'Visionaries' develop defences before a crisis by Denys Slee

The Sloane family on 'Kilnyana' with tree plantings for an environmental corridor. Bill Sloane says they're becoming smarter at using the arable land on the property.

THERE IS an area in southern NSW where dryland salinity has not surfaced as an issue for local landholders - unlike the situation in many parts of Australia.

"There are spots of salinity around us," Bill Sloane of Savernake near Yarrawonga said, "but it is by no means a widespread problem. We want to keep it that way."

Riverina environmental management group

Bill and his wife, Jacquetta, along with 12 other landholders in the region, are members of the Riverina Environmental Management Systems Group - one of four GRDC-supported pilot groups - which has helped farmers assess and improve their environmental performance.

The Riverina EMS program has been a partnership between the farmers, the Victorian Department of Natural Resources and Environment and Albury-based farm management consultant Tim Paramore.

The Sloanes have a 5,800 ha grain and sheep property, 'Kilnyana', one-third of which is devoted to native vegetation cover. This year their stewardship of their farming environment won them the prestigious Prime Minister's Environmentalist of the Year Award.

Over the past three years they and other landholders in the group:

  • identified the major environmental issues they believed would affect their properties and their livelihoods giving priority to groundwater rise: waterlogging and salinity trends; soil acidity; and remnant native vegetation decline;
  • set goals including implementing strategies to minimise water leakage;
  • took part in group learning exercises to better understand the environmental impacts of agriculture; improved their management skills; developed action plans and commenced monitoring and recording processes.

"We would meet about every two months," Mr Sloane said. "Things were a bit slow at first as trust has to build up, but then after about 12 months, that trust was there.

"We met at different properties so we could see different things. For instance, if we wanted to find out about growing and managing lucerne, the group would go to a member's property that was well advanced in growing lucerne. If the issue was native vegetation protection, they would come here and to other properties.

EMS teaches a different approach

"The way I farm has changed as a result of the EMS process. The push now is to get more perennials into the landscape by establishing lucerne to dry out the soil, for better soil structure, and for grazing.

"We have also started a liming program to deal with acidity.

"I must also give the EMS process praise for encouraging us to look longer term and to become smarter in the way we use the arable land on the property. The research project is finishing but as a group we will be talking about where we go from here - we have that trust in each other and want to keep the group together."

Anna Ridley of NRE Rutherglen calls the Riverina farmers "visionary" for taking the preventive approach to salinity and other constraints to production.

Some useful tools emerging

Dr Ridley said practical tools had been developed as part of the project. One was a method to calculate leakage occurring and the amount of "perenniality" needed to curb it, while other tools were developed on remnant native vegetation assessment, soil acidification, nitrogen leakage and phosphorus loss.

"EMS is an on-farm activity but, if community and catchment will is there, and it appears to be in the Murray catchment, EMS could potentially be used to assess progress towards catchment targets," she said.

"As well, domestic and over-seas consumers are questioning farming methods and Australian agriculture is poorly prepared to justify 'green credentials'. To justify the green performance of agriculture, farming systems need to have minimal off-site impacts which include minimal leakage of water and nutrients, negligible erosion, no persistent toxicities, control of pests, diseases and weeds and no loss of biodiversity."

Program 4 Contact: Mr Bill Sloane 03 5745 8234 Dr Anna Ridley 02 6050 4500