Farm forestry workshop at Millpost Farm


From SAGE member and market gardener Fraser Bayley

While we at Old Mill Road BioFarm may have a reputation as market gardeners primarily, growing vegetables is just the beginning when it comes to our farm plan. As well as having livestock components to our whole farm enterprise, for some time I have been wanting to integrate some type of forestry. Our bio-region naturally grows big timber trees quite well all on its own and the added benefits of windbreaks, livestock fodder and shelter, bio-diversity, root penetration, bee forage, added organic matter from leaf drop, a perpetual firewood supply all with the secondary purpose of millable timber, it’s a wonder more farmers haven’t planted more trees into their system. Thinking I’m probably missing something, I went to Millpost Farm near Bungendore to hear of farmer David Watson’s experience with trees and to seek some practical knowledge from forester Rowan Reid at a workshop conducted by Local Land Services.

Millpost Farm is a 2700 acre farm with now 3 generations of family living on and from it. It is a commercial wool enterprise which came under the management of David Watson in 1979. After the usual advice that farming wasn’t going to make him any money, David figured he’d try a different way, went and did one of the first permaculture courses with Bill Mollison, met Judith who was to become his wife and set about re-designing their property. As you can imagine, implementing a design over 2700 acres is not a weekend job. When David first came to Millpost there were 8 very big paddocks. The re-design, which ended up receiving assistance from David Holmgren, turned it into 100 paddocks. Since starting the implementation of the design, David and his family are at 60 paddocks which means they’re over halfway. What struck me about David is his quiet and very calm demeanour. Here’s a bloke who is happy to take a lifetime to do the job. Two points which resonated with me was that David said he was committed to the landscape he had taken responsibility for and in the time of his occupancy he has a great opportunity to go along with that responsibility. The second point was that he found an improving farm great for his own morale. It was exciting for him and Judith to notice improvements in the ecological system which is starting to flow through to their income. When he sees farms that are feeding hay to poor livestock among dusty fields, he wonders what that does for a farmer’s spirit.

Next, Rowan Reid told us bit about the art and science of growing trees for conservation and profit. He calls this the Third Wave in his book “Heartwood”, which I can highly recommend to anyone be you wood worker, farmer, timber cutter, take an interest in local production and ecology or just enjoy trees. We then went on a farm walk and here are my notes, which I hope you might find interesting enough to pursue:

  • Tagasaste is a productive tree but needs managing, so don’t put it on your boundaries lest it turns up on your neighbour’s property who may not want to manage it. It’s good bee forage, an excellent wind break, tolerates dry conditions and has the benefit of being very high in feed value and palatability for livestock. It is most productive for livestock for 6 weeks after a hedging.
  • At Millpost, many tree species are planted in addition to management of the endemic yellow box forest. Honey locust, stone pine, cedrus, oak, allocasuarina, casuarina and black locust which are grown for very durable fence posts. Black locust also needs managing.
  • Radiata pine is also grown on the farm and some has been milled for construction of farm infrastructure. Did you know that Radiata pine is a popular timber not only because of its quick growth, toughness and straightness, but more because it can be dried rapidly? It’s one of the quickest timbers to dry and can get from the forest to the shelf and sold in short order. It needs to be kept dry or risk developing a blue tinge, but if you harvest a log (this applies to most timber) and you’re not ready to mill it or dry it, you can store it in your dam.
  • The Watson family go through a lot of firewood each year, which they cultivate themselves. They’ve learnt a Norwegian method to cut and split in spring and stack it covered. Airflow for drying is critical and if stacked a certain way can be ready the following autumn. Firewood cannot be sold legally with moisture content of higher than 25%. At 15% it is premium product.
  • Rowan demonstrated the how and why of high pruning techniques on a couple of Casuarinas. General rule: prune everything on the main stem up to the point where the trunk is 80mm in thickness. Everything above that point, take off all branches greater than 30mm in diameter. Details are in the book “Heartwood”.
  • Millpost Farm is very fire prone and so a low flammability firebreak of Poplars has been planted between the homestead and the predominant fire threat direction. This also doubles as good shade promoting cooling to the home sites, triples as livestock feed from pruning during drought and quadruples as useful material where the sticks are bundled into fascines and used as erosion control or as tree guards for new plantings.

And finally we talked about tree species that can influence soil chemistry and prevent erosion in sodic subsoils. It’s fascinating stuff and it takes up four full pages in the book, so too long to go into here but experiments on Rowan’s own farm with Sequoia have had remarkable results, along with providing a great timber and habitat for Southern Boobooks.

I had an interesting day, a great lunch on par with a SAGE meal and all from the farm. I learnt a fair bit and was very happy to meet David Watson and see their farm.

Rowan’s book “Heartwood” is available at Moruya Books and David’s book about their farm “Millpost – a broad scale permaculture farm” is available from their website.

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