lakes region has some farmers in the area fuming. Farmers and residents throughout the Murray Darling region have larger concerns over the Australian government’s 3.1 Billion Dollar irrigation buyback scheme. The Rudd government is reacting to reduced productivity in the area and increasing demand for irrigated water downstream. Yet, some local farmers are curious as to how the proposed plan will affect production in the area, and reports show that many aren’t feeling optimistic.

After years of drought-affected production losses, the government’s buyback seems like a kick in the teeth to some selected local farming and ranching economies. A Canberra Times article reported on an ABARE (Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics) study that modeled the effects of half of the buyback. The study was Rudd’s reaction to growing criticism about the buyback. Their report showed that between 2008 and 2011 the program would only pick up an estimated 6% of surface water entitlements. The study predicted that “larger regional centers” with a diverse economy would be less effected by this purchase and, potentially, be cushioned by the economic boost. Still they admitted, ”Some of the smaller towns more dependent on irrigation could be less resilient to a decline in irrigation,” and “The model results also suggest that the buyback will result in water prices being around 13 per cent higher in the northern basin and around 18 per cent higher in the southern basin than they would have been in the absence of the buyback.” Favoring the buyback, the ABARE study seemed to suggest that production decline was largely due to drought and not their buyback. Still, some aren’t so sure and suggest that deeper thought needs to be given to the program.

So while some residents and farmers resort to scratching a furrowed brow, others have resorted to taking the furrows to the land, with permaculture. Seeing the potential benefits of permaculture water harvesting and food production techniques, one Wagga family, The Allsopps, have taken action, and they’re seeing results. The BBC reports that a 20% drop in rainfall equals a 70% drop in stream flow, and as a long time Wagga Wagga resident, this would be no surprise to Richard Allsopp. Richard has seen the value in slowing, spreading, and sinking water on his site. Seeking advice from Australian experts such as Geoff Lawton, Matthew Kilby, and Peter Andrews, Richard has developed a ranch that is unwittingly becoming a demonstration of sustainable land management.

With the recent development of a multi-gigaliter dam connected to swale systems and several gabions using boulders and timber from his land, Richard has seen a marked difference in the health and vitality of his pastures and streams. Currently grazing anywhere from 30-40 head of cattle for management, Richard is now researching ways to continually improve the site with native tree corridors and swale planting for animal forage and stability. Seeing the success of the rock gabion installation last year, he’s also been talking with fellow permaculture designer Nick Huggins about the addition of several living bamboo gabions to slow the rapid erosion of stream banks. And just last week, Nick Huggins and I designed and installed an 800 sq meter orchard and 400 sq meter veggie garden on their site for Richard, Anna and their 3 children. “I think it’s important that the children get the experience of understanding where food comes from, … it just makes sense”, said Richard.

Near one of the older dams on the property, a fenced off area included the proposed site for the permaculture style veggie garden and orchard. Most of the veggie garden and orchard lie within the dam’s catchment on the downward slope of the cow paddock. Seeing the opportunity of the slope, Nick and my design focused on utilizing contour bank garden beds, small tree berms, native leguminous support species, and deep mulch seeded with cover crop. Our hope was to slow and sink the surface runoff from the paddock area on its way to the dam, making best use of the nutrient flow. In the orchard food forest we used a net and pan style planting, interplanted with tree lucurne and a variety of acacia species. Around the orchard we added Southwest and Southeast bamboo windbreaks which will double as a living nursery for their future bamboo plantings. A windbreak on the West side included a aesthetic windbreak of Silver Birch. At the northern end of the 4 contour beds with sunken footpaths, we added a mandala herb and salad garden which they plan to cover with a shade cloth to protect against Wagga’s intense sun and 40°C summer heat. After planting out the veggie garden and trees, almost the entire area was later covered with a cover crop of lucurne, red and white clover and then coated with a thick layer of salvaged local straw. Already decomposing, we could see the straw would create a nice start for microbial action as well as a multifunctional mulch.

While he’s received some criticism from other locals who haven’t yet wrapped their heads around how permaculture can work for them, Richard knows he’s on to something positive. Richard, also a helicopter pilot, often gets a bird’s eye view of what the land around him has devolved into, and it doesn’t look good. “I want to help show people what can be done… and I’m willing to help people do this.” And while he wouldn’t call himself a Permaculturalist, it is obvious he’s got a passion and commitment to improving his land and the land around him. Through his endeavors in permaculture design and sustainable land management, he’s seeing the evolution of abundance when others are feeling hung out to dry.