Harden Murrumburrah Landcare Group - A personal perspective
David Cusack [note 1]
Harden Murrumburrah Landcare Group covers the Harden Shire which pretty much takes in the Jugiong Creek catchment, the Jugiong creek flows into the Murrumbidgee River at Jugiong. The district has around a 600mm average annual rainfall and in the areas suitable for cropping has a reputation for high dryland wheat and canola yields. It is a mixed farming area with beef cattle, wool and meat sheep as well as stone fruit being produced.
The Production Environment Tension
Not withstanding the fact that the first official Landcare group formed in Australia was the Winjallok Landcare group from near St Arnaud in Victoria, Landcare as a national movement began with a fruitful alliance between Rick Farley of the National Farmers Federation (NFF) and Philip Toyne of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF). [note 2] It could be said to have been born a little over 20 years ago when Bob Hawke, I guess acting as mid-wife, stood near the junction of the Darling and Murrumbidgee rivers and announced that the 1990s would the decade of Landcare. The ACF and NFF were considered by many as surprising bedfellows but I think this slightly uncomfortable marriage is part of the tension that underlies Landcare to many of the primary producers that make up a large part of Landcare in Australia. This tension is the balancing act that requires us to return what is needed to the land while removing product to sustain ourselves. To quote Aldo Leopold "Conservation is harmony between people and the land". I believe that since Landcare came about the relationship between people and the land has been more harmonious.
Harden Murrumburrah Landcare Group was formed on the 26th of February 1990. A seminar
was held which advertised the theme "a search for information" and it boasted two goals:
- to assess the current situation regarding soil types and management strategies in the Harden Shire; and
- to gauge local interest in forming the HMLG.
A gathering of 70-odd farmers from the Harden district paid their $12 entry fee to witness the opening address from Senator David Brownhill of the NSW Nationals, as well as the birth of HMLG. The steering committee realised that if they just held a meeting to elect a committee, few people would attend. They had the foresight to arrange the day around a multitude of interesting speakers who would cover the issues that were relevant to their farming businesses. This pragmatic approach to Landcare has allowed HMLG to continue to engage landholders on important issues such as soil health, tree cover decline and salinity, to name a few. The early aims of the group were to address a small number of obvious problems: soil erosion caused by conventional tillage methods, scotch thistle infestations and lack of tree cover throughout the Shire. To some extent we have been successful in achieving these early goals. The release of the stem boring and seed eating weevils as a biological control of the scotch thistle has kept them in check. The adoption of minimum and no till not to mention stubble retention throughout district has been almost universal. Given our low base number of 2.8% tree cover throughout the shire there is still a long way to go but as you drive around the district there are many more trees than there were twenty years ago.
There is a lot of self interest in rural Landcare groups, Harden is no different. I see no problem with this but it has to be understood we are working on and in our businesses when we address environmental issues. This is very different to urban groups that do a lot of voluntary work on public land.
Due to Harden's proximity to Canberra it has been comparatively easy for us to engage with bodies such as the CSIRO to work together on research into such things as improved cropping methods. These relationships commenced with the start of the group. The relationships with government and quasi government agencies have been an important part of the group's activities. We have had the district agronomist as well as private business agronomists sit on our committee and this has helped maintain a flow of information in both directions.
One of the important moves the founding committee made was to engage the services of Louise Hufton as Landcare Coordinator. Louise is recognized today as one of the most accomplished community people in Landcare [note 3]. Louise's position was funded initially for 1 day per fortnight. Louise, like so many early Landcare coordinators is now an employee of a state run NRM body, in this case the Murrumbidgee Catchment Management Authority. Louise has one day per week to allocate to Landcare activities, this is funded by the CMA. One of the reasons Harden Murrumburrah Landcare has performed so well over the years is Louise, who has provided continuity and being a local has a very good feel for the issues of the day. However it is important that the group gives direction to the coordinator as it is not their job to be driving things, where they have to, Landcare groups will often fail. We are very fortunate to have had the one person in this position since the group's early days. Some groups are loosing their Natural Resource Officers, as they are referred to by the CMA, as they are not being replaced when they leave. Landcare groups as we all know have always needed the support of a coordinator as the administration load is too much for volunteers. This support person must have a certain amount of independence as they need to be answerable to Landcare in their support capacity. We have to have this, it is not negotiable. HMLG has had to fight over the years to maintain this support but this should not be necessary. If politicians, bureaucrats and NRM representatives wish to share the positive kudos surrounding the Landcare movement then they need to support it at an appropriate level. In some places this is happening and it is heartening that the Federal Government has reinstated regional facilitators but support is also needed at the district level. The high attrition rate and consolidation of groups in some areas has made this more achievable.
Another important success factor that helped ensure the group's longevity was its size, initially encompassing most of the cropping country in the shire and then quickly moving to the whole shire. It is fortunate that the shire boundary runs along a catchment boundary, this certainly simplified things. In the early days of Landcare many very small groups were formed that lacked the critical mass of people to be sustainable and have since either folded or amalgamated with other groups. HMLG have formed subgroups where necessary for such things as specific projects, focus groups and research. These subgroups provide opportunities to engage new people and to act as a stepping stone to the executive. As a group we have a requirement that the Chair only sit for a limited period – groups often stagnate under the same leadership, an effort must be made to groom and encourage people into executive positions. The size of HMLG means that we can rotate the more demanding positions helping to reduce the risk of burnout. It is testament to this that most of the past chairs are still very active committee members.
Production and Profitability
As I mentioned earlier a focus on things that were not only related to the environment but were important to productivity and profitability as well made the group more relative to farmers. This engaged land managers who maybe would not otherwise have been involved in Landcare. In many ways the group was at the cutting edge of developments in the cropping methods. At the risk of mixing my metaphors this was at times a two-edged sword. Research that was carried out by the group in 1998 showed that some farmers thought the group was moving too fast for a lot farmers to keep up.
A New Era
When the National Heritage Trust (NHT) and Catchment Management Authorities came into being, the whole landscape changed for Landcare. HMLG was able to maintain relevance by insisting that the group be engaged in projects as a group rather than the CMA bypassing the Landcare Group and dealing only with individual landholders. A major project, the Jugiong Creek Water Quality and Salinity Project, was initially managed by a subgroup of HMLG with the Murrumbidgee CMA, the Landcare component later became a liaison committee. This committee was able to provide a local perspective to the CMA which resulted in a better project with more local credibility. HMLG for the most part has not chased the big dollars but has had a local focus with an emphasis on capacity building and community. Funding was sought from various sources to fulfill the goals of the group. So the activities of the group were generally grass roots driven rather than top down. The NHT projects came and went, many dollars were spent and the CMA met its on ground targets. The Murrumbidgee CMA and our Landcare group have shown that when NRM bodies work with Landcare better outcomes will be the result. Government and government run bodies need to understand the difference between individuals and the community. Forming partnerships isn't always easy but is always necessary when dealing with the community.
HMLG initiated a stream monitoring project that involved the Bureau of Rural Science. This project was then administered by the CMA. The success of the project in the Jugiong creek catchment was in large part due to it being grass roots driven. Our group simply wanted some better science on what areas needed to be targeted for salinity and enough of the community were behind this to make it happen successfully.
Yes the dreaded word. Our group partly as an accident of some of the personalities that inhabit
it has been very politically active over the years. I use the word political in its purest sense as the group is apolitical and has always been careful to remain so. This makes some very uncomfortable including some local Landcare members, however, through this we have been able to maintain funding in one form or another for our coordinator. We have also been at least heard if not always responded to in the way we would have liked. I can understand people arguing that lobbying politicians is the job of NSW Farmers etc., however Landcare seems to need its’ own voice in order to achieve its goals. Now with formalised grass roots representative bodies going all the way to the national level, Landcare has a strong voice. I am hoping this will reduce the amount of lobbying required from the district level. The biggest problem I see with having a voice is that it costs money and I'm not sure if Landcarers are willing to pay the price.
To believe HMLG's future is necessarily assured would be naive. We are looking to continue working in our community to address the issues of the day. One of the biggest problems is changing demographics. There are less young farmers and the few that are about seem too busy in other endeavours to be very involved with Landcare (a young farmer is a farmer under 50 these days). How we involve them we are still trying to work out. There are plenty of issues to work on. Due to reduced rainfall in our catchment over the last ten years, management of groundcover both in grazing and cropping enterprises has become more of an issue and salinity less. Soil carbon seems to have shot to prominence and will no doubt be a significant issue for the group in coming years due to its win win win nature. Continuing community support over a broad range of issues including mental and physical health, training opportunities and social gatherings will continue to be an important part of what we do.
Conclusion - What Worked
Some of the reasons HMLG has been able to weather the storms of the last 20 years were put
in place at the group's inception, others were developed as the need arose.
They include an excellent coordinator who has continued working with the group to this day, and addressing issues that are real to the members, living with environment – production tensions.
note 1: David Cusack is a 5th generation farmer from the Harden-Murrumburrah district. He has been a member of Harden Murrumburrah Landcare since 1995 and has served two terms as Chair. As well as giving a brief background on our group and how it started, he explains the things that he thinks have contributed to its success. He says: "There is no one template for all groups as there is so much diversity amongst groups to have a one size fits all approach. Also what worked for us in 1990 will not work for us today. One of the great things about Landcare when it works properly is that it reacts to or addresses needs as they occur due to its grass roots nature."
This is a slightly edited version of a talk David gave at the 2010 National Landcare Forum "Landcare Community in Action".
note 2: For a more detailed history of the origins of Landcare, see: "Landcare in Australia - A summary of the development of the landcare movement in Australia" [ 1.9 MB], a booklet by Sue Marriott, Theo Nabben, Lachlan Polkinghorne and Rob Youl, with photos by Paul Crock and others.
note 3: Louise's contribution was acknowledged by 2013 Murrumbidgee Regional Landcare Landcare Facilitator/Coordinator Award