Diversity, is it the key to making it through the 21st century?

Joan and Paul Trevethan: against the odds, silky oak plantation made it through the drought intact.

Diversity is the name of the game - in fact, it's not a game but serious business, one that got the Trevethan family of Howlong in southern NSW through the recent one-in-1 DO-year drought in good shape.

Paul and Joan Trevethan and their children decided that traditional mixed farming was not going to allow all of them to stay on the farm, nor in their opinion is it a sustainable model for the 21st century. Alec Nicol reports.

PAUL TREVETHAN dismisses the idea that he's a trailblazer. "I've learned from the trailblazers," he says. ''I'm a step back." Be that as it may, the Trevethans - Paul, his wife Joan and their four children - are the face of farming in Australia in the 21st century.

Five years ago the family sat down and decided that the traditional farming system wasn't going to sustain either the family or their country. Mr Trevethan was involved in formulating water management policy for the catchment area. He was concerned about decreasing biodiversity and what he calls 'structural adjustment'.

"Community values are changing and we've got to keep pace with that change. When it comes to water, for example, we can't simply say, 'we grow rice, we've always grown rice and we'll always grow rice'. We've got to look at, at least, some diversification into higher value enterprises."

The Trevethans farm two properties, 'Dunoon' and 'Tara' in the Howlong area in southern NSW. Combined, that's 1,110 hectares and while the bulk of it is still devoted to the 'traditional' mix of grain and livestock production, it's the enterprises on less than 100 ha that set the business apart. The Trevethans are farming fish, olives, and are in partnership with State Forestry in a farm forest block.

"We decided that, whatever the direction we took, the business would have to allow each of us as individuals to achieve, it had to be environmentally responsible and we'd need to be professional. In other words, the enterprises we took on would have to pay their way, this wasn't going to be some sort of hobby."

Aquaculture saviour during drought

That's certainly been the case. Throughout the drought, where Mr Trevethan acknowledges, "I made some mistakes and kept sheep for longer than I should have," the business has had its most successful year. That can be put down to the fish farming operation that he will tell you almost came unstuck.

Intending to use some of their poorer country to set up an aquaculture venture, the Trevethans first looked at salmon culture. They had concerns about the environmental impact and the future price of the product. In that respect Mr Trevethan says he's been proved rigbt. Instead, they chose to farm silver perch, a native endangered species, and in the last eight months that enterprise has returned a quarter of a million dollars, but it almost failed.

Yes, they investigated the market potential and did their business plans. They knew the market wanted 350 gram fish, that it would take three years to grow those fish out and there were five markets they'd identified as 'Rolls Royce' markets. Nothing could go wrong.

"We'd identified a regional market and, when the fish were ready, that market took 40 kg a week. We needed to sell 400 kg a week or the fish would run out of oxygen in the ponds," he said. Contact with the Melbourne fish market saw their first four boxes of fish sell, then 40 kg, then 80 kg, and now a steady demand for 800 kg per week.

The water for the fish ponds comes from underground, and none of it leaves the farm. From the ponds it goes, via some recently installed centre pivot irrigation, onto crop, "and it contains all of the nutrients from the ponds, so we're actually fertilising as we irrigate," says Mr Trevethan, "and the silt from the ponds is used to fill low spots on the farm."

The Trevethans are in partnership in their olive enterprise and that hasn't performed according to the book either but, "the markets are emerging and we've got orders for more oil which we have stored, so it's coming good".

About farm forestry

Ask about the farm forestry project and raise all the objections about an inflexible infrastructure that doesn't seem to want to service farm forestry, and Mr Trevethan agrees. "I guess the people who've made money out of forestry are those who've bought the forest within about five years of it being harvested when the person who did all the original work has given up.

"I don't know if we'll ever harvest the timber we've planted and that amounts to about 80,000 trees, but it is doing something for biodiversity, even the radiata pine plantation. It is doing something to control salinity and it will improve the aesthetics and increase the value of the property."

The farm forest is a mix of cypress and radiata pine, some eucalypts and, surprisingly, silky oaks. The 24 ha of radiata are a joint venture with the state forestry commission. "I have some hopes that the forestry blocks will payoff if ever we get a proper carbon trading scheme in operation," he says, "but I'm pessimistic enough to suspect that farmers will get slugged for the negative aspects of their enterprises without getting the benefit of their positive actions."

The drought put an end to about 20 per cent of the pines and even some of the eucalypts failed to survive, but those subtropical silky oaks have hung in there and come through unscathed - almost. "We had to put the sheep into the forestry blocks as a last resort," admits Mr Trevethan, "and those silky oaks have been nicely tall pruned."