Quest for healthy land, healthy farms

12 Jan, 2018 04:00 AM
Christie Stewart with her parents Karen and John Stewart in a canola field when the family farmed at Wongan Hills.
Christie Stewart with her parents Karen and John Stewart in a canola field when the family farmed at Wongan Hills.

CREATIVITY and a childhood on the farm is what drives Christie Stewart’s desire to want to make a difference in agriculture.

With a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture under her belt, Christie has her sights set on using her knowledge and skills from her farming background and degree to tackle many agricultural problems that farmers face.

Christie said there were many similarities between agriculture and landscape architecture, yet there were not jobs that combined the two for the benefit of farming.

“As a landscape architect, solving some of those agricultural problems would be really nice to come at from a creative design point of view instead of a scientific one and I think there is a real opening there,” Christie said.

The 31-year-old grew up on her family’s broadacre farm new Wongan Hills that used to produce wheat, lupins, barley, canola and chickpeas.

Christie loved the freedom of the outdoors and living on the 2156 hectare property that played a major role in developing her skills as a landscape architect, including learning to observe her surroundings and being in touch with nature.

However living on marginal farming land, coupled with a series of dry seasons and other ecological issues such as salinity, became too much and the farm was sold in 2012.

“It was heart wrenching when we had to sell our farm,” Christie said.

“I always thought we would be on the farm, even though you always hear ‘it’s another bad year’ over again, you always think it’s going to be there and then suddenly it’s not one day and it just takes a bit to come to terms with,” she said.

When the farm sold Christie was right in the middle of her degree and despite the stress, she was motivated to do more.

“When the farm sold, I still wanted to continue as I was in a unique position – landscape architectural design relies on creative thinking coupled with site analysis and I had accumulated 27 years of intimate knowledge of the place, along with knowledge passed down from my parents and grandparents,” she said.

“I couldn’t bear for this connection to evaporate and I wanted to use it to set up a design framework to help other farmers in similar situations.”

Christie went on to complete her bachelor’s degree with first-class honours in 2014, accumulating a number of awards and scholarships along the way.

One of her greatest achievements was being awarded the HASSELL Travelling Scholarship – Robin Edmond award in 2015, which allowed her to expand on her honours research by travelling down the Godwana Link – an area of revegetation stretching from Augusta to the Great Western Woodlands.

“It’s an area that’s very high in biodiversity and ecological value so they (researchers) are looking at ways to connect all the fragmented bush land back up to improve the health of the ecosystem,” Christie said.

“Part of that is working with farmers to figure out the best ways to get some revegetation in there and improve their farming system, as well as improving the natural ecology in the area.

“I got to meet some awesome people – I think I visited 14 people in nine days.

“It was a great experience and I learnt a lot.”

Using a combined strategy of geographic information systems (GIS), mapping, precision agriculture methodology, an iterative design process and a creative mindset, Christie abandoned all the rules usually followed to manage farming issues.

She said the idea for her honours project stemmed from her experience in farming, always having a passion for the industry and a determination to forge her own path.

“Salinity and erosion were always problems but if you don’t look at it closely you can just glance over it and accept the landscape as it is, whereas it’s actually a very altered landscape and not a healthy one,” Christie said.

As she came towards the end of her degree, Christie helped her family map out a plan to try to save their farm but it was too late.

Christie has persisted with her ideas to take on agricultural issues such as salinity and erosion with a creative mindset to potentially help other farmers in the future.

She has worked as a landscape architect for UDLA, Fremantle, since completing university three years ago.

Her ultimate goal is to do whole-farm planning from a landscape architect’s perspective for the purpose of improving farm health and productivity.

“I’m looking at lots of different ways to try and bring the land back to life – not just the farm side but also the bush side,” Christie said.

“I guess it’s that connection to the ‘healthy land, healthy farmer’, because when everything around you and what you’re doing is healthy, it’s healthy for your mind and spirit.”

With a focus on improving yields and improving the overall health and resilience of the land to ensure healthy long-term practices, Christie’s research was the first to combine analysis, creativity of landscape architecture, the intimate knowledge of the land owner and agricultural technology to forge a sustainable pathway for farming.

Her research found that although much can be done on an individual farm to improve yield, most of the solutions, such as reversing salinity and reconnecting fragmented vegetation require a regional and catchment approach.

“Although this project has been successful, I feel that I have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg – there is much more research to be undertaken,” Christie said.



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