EVERYONE said the land could never be used for cropping after salinity got hold of it but with the help of a deep drainage system, the Johnson family of Burakin has proved them wrong.
Trevor Johnson, 73, said he watched over the years as good cropping ground was destroyed by salinity spreading across more than 300 hectares of low-lying land on the family farm.
He remembers as a young lad the family farming the area, until in 1963 when there started to be signs of salt.
The salinity spread through the flat lands, getting worse each year until the family put its last crop into the area in the 1980s.
“We tried to crop it but weren’t very successful,” Trevor said.
“So we gave up and just let it go.
“We didn’t know what else to do and everyone said it was pointless.”
The salinity affected area spread beyond the farm into neighbouring properties – which are still impacted by it.
The Johnsons however were able to attract government funding and in 2008 a main deep drain was dug through the middle of the area on their property.
Trevor said it was meant to be dug through into the neighbours as well, but government funding was withdrawn and the neighbours have not been able to attract the funds to afford to do it themselves.
Trevor and his son Brett, who moved back to the farm after finishing high school 16 years ago, have dug more drains that run into the main drain to help lower the water table, and the result has been “phenomenal”.
The drains are spaced out at 300 metre intervals and the amount of water running through them is like a small stream.
“We have about 360 hectares that were affected by salinity,” Brett said.
“The impact of the salt was so bad we had to stop cropping it because it was no use.
“But now its producing crops the same as, if not better than other areas of the farm.”
Brett said they started to see the affect of the drainage straight away and the ground began to produce enough feed to run sheep on.
“It is just incredible the difference,” he said.
Brett said it took a few years, but by 2015 “we put the first barley crop in the ground on the area and it went two tonne per hectare”.
“In 2016 we got 1.5t/ha of canola,” he said.
“In 2017 we saw 1.5t/ha of wheat, and this season we have planted barley again and it is showing great potential.”
Trevor said over the years they had tried to plant salt bushes and other trees to control the water table but nothing worked to contain it.
He said deep drainage was successful and he would support the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development in funding other projects to assist farmers in combating the scourge of salinity.
Trevor said he had seen a lot of changes in agriculture and the weather over the years.
Trevor’s father owned land in Beverley, and was in the Air Force until he became unwell and was unable to fly during World War II.
He left the military at the age of 38 and farmed and sheared until selling up and moving to a bush block at Kirwin, which he cleared to farm.
Trevor was the “eldest of three brothers and he had a tough start to farming at the age of 15 when his father got sick and he needed to step up and put the crop in,” Brett said.
“He lived in a house made of old kerosine tins for walls, and at the age of 17-18 after working on the farm all day, he would make mud tiles and bricks to build the family home,” he said.
“The house is still standing.
“He farmed with his brother for a long time, including at Burakin, and decided to split the farms in the late 1990s but continued to harvest together to share the cost burden of the split.”
Trevor said the droughts of 1976 and 1977 were rough but since 1999 the seasons had gone haywire and become unpredictable.
Brett said Burakin sat in between the higher rainfall area to the west and the more marginal land to the east, so they received more rain than some but not as much as others.
“This could be described as semi-marginal,” Brett said.
“We get about 110-280 millimetres of rain per year.
“You have got to remain positive and trust in history after a bad year, otherwise you don’t want to miss out.”
They have a total area of about 4500ha with three generations on the farm.
Brett said this year they were not doing anything different than usual – although they were looking to run more sheep now that they have more productive land on hand.
This season they planted 2200ha in wheat, 340ha of barley, 400ha in lupins, 50ha of canola and 200ha of serradella for livestock feed.
They also planted some hay oats for their own sheep consumption.
Brett said they generally rotated their crops through, which would depend upon the seasons, however they always planted lupins because “it helps build up the soil nicely”.
He said they followed up the lupin crop with wheat, although as they plant more serradella they will gradually reduce the lupin crop over time.
“We ramped up our clover seeding in the last few years,” Brett said.
“It’s providing good ground cover and feed for the sheep.”
He said they had farmed with sheep and clovers “for a very long time”.
“We feel it is a good mix as clover pasture compliments the cropping program,” he said.
“It allows us to keep our costs down with nitrogen available in the soil, and a continuous rotation of chemicals is prolonging the life of the cheaper brews.”
The Johnsons run 1000 head of Merinos and have just had lambs drop in the past few weeks.
The lambs are a favourite of Brett and wife Sarah’s children Kiara, 6, Zoey, 4 and Indi, 2.
Life on the land has its challenges for Brett and Sarah.
With the rural community continually shrinking and services becoming less, a lot of travelling is involved to stay in touch with friends and participate in community events.
Brett was a keen footy player but after a few too many injuries he had to stop playing, although he still supports the local team – which he said had to be propped up by city players every week due to the lack of members from the area.
He said he was the only one of his 18 mates from Kalannie to have returned and stayed on the land.
Sarah is a full-time mum, but also works off-farm one day a week at Kalannie Primary School, as well as being a local relief teacher.
Originally from Perth, Sarah studied teaching at Edith Cowan University at Joondalup before taking up a country position at Bencubbin.
Brett said when he first met Sarah it was in Perth, but when he found out she was teaching not far from where he lived he “burned a lot of rubber” to court her.
Sarah taught at Bencubbin, Ballidu and Koorda primary schools before they were married.
She is active in the community and also loves her sport enjoying participation in the local netball team.
They also take their daughters to Dalwallinu for dancing lessons.
While they recognise that farm life is great for the kids, the long-term plan is to move into Perth so the children can access better educational opportunities and make it easier for the family.
Brett and Sarah have already purchased a start-up business in Perth as a way to branch out of farming – although they have not decided exactly if selling up or leasing out would be the best option – as they still enjoy the land and it would be hard to leave it behind.
Brett said the uncertainty of the seasons and the continuous hard slog that was farming just to get an average crop, as well as thinking about the best future for their daughters, were the reasons they were looking at changing their course in the future.