Trees their life

Frank SmithCountryman

On their 40 hectare family farm in Balingup, Andrew Thamo and Chrissy Sharp's main enterprise is a deciduous tree nursery.

Their business, which includes selling fire-retardant trees and fruit trees, is marketed mainly to people with small lifestyle properties.

There is also a demand for deciduous trees from owners of passive solar homes, because the trees provide shade in summer and sunlight in winter when they lose their leaves.

"It used to be mainly farmers who bought our trees in the 1980s before the price of wool fell, then vineyards. That dried up, so we had to reinvent ourselves and adapt to the changing market," Andrew said.

"Our farm is not suitable for a native tree nursery. It is too cold and frosty."

Andrew has experience in grazing and experimental agroforestry.

Andrew and Chrissy's research plantation is a long-term project that they started in 1995. One element is a plantation of cork oaks on lighter soils.

"Cork oak produces acorns. These provide supplementary feed for livestock that is high in fat and carbohydrates," he said.

"Sheep and cattle harvest acorns themselves. They come at just the right time of year when pasture production is poor. A cork oak-based fodder system balances out pasture production and reduces dependence on the spring flush."

Acorns for feed

In Spain and Portugal, cork oak acorns are fed to cattle, sheep and pigs.

Pigs fed on acorn are used to produce the traditional Serrano ham, which is prized as a gourmet food in Spain and around the world.

"I haven't tried it yet. The acorns produce feed for kangaroos, possums and parrots," Andrew said.

Cork oaks are native to the Mediterranean region and, of course, also supply cork.

Andrew has not taken his first harvest yet, partly because of the decreased demand for cork - screw caps have risen in popularity.

In Portugal, the first cork harvest is taken from 18 to 20-year-old trees and the best cork comes from 35-year-old trees.

The first harvest of virgin oak cork is rough, but it grows better after each harvest.

"I should start work on the trees, but I need someone who knows how to cut the cork without damaging the cambium," Andrew said.

After the sheets are cut, they are flattened and corks are punched out.

"I'd like to find someone who has worked on cork forests in Portugal," Andrew said.

"People think of oaks as an English tree, but there are also Mediterranean species. Oaks in the South West are mainly hybrids of these. They don't even need to be fully deciduous."

Andrew has interplanted his oaks with black wattle. He said it made good firewood but inhibited the growth of other trees.

Another enterprise is selecting a strain of eucalyptus for saw logs.

Most eucalypts have been selected for rapid growth. Andrew said that was fine for wood pulp, but it did not mill well.

Andrew is using a New Zealand-bred strain that is a hybrid of Sydney bluegum and southern mahogany.

There is also small demand for salt-tolerant trees, and Andrew has a line of salt-tolerant poplars planted in a drainage line in 1992.

Andrew and Chrissy have owned the farm since 1980. It was part of a large 800ha property that was subdivided and left fallow for seven years.

"It was a long haul to bring it back into shape. There was not even a boundary fence when we started," he said.

Andrew is a self-taught farm forester. In 1995, he wrote and published a book on using trees on the farm. The printer told him the book would never sell, but Andrew took great pleasure in ordering a reprint later.

Andrew and Chrissy have been closely involved with the Golden Valley Tree Park in Balingup for more than 30 years.

"That been very rewarding and it has not taken as long for the trees to grow as people think," Andrew said.

"There are good interpretation signs and walk trails now. It gives people a chance to get out of their cars and walk in a farm environment."

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