“The Oasis” is a small block of 20 acres near Tingha on very poor granite soil that has had any topsoil and organic matter that may have existed removed by sluicing for tin in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We started with a small parcel of land with basically non-existent organic matter levels and resultant absence of microbial life when we came here in December 2004. In fact when sampling for a soil test back then the ‘dark’ organic matter layer on top of our soil was approximately 4mm deep! This now extends some 20 cm deep and deeper in some of the sandier areas.
Because of our family and work commitments it was not essential for the place to support us except as a provider of all our own vegetable crops and meat if possible. The growing of vegetables is only reliable in the period from mid November till mid March as a result of extremely heavy frosts that occur on our low lying and poorly mineralised land. However with the addition of tunnel houses and soil improvement that has occurred over the years we are now able to slowly grow the hardiest vegetables through the long winter period. This has enabled us to produce each year for the last three a small crop of Garlic grown biodynamically and sold via our website www.theoasisbiodynamicfarm.com.
We chose Biodynamics after attending two introductory workshops led by Hamish McKay of BAA at the time. He gave two critical pieces of advice that have made it possible for us to adopt Biodynamics. The first was that most people fail in Biodynamics by not doing it. We can seldom apply preps by the planets or onto bare soil for example as we often do not have enough soil moisture at the correct time (some applications being applied up to three months after anticipating) and bare soil is an anomaly we do not want to see – so we just apply them as rainfall events and our work commitments allow. The other was to not be hung up on ‘methods’ – yes a copper stirring vessel might be ideal but use food grade plastic if that is all you can source. We now use a flowform to do our stirring and have graduated to a copper tank (a recycled hot water cylinder) but initially used a food grade plastic one.
Biodynamics really resonates with us as a way of trying to rejuvenate our tired soils as we both believe passionately in trying to live sustainably. It is our belief that even organic production that is dependant on large inputs from external sources cannot truly be believed to be sustainable – much healthier than the chemical alternative yes! – but still not sustainable.
We started with six merino ewes and four paddocks and except for the unfavourable paddock sizes that was about the carrying capacity of the property. We rotationally graze in an effort to try and improve the productive potential of what were very poor pastures. We applied 500 and 501 to the property approximately seven years ago and then changed to applying the Combined Soil Preparation in spring and autumn, if possible. Since 2011 we have applied Soil Activator in Autumn in a bid to apply as much of the etheric wisdom of Biodynamics as possible with minimum effort as time is always short followed by Combined Soil Preparation in Spring. The applications are often not put on as directed according to the planets but are dependant upon rainfall events that have been haphazard in the extreme for us as they have elsewhere. The overriding requirement is that we have some ground moisture before application.
We now have 22 paddocks and are running 3 adult cattle and 2 weaners for roughage control, and 9 Dorper ewes just starting to lamb as I write this in early October. Our place is carrying itself really well with improved pasture composition, good groundcover levels and still plentiful supplies of dry matter as forage for livestock. Our carrying capacity is approximately triple that of our neighbour! All of this is in spite of the fact that we have had an extremely dry 16 months with reasonable rains only in December and January of last summer. This led to us filling our freezer with a considerable number of sheep to enable us to carry the remaining stock through winter with the place still in good heart.
To what is this due? In part - to close attention to grazing management which is provided by very inexpensive three wire electric fences and in part to the use of Biodynamic preparations – of this I am certain. As the energy of the place has changed we have had Arrowleaf clover appear (seasonally) in all of our paddocks and the basically inedible Darby Oats and Whiskey grasses are receding. These grasses were our dominant forages here initially and stock would starve rather than eat them. The traditional management tool for them and the Bladey grass in this area is the firestick with resultant loss of organic matter also. We have only ever burnt Blackberry clumps in our first year here in order to remove the rabbit habitat and to promote grazing of the blackberries by the sheep. Even our Bladey grass is thinning out with larger areas of softer more palatable grasses in between and the blackberries are receding.
Our intent has been to see whether the use of just the Biodynamic preparations and maybe some compost tea combined with sound grazing management is sufficient to rejuvenate such severely degraded land. My observations at this stage suggest that use of the Biodynamic preparations are sufficient as we have yet to find a simple and affordable way to apply compost teas. While this is a slower process than re-mineralising or applying lots of organic inputs it is infinitely more achievable at basically no cost and allows us to live within the capability of the land rather than to falsely enhance it.
Kim and I apply our Biodynamic preps via hand over the entire place. This process takes 4 sessions covering 5 acres each time (8 hours total). This fits with a philosophy of the ancient Chinese that has long been important to me – that “the best fertiliser is a farmers footsteps”. I believe it also really helps our intent to be directed most beneficially to the process.
My thoughts are that many of our agricultural problems would disappear (and perhaps a reversal is possible) if we went back to farming within the capability of our land rather than foolishly expecting it to provide a level of production beyond that capability. Drought is induced by poor management and just as surely has its impact reduced or negated by sound management as the following picture demonstrates.
When the results were returned the differences in total organic carbon expressed as mg/g were massive in the top 20 cm as the attached table shows with no difference in the depth 20 – 30 cm.
Total Organic Carbon mg/g
Our Property Neighbour
0 – 10 cm 17.9 5.6
10 – 20 cm 14.1 2.3
20 – 30 cm 4.2 4.2
This equates to total carbon stocks per hectare as per the table below:-
Carbon Stock tonnes/ha
Our Property Neighbour
0 – 10 cm 22.3 7.8
10 – 20 cm 20.4 3.2
20 – 30 cm 6.3 6.2
Total 0 – 30 cm 49.0 17.3
The most exciting aspect of this from our perspective is the much increased ability of our soils not only to support correct biological functioning of our soil but also to store water from rainfall events which, as in most of this arid country, are far too infrequent.
As I understand it the difference in total Carbon Stock per hectare between ourselves and the neighbour of 31.7 tonnes equates to approximately 52.6 tonnes of humus per hectare. This then enables us to store 210,000 litres more water per hectare than our neighbour. My observations which obviously are anecdotal suggest that our property has improved in resilience, biodiversity and productivity with each passing year and this must necessarily be so even if only because of our improved ability to store water. As an interesting aside we also received Colwell Phosphorous levels indicating more than 4x as much P in the top 10 cm and more than 2x as much in the next 10 cm as our neighbour (with no fertiliser applications!).
In summation I believe that Biodynamics is superbly suited to restoring soil health in very badly degraded environments. The results from the SCaRPtesting demonstrate this but our own experience more than corroborates the above statement. A gardening client of mine remarked “if you can achieve that at Tingha you could green the desert”.
I will be forever grateful to Biodynamic Agriculture Australia for helping educate us and for making available preparations for people such as us to purchase. We would dearly love at some stage to produce our own but circumstances have not readily permitted. We have only had breeding cattle the last two years and really feel that their dung would still not suffice to put down 500 as our soils are still so depleted – and as for an area of inherently high fertility to bury the horns – we would have to buy a new place! But the day is coming when we shall be able to make our own. In the meantime the process has only been possible because of this organisation.