Walking on water

Haidee VandenbergheCountryman

The Watkins’ Frankland farm has always been blessed with a good supply of fresh water, but in the early 1970s, their most reliable dam started to go salty.

Sunk in 1954, the dam had fed vegetable crops and fruit trees around the house year after year, but gradually, everything started to die.

For a young Ron Watkins, who, with his wife Suzanne, had returned to the family property in 1973, the start of salinity marked a turning point.

As Ron explained, the way they thought about water had to change if they wanted to continue farming.

“I resolved then and there that if the next generation wanted to take over, it was my responsibility to recognise the error we’d made in previous generations and try to fix it, ” he said.

“When you start thinking of salinity, you immediately think of excess water. Once I started doing sums on how much water fell on this property and how much supposedly ran off, if I collected all the run-off, there was enough water for 30 hectares of irrigation.”

The more Ron investigated salinity, the more he became convinced that having an integrated, whole-of system approach to water, wind and soil was the key to keeping the family’s block — and farm business — sustainable.

“Because our property is only 552ha, we’re not supposed to be viable,” Ron said.

“Dad came through the recession and he was not at all keen on borrowing money. That really took out the option of buying out neighbours.

“I wondered how I was going to survive as part of this generation and what about the next one on this size of farm. I looked at the water resource and thought, it’s destroying our farming enterprise, because there’s water-logging, erosion and salinity. But it’s a resource and that is what I would like to use.”

Dam plan

At that stage, farms in the Frankland area generally had drought reserve dams of 4500 cubic metres, which were not expected to be filled every year.

But Ron and Suzanne went out on a limb, sinking a 40,000cbm dam, which was considered enormous in those days.

Suzanne readily admits that other farmers thought they were a bit dotty.

“They used to say, ‘How many years do you think it will take to fill that dam, Ron?’ And Ron would reply, ‘Well, I should be able to fill that plus 10 others that size every year’.”

He was right — the 40,000cbm dam filled in just three hours during a rainfall event. But sinking huge dams to capture some of the estimated three million cubic metres of rain that falls on Ron and Suzanne’s property every year has come at a price.

Ron investigated how he could use the lay of their land to improve the efficiency and cost of water catchment, laying the foundations of what was to later become a fully organic operation and a successful water consultancy business.

When their dam started to go salty in the 1970s, the family had a conventional sheep operation and had just finished clearing the last 80–120ha of bush.

Forty years on and thousands of planted trees later, Ron and Suzanne have connecting dams that can overflow into one another down the catchment.

Once the final dam has reached capacity and overflows, water is returned to the environment.

Ribbons of trees screen the property from winds that would otherwise cause erosion, and they also provide a habitat for native birds.

Those birds pull their weight on the farm by dining on insects that can damage crops and pastures.

Ron compares their system to a jigsaw, in which each piece of the puzzle works to create a picture of sustainability.

“Before we had the trees, I once lost 50 per cent of my lambs in one paddock,” he said.

“A freezing south-wester had been blowing, but if I was to stand you in that paddock now with all the tree belts around and ask you if the wind would be a factor here, you would say ‘No’.

“It is a system, a bit like an engine. If you take a spark plug out of an engine it will still run, but it won’t run anywhere near like it would with all the equipment there, and it’s the same with the environment.

“People tend to think that by being green, you’re just doing it for warm fuzzies. That’s not true. If you look after that land, it will look after you.”

By the 1990s, Ron and Suzanne were using a minimal amount of chemicals, so they decided to take the next step — becoming organic.

Today, 60 cattle breeders and 600 Dohne sheep are run organically, along with 900 free-range, organic Isa Brown laying hens.

Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is produced from the farm’s 450 olive trees, and garlic, carrots and onions are grown when the season permits.

Off to market

The Watkins have been long-time supporters of the Albany Farmers’ Market, having attended more than 450 markets since it started in 2002.

“We started the chooks in November 2001 and our very first pullet eggs, we had 70 dozen, was the day that the Albany Farmers’ Market started,” Ron said.

“We’re now there every Saturday morning.”

The laying hens are housed in three mobile modules, which are shifted every week to provide fresh forage.

“They are wonderful mulchers,” Ron said.

“We have the hens under the olive trees on occasion, and that is a wonderful combination because they control bugs and disease.

“We had black smut here and then we put the hens in, and now there’s no black smut. Since we’ve had the hens, I haven’t sprayed for black smut. The hens mulch, debug and fertilise with their manure — that’s probably enough anyway, but the eggs are a bonus.”

The couple’s produce is sold at the markets under the label Payneham Vale Organics, and they also supply three outlets in Perth with eggs.

The farm might already be a full-time job, but Ron still indulges in his passion for water. These days, it’s not only his property he cares for. Ron helps others who share the same vision for making the most of their water and land.

Ron has worked on about 80 farms across Australia and completed volunteering work in Africa to help improve farming practices.

In 2003, he was awarded a WA Individual Landcare Award and in 1995 picked up the Global 500 Roll of Honour award from the United Nations Environment Program.

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