Cotton Pickin – the Boggabri Blog

Today’s guest blog post comes from Heather Gow-Carey one of our Eco Champions

But firstly a little bit from me to put it into perspective 

One of the things that still fascinates me is despite the vastness of our country just how little of it we can grow food on and how precious our natural resources are to sustain our standard of living now and in the future.

Yes we all know Australia is a pretty big place and what most of us don’t realise (including me until recently) is believe it or not over 60% of it is owned, managed and cared for by Australian farmers. To put this into perspective the white bits on the map below are the 40% of Australia that are classified as non agricultural land.Agricultural-Land-in-Australia_thumb,

What’s even harder to believe is that only 6% of our agricultural land is suitable for growing food. This means our 134,000 farmers have a huge amount of land between them that doesn’t generate an income It therefore goes without saying that Australian farmers are at the frontline of delivering environmental outcomes on behalf of the Australian community and they have a very big unpaid gardening/park keeping gig in any man’s language. I was as flabbergasted as most people when I found out these statistics that overall 94% of what farmers own and manage returns them no direct in your pocket benefit. As one of those farmers of which 50% of our farm is pristine rainforest it does however give great satisfaction and warms your heart to see it support diverse native vegetation and wildlife.

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Can you just imagine what its like following the cows home through this – I can tell you its doesn’t get much better

However its very clear as many of our farmers readily admit they don’t have the skillsets nor the time to do all of this gardening alone. Luckily Australia has a whole team of very special professionals called natural resource managers who partner with farmers to help them get the best outcomes for Australia’s scare natural resources.

Last year with support from the Australian Government’s Caring for our Country Initiative Art4Agriculture accessed funding that would allow our Young Farming Champions to train and work side by side and go into schools as part of the Archibull Prize with Young Eco Champions. The outcomes can only be described as phenomenal. Today’s guest blog post comes from Heather Gow-Carey

The Boggabri Blog……………………………..

As part of the Young Eco Champions Program I have developed a strong interest in agriculture and learning more about our industries that feed and clothe us. Even though I grew up in a rural area, I have found my knowledge of agricultural production is quite limited – so I decided that if I wanted to follow a career in natural resource management and agriculture, I really should get some inside knowledge of what is involved on the agricultural side of things.

My first farm visit was cotton!

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I was lucky enough to have the help of Sophie Davidson from Cotton Australia in tracking down a working cotton farm that had been improving both their on-farm efficiency and the health of the surrounding environment. She arranged for me to visit John and Robyn Watson who have been farming since 1979 on their farm “Kilmarnock” at Boggabri in Northern NSW.

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When John began farming here it was the first cotton to be grown south of Narrabri, along the upper Namoi River. 

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Both John and Robyn live and breathe cotton. When I first got to the farm, we jumped in the car and started driving around their property. I was amazed! To be honest, I had hardly seen any form of broad-scale cropping before. While John and Robyn have had lots of visitors to their farm, John mentioned that it was very rare to have someone like me who had almost no knowledge of the industry. So at least I didn’t feel too stupid asking the basic questions! I chatted with John about the production of cotton, right from the beginning when they sow the seeds all the way up to harvest – and even about the ginning and export process.

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Their property is 1500 hectares plus extra land that they lease from adjoining properties. It is a mixture of cotton, grain and cattle grazing, with about half of it under crop (both irrigated and dry-land). Kilmarnock was one of the first farms to take up the Best Management Practices (BMP) Program and John chaired the Australian Cotton Industry Council’s BMP Committee for three years. 

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He also played an active role in the implementation of BMP in the Boggabri area, encouraging other local growers to get on board with the program and John and Robyn have been active members of their local Landcare group. Robyn has even written a paper titled Restoring the banks of the Namoi on ‘Kilmarnock’: Success arising from persistence

In 1995, they started a program of improving the riparian areas because they were concerned about bank erosion and pesticide contamination of the river. From this time they have revegetated more than 20kms of riverbank, stretching alongside their property, along with encouraging neighbouring properties to undertake similar work. Robyn has been the driving force behind the Landcare work on their property, she would collect seeds and propagate them in a small nursery that she had set up. In talking to Robyn, she mentioned that there had recently been a few fish surveys undertaken along the Namoi River and there was a sharp increase in both the diversity of species along with the overall counts of fish along the revegetated sections. So not only has their work stopped the erosion of their property and loss of fertile soil, it has improved the environment in a number of ways.

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From a farming perspective, the Watsons have been improving the overall efficiency of their production which means they are using less water, pesticides and herbicides and getting higher overall yields. There are a number of ways that they have been doing this:

  • Having designated dry-land cropping areas, which rely only on rainfall reduces overall water consumption, along with having extensive channel and dam networks to recycle flood irrigated areas. They have also recently got an overhead pivot irrigation system which moves slowing down the crop rows to prevent extra water loss.
  • All cotton is GM so as to be resistant to round-up and cotton pests. This means that they have reduced the amount of pesticide that is used, so they very rarely have to spray at all. Being resistant to round-up results in reduced soil cultivation and lower amounts of herbicide required on cotton crops to control weeds and facilitates healthier soils through less soil disruption and reductions in residual herbicides.
  • They ensure that there is always a few ‘refuge crops’ (usually pigeon pea) sown each year, so this allows insects that would be affected by GM cotton to have the ability to persist and not alter their population structure or effect the birds that feed on them.

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Robyn is also very talented at spinning cotton, and generously taught me how to do it. I found out firstly you have to pull the bolls away from the cotton plant and pluck out the cotton seeds. This is essentially what happens at the cotton gin, though on a much larger scale. You end up with a bowl full of fluffy cotton balls and from here you can start to spin.

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Using an ordinary spinning wheel, it is possible to end up with a range of different thicknesses of hand-spun cotton which can be dyed and then knitted or woven just like wool. I was very impressed and even got to take a few bolls so I could give it a go at home. Robyn is one of the few people who spins with cotton and I think she may be going to go to the Royal Easter Show to do some demonstrations – she is one talented lady!

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While I was up north, I was also able to visit the Namoi Catchment Management Authority (CMA) at Narrabri and go out in the field with Lauren Wilson and Megan Davies to conduct some vegetation surveys. One of the target areas that the Namoi CMA is working on is the protection of riparian areas that are not in poor condition, though need some assistance (eg. through fencing out livestock) to ensure that their condition does not worsen. I found this a great experience to have a look at regions that are so climatically different from down on the South Coast of NSW, and find out about the challenges that these regions are facing from an environmental perspective.

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‘I really did have a great time visiting Boggabri and Narrabri, even though it was only short, I learnt so much and had such wonderful experiences. Coming into this program, I had the opinion that most people hold about the cotton industry – that it used huge amounts of water and sprayed chemicals all over the place.

From learning from the other Young Farming Champions and this visit to Kilmarnock, I really have changed my perspective of the industry. It is a vital industry to Australian agriculture and is one that is innovative and always changing to promote efficiency and ensure overall productivity.’

 

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I now know the story of cotton – it is how this little plant turns into the pair of socks on your feet.’

*Heather has just finished an International Bachelor of Science (Geoscience) (Hons) and gone to Canberra to join the DAFF Graduate program

You can share stories with Heather on Twitter here  @HeatherGowCarey