Farm Weekly

Green thumb farmer making a tree change for the environment

Green thumb farmer making a tree change for the environment
Green thumb farmer making a tree change for the environment

Story sponsored by Landcare.

It's a concept that's taken root in the past few decades: planting trees on farms.

Aside from sheltering livestock, trees can be used to reduce soil erosion and salinity. They can support food and fibre production, enhance biodiversity and beautify the landscape while creating additional income opportunities from tree products.

One farmer who is keen on trees is Andrew Stewart. The fourth-generation farmer and agricultural scientist recently took home the Bob Hawke Landcare Award for environmental work and sustainable agricultural achievements.

The award comes with a $50,000 prize to develop knowledge and contributions to Landcare.

Andrew and his family operate a 230-hectare sheep and agroforestry property near Deans Marsh in the foothills of Victoria's Otway Ranges. They have spent the past 30 years transforming their property with 50,000 trees and shrubs while maintaining a successful prime lamb business.

Previous owners - since European settlement - had taken what Andrew calls a "reductionist approach." By 1900, most of the properties in the area were essentially cleared of woody vegetation, with just a few remnants surviving here and there. When Andrew's ancestors bought the farm in 1905, it was mainly cleared.

Andrew said his father started planting native trees on the property in the late 1960s to provide shelter for sheep and to attract birdlife.

"No one else around here was doing that apart from a good farmer friend," he recalled.

In 1991, the Stewart family developed an ambitious plan to further weave multi-purpose plantations with livestock production. By planting 120 species of trees and shrubs over the years, they have taken the property from three per cent woody vegetation to 18 per cent without a reduction in traditional agricultural production.

"We wanted to bring back complexity into the farming system, boost biodiversity, create opportunity, provide protection and develop a robust and resilient landscape for our farm's future," Andrew explained.

The family divided the property into five land classes, fenced out dams, remnant vegetation, waterlogged areas and salt-affected sites. They also fenced and planted along creeks, drainage lines and land class boundaries.

The web of connected trees throughout the property helps protect soils, waterways, pastures and livestock, as well as wildlife, with 123 bird species recorded. There are trees and shrubs flowering every month of the year.

A family affair

Andrew is quick to note that his wife, Jill, co-manages the farm with him, and his brother and sisters are involved. Daughters Michelle, Hannah and Kristy are part of the succession plan.

The family organises an annual tree-planting day that, for the past 27 years, has seen up to 74 extended family and friends participate.

"People love it. The more complex farming system brings us all together," he said.

"The trees have built up the complexity of the farm rather than making it a reductionist experience. They're like air conditioners, cooling the farm down in the summer months and providing warmth to the landscape in winter. If you can slow the wind speed by 15-25 kilometres an hour, it can have a big effect on the chill factor that newborn lambs are subjected to," he said.

Some trees like yellow stringybark, sugar gum and blue gums have been harvested for construction poles, shiitake mushroom growing and paper production. Thinnings from pine sawlog shelter belts have been sold as Christmas trees.

With 28 species of banksia, native flowers have also become a valuable side industry. Every week, Jill picks banksias and background foliage from other trees and shrubs and sells them in town and at the farm gate.

Andrew says the benefits of multi-purpose plantations are more than just economical. The wildlife corridors and wetlands have made the property a more inviting place to live and work.

And they've been great for the environment.

"At present, the greenhouse gas emissions from the sheep enterprise are more than offset by carbon sequestered by the trees we have planted," he said.

With the Bob Hawke Landcare Award, Andrew has also been recognised for his community work, including being a co-founder of the Otway Agroforestry Network and foundation member of the East Otway Landcare Group. These groups have driven the restoration of the Yan Yan Gurt Creek (which runs through Andrew's property) by fencing off 18kms along the creek to revegetate the waterfront.

Education a focus with the award money

Andrew said a sizeable portion of the $50,000 prize would support his increasing workload in farming education.

"We need a national succession plan to make farming more attractive to young people," he said.

First up are technology upgrades to give more professional presentations as well as a PA system and microphones to help with farm tours and field days, which he expects to ramp up soon.

Andrew and his family have already given tours to more than 5000 people on the benefits of agroforestry and sustainable land management practices. They run tours for secondary schools, farming groups, TAFE and universities.

The family will develop a website about Yan Yan Gurt West Farm's work and highlight available resources.

"We're already on the national curriculum with some videos for years seven and eight that were developed by the Primary Industries Education Foundation of Australia, as well as videos and national curriculum work with the Forest Learning Group. Having a website means we can direct people to available resources to interest young people in farming," he said.

Andrew is also considering a podcast series on agroforestry and some video projects with his daughters for schools so they can talk to students about what is happening on the farm.

"The girls are already doing some of this work in classrooms via Zoom with the Farmer Time Program, and I would like to support them more with this," he said.

Andrew is also undertaking more webinars, podcasts and guest speaking roles in the sector as a result of his win.

Nominations for the Bob Hawke Landcare Award open in March 2022, and the winner will be announced at the 2022 National Landcare Conference next August.