Off the Contour #13 – ‘The Dalpura Forestry System’

Off the Contour #13 – ‘The Dalpura Forestry System’

Dalpura Farm – Visionary & Integrated Forestry Systems

Back in the early-mid 1990’s our primary means of marketing was attending the various alternative farming field days and fairs across south-eastern Australia. These days by virtue of the foundation of those efforts we are fortunate that we don’t need to go to that kind of thing to get new clients, with word of mouth being main means of gaining the attraction of all manner of folks who kindly support us around the world. Of course some of these field days had me standing around for hours on end, with people filing by I am sure thinking ‘what the heck is this guy trying to sell? Regrarian Design & Development, yeah right like I need that!’… So it was in Geelong, the bayside city where we found ourselves about to pack up after a weekend of virtually no inquiries when up walked the softly spoken George Howson.

Soon after this George invited us to consult on his newly acquired 50ha (140ac) property ‘Dalpura’ just 10-15 km inland from the famous surf beaches of Bells Beach, Jan Juc and Torquay in Victoria, Australia. From the outset it was clear George’s vision was one beyond his own lifetime, though we didn’t anticipate just how much would be achieved whilst we were both still above ground!

Dalpura lies on shallow (0.5-1m), poorly drained, laterised, infertile Tertiary sediments, better suited to gravel production than to agriculture. This is one area that, truth be told, should never have been cleared. Located at the western, droughty end of the otherwise humid Otways forests, the mildly undulating Dalpura sees many rain-filled skies uplift and bisect, leaving it with an average rainfall (mostly winter) of around 550mm (20”). Despite this, the year-round coastal influence with its heavy dews and sea mists, which whilst not bothering the rain guage, do make this property moderately humid.

Prolonged rest (like 2 years or more) from grazing results in a succession back to forest which starts with Bracken (Pseridium spp.) and then spiky Acacia’s (A. paradoxa & A. verticillata) and Tea Trees (Leptospermum spp.) followed with various Eucalyptus (eg. E. obliqua, E. nitida) and the longer lived Acacia mearnsii, the famed ‘Morishma’ of Fukuoka san. Summers are long and temperatures reach the low 40’s though in the main are in the low to mid 30’s and winters are wind swept and rather bleak with about 20 light frosts a year and temperatures ranging from around zero to days of 10-15 degrees centigrade.

At this stage of our journey I was in partnership with Ben Boxshall, then a bright young Forest Scientist, relatively fresh out of his Melbourne University degree who had (and still does!) a keen interest in more regenerative forestry systems. Ben and I conducted the first assessments of the property in 1996 and completed our design and ‘Environmental Management Plan’. This plan divided the property up into two distinct zones: the back half to be developed as a mixed species high quality timber plantation and the front half as a wide spaced ‘silvopastoral’ system with a wide variety of production tree crops (pod, fruit & forage) integrated with diverse pastures.

Together we hired a couple of Ben’s alumni who we had set up in a business called ‘Silviculture Victoria’. Brett Davis & Neil Meadows, who remain friends to this day, were charged with establishing the first forestry systems. Unfortunately due to a lack of communication & our collective lack of experience, they chose to use a bulldozer to clear the emerging bracken, acacia’s & tea trees, placing it into contoured windrows every 150m or so across the slope removing the very shallow topsoil along with it. Silviculture Victoria lasted for about 8 months before falling foul to too little experience and too many jobs with indifferent cash flow being the final straw.

The job was to be planted the previous spring and now with Ben off working for the government and with our partnership now over this project was not looking too rosy. So in April of 1998, with 22, 000 trees to plant (about 20 different species) I took over the final ground preparations and then the planting, both of which were not conducted at our preferred time of year. I assembled a team of about 10 people, and we set up camp and got to work planting this wild assembly of species, selecting their placement according to aspect, ‘partnering’ throughout nitrogen-fixers with non-nitrogen-fixers and slow with fast. I do reminisce fondly of our times back in the 90’s when were planting hundreds of thousands of trees per year and the strong friendships we made as a result as a sideshow to the essential activity.

Come forward some 2 years and following some pruning of this planting we decided to plant some more of the plan. The original 1998 planting was going very well despite the poor start and only encouraged George and I to keep the planting program going. We attributed the success of this planting to the Keyline pattern plowing and the orientation of the rows that are part of this process. That is that we plow a line that results in a slight descent from valley to ridge resulting in a much more effective distribution of rainwater across the landscape. Also because of this “geometree” we maintained equidistance between the rows, something that simply can’t be achieved when using a contour-guided row orientation.

On this next planting we used a heavy duty, tractor powered ‘bush-hog’ or mower to ‘drop’ all of the emerging pioneer vegetation and let it rot on the soil surface. This proved to be a masterstroke as we retained a lot more moisture along with encouraging a bounty of saprophytic fungi: the perfect start for a new forest! In the spring of 2000 we then planted another few blocks of mixed species forest, including a few species we hadn’t tried before, using inter-planting as opposed to the largely inter-row layout of the 1998 systems.

By the early ‘naughties’ we had been in the Permaculture game for 10 years and were about to enter the era of managing the full rotation of some of our client’s forests. Surprisingly the first property to enjoy this was Dalpura. We never anticipated the growth rates that we encountered in some of the species, despite the poor start and terrible growing conditions. All we can still attribute this to is the Keyline pattern.

We’d broken many of the conventions: we didn’t control ‘weeds’ with herbicide, nor did we cut the vegetation between every row, preferring to leave every second row to the emerging pioneers, deciding that this encouraged biodiversity and promoted the hastier decomposition of the pruning’s and thinnings that we applied to this Keyline strip. Awfully convenient too that we could fell thinned trees into this strip, absorbing the energy of the fall, reducing the damage to the tree from the impact, allowing us to extract some very fine stems of Acacia dealbata and A. mearnsii which were of millable size just 6 years after establishment.

Given this George and I went halves in a Logosol M70 Portable Chainsaw Mill, costing about $2000AUD each. What a fantastic machine in that we could recover full value out of these 3-5m long 200-300mm thinnings, which we promptly stacked and seasoned in the shed ahead of sending them a year later to a furniture maker who then made them into kitchen cabinet doors, coffee tables and all manner of other items. George also decided to use the smaller diameter stems for his Zone 2 ‘Walled Garden’ inspired by his travels to Sweden and the fencing systems he encountered there. Milling recovered around 60% of the log with the remaining material providing a bounty of sawdust and ‘flitches’, the later used for garden seating, edging and firewood.

The whole thinning exercise over the winters of 2003-4 had us set up our camper van in the forest that we had created, with our whole family coming down a couple of days a week. As a family we thinned and processed, along with establishing the now iconic TC4 & 5 (‘TC’ = Tree Crops) agroforestry system on the front half of Dalpura. A family of Kookaburