A study of vision and optimism

The Ainsworth family farm nestles between State Park and commercial plantations in Stradbroke West, with Merriman Creek running through its western and northern edge.

The spring rain, as well as longer standing management practices, give the whole property a verdant, deep green lustre as you swing into the driveway and make your way to the family home.

The property is hilly, or at least variable, with a 70-metre rise from the Creek bank to the highest part of the farm.

“Everyone thinks Stradbroke is flat – definitely not!’ says Justin Ainsworth as he pilots his ute down laneways, alongside steep gullies and through multiple gates separating the 50 odd paddocks the couple have created over the last 15 years.

The property, a 350-acre beef farm, was bought in 2005, the realisation of a long-held ambition.

“I worked in Holey Plains State Park and I’d sometimes be in the fire tower and look over to this valley and just think it was the ‘ant’s pants!’” says Melissa.

For Justin, the ambition had a number of caveats, most notably it had to be more than 100 acres and have a reliable water source.

“It had to have remnant (vegetation), for Melissa. It had to be ‘a farm’ but not 100-acres as it would be just too small…water was the key, the water and the remnant vegetation. We were thinking, ‘we can work with this. It’s a nice blank canvas.”

Using shelterbelts

That canvas has now been filled considerably with shelter belts, fenced off remnant vegetation corridors and some 40 acres of covenanted land. Where once there were around 10 larger paddocks, there are now 50 smaller sized, carefully grazed areas so as not to overburden the soils and the plant life, all carefully separated by considerable shelter belts that double as wildlife corridors.

Very quickly it becomes clear that this is the realisation of the approach Melissa and Justin have brought to the property in the merging of farming with conservation.

“They’ve both got to go hand in hand,” as Justin explains it.

“The shelter belts link in with all of the natural assets we’re trying to protect…they’re native corridors but they’re also shelter for the stock.”

Melissa gives an informed defence of even larger shelter belts based on science rather than any ‘feel good’ random philosophy.

“All the science is there. You’re not giving up, point five of a hectare, when you look at the benefit your animal gets from not being stressed from heat or cold, they are actually eating less anyway,” she explains.

Challenges of drought

The drought of the last four years has left its mark as Melissa describes the shadow those hard years continues to cast.

“Drought has a habit of getting you to reduce your stock numbers. We’ve probably got a quarter to half of the cattle we would normally run,” she says.

“In a drought, no one wins. You can’t make something out of nothing,” adds Justin.

“This is our second major drought and what we’re finding is the farm has responded more quickly this time due to the management practices that we put into place after our first drought.

“We said, ‘we’re not going to graze down to nothing, we’re going to cut numbers and send stock away, we’re going to keep our fertiliser regime going, continue to spray the weeds and the place has come back really well.”

Added to that approach has been the determination to plant more trees and create more shelter belts to both assist the land to restore and the paddocks to be as productive as possible.

Long time and active members of the Merriman Creek Landcare Group, Melissa attempts to plant around 1,000 trees on the farm each year.

“This year was actually a bit bigger as I had two projects (shelter belts) on the go. It was a case of the weather was with us and we just had to go with it.”

Melissa describes her, often solo tree planting sessions, as ‘therapy’. A time where she reflects on the world, the farm and what she might do to assist both to heal.

It all starts with soil

Additionally, the Ainsworth’s have expanded the property with the purchase of 100 acres of neighbouring land. A move that saw their approach to farming tested.

“The new land had nothing done to it for a very, very, very long time…I don’t think it had any fertiliser history,” says Melissa.

“One of the paddocks, as far as nutrient goes, it had none. When we had the soil analysis done it was just mined, nothing there at all. We tried to renovate these paddocks and they failed twice, so they’ve been a bit of a three-year project. Last year they started to come along and this year they’ve really come good,” adds Justin.

Melissa continues with the theme, almost as though speaking to a stranger about the project is making her realise just how much the couple have done over recent years.

“It starts with the soil. It’s the basis of all farming. Start with the soils and work your way up. A lot of people focus on growing good beef or producing lots of milk or great wool, but it starts with soil health. It’s not about rainfall or even fertilisers – it’s the soil!”

Melissa and Justin are confident enough in what they are doing to readily put their hands up with anecdotes about how little they knew when they bought the property.

“We didn’t really know a lot about grazing and management of pastures. We had agistment cattle on these paddocks and grazed it right down. Then it rained, two inches in a short period of time. It filled our dams but none of it went into the soil. So, we learned very quickly, keep your pastures up which holds the rain and aids the soil structure and health.”

One of the other ways the couple have worked to improve the soil health comes from their curiosity around other practices from other areas of agriculture.

In particular, their use of chicken manure to improve paddock health, a practice learned from friends in the dairy sector

“We started about two years ago and it’s the basis on which our improvement is based,” says Justin.

“We’ve got some good dairy farmer friends that are pro-active in trying to improve their bottom line as well as the environment and they converted to chicken manure because they can see a benefit on their farm and the reduction in their cost of production. So, if it makes sense to them, why wouldn’t we be doing something similar?”

Revegetating Merriman Creek.

The Ainsworth’s have created a wildlife corridor along Merriman Creek. A 10-meter buffer of native trees, bushes and grasses and a cacophony of bird calls exist. In the middle of it all is a crystal-clear stream, home to the odd platypus and burrowing crayfish, making its way from the Tarra Bulga National Park to the coastal town of Seaspray.

“When we got here, the cattle just walked through the Creek and did what they wanted really,” says Melissa.

Through the Merriman Creek Landcare Group and working with groups such as Greening Australia, Trust for Nature, and the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority the Creek has seen a lot of work over recent years with most properties downstream, having fenced off the waterway and excluded stock.

However, upstream remains a challenge says Melissa.

“I don’t think there is anywhere upstream of our neighbour, between there and Tarra Bulga that is actually fenced. The Landcare group’s membership is from our neighbour downstream to Seaspray. There are so many incentives now from government to fence off waterways and exclude stock.”

Involvement in Landcare

The constants of the last 15 years have clearly been a desire to improve the farm and the broader landscape. One other has been Melissa’s involvement, up to Board level, with the local Landcare group and Network.

“When we bought the farm, we connected with various organisations to see what sort of support was out there,” says Melissa who like Justin had no prior experience of running livestock on the scale they were intending to do.

“It was through that we found out about Landcare and connected to our local group, the Merriman Creek Landcare Group and joined up,” Melissa recalls.

At this time, Melissa says the focus of the local group in 2008 was around weed management, an initiative she and Justin were pleased to get involved in. However, Melissa was quick to see the potential of ongoing and deeper involvement with the movement.

“I think I got that excited with seeing the possibility of shaping the future of the land and bio-diversity on private land that I ended up jumping the gun and got involved with the local Landcare Network, the Yarram Yarram Landcare Network,” she recalls.

YYLN oversees ten active groups, was established in 1995 and takes in over 220,000 hectares of land ranging from the Strzelecki Hills to the coastal plain around Woodside and Seaspray.

While Melissa might have been drawn to Landcare due to a desire to change landscapes and improve land use, both of which she and the Network have achieved, they are not the outcomes she selects when asked about what the involvement gave her.

“I think it’s the whole Landcare community. It’s just a bunch of likeminded people who all feed off each other’s enthusiasm for improving the natural environment and making their agricultural practices more sustainable. That enthusiasm is what keeps getting topped up when you get funding for big landscape scale projects…that’s what has been keeping me involved. The people and their enthusiasm.”

Of course, that enthusiasm and ability to keep going has seen its challenges over recent years with fires, drought, difficulties in securing long term funding for an employed facilitator to assist local volunteers and more recently a pandemic impacting close to home.

In looking back at her 10-year involvement it is the connection to the Landcare community that stand out as something of a highlight.

And while YYLN continues to be active in a range of initiatives to improve landscape and environmental outcomes, the people are the thing that Melissa returns to.

“I like the fact that Landcare isn’t just confined to the land. Now we’re restoring sea grass in the Nooramunga Marine Park and Corner Inlet, based on the premise that what happens on the land effects what happens in the sea. We’re connecting with fishermen, dairy farmers, permaculture people and folks in town such as Urban Landcare Groups. We’re supporting people and looking at innovative new ways of improving the natural assets we have inherited”.

The Ainsworth’s feel fortunate for what they’ve been able to achieve but also realise the difficulties other face. Opportunities for younger farmers to get onto a property that has enough scale to provide an income for a family is a real challenge.

“I feel for the young ones. To buy a farm now, the capital cost to just walk in…I don’t know how they do it,” says Justin.

“We both work off farm, so we don’t draw a wage from it. But this farm raised five children in previous generations. Now you need multiple thousands of acres to make farming work these days…you need twice as much ground, which we’re not going to do as the capital investment would kill us.

Climate change

Both Melissa and Justin see challenges and opportunities in climate change.

“We certainly looked at the idea of selling our carbon credits…we were close. But that might change with the new Federal Road Map,”  says Melissa.

Announced by Energy Minister Angus Taylor in September the Emissions Technology Roadmap includes carbon farming as an opportunity the Federal Government will support.

“That excites me because until you put a monetary value on remnant vegetation, I think some people don’t value it…but if people were paid, from a carbon perspective for their trees that would change things,” says Melissa.

The vision and the determination to achieve their vision through years of drought and other challenges is obvious when looking at the paddocks, fences, shelter belts and condition of the Ainsworth’s property.

The lasting impression you get is that this property has become an additional family member for the Ainsworth’s.

A member of the family who is cared for, nurtured and allowed to develop to meet its full potential. And just like we all take pleasure in seeing small children grow and prosper, so we should take that same pleasure in the work this family has done with these paddocks, gullies and their little section of Merriman Creek to leave this part of the world significantly better than when they discovered it.

Justin and Melissa Ainsworth pictured alongside Merrimans Creek which runs through their Stradbroke property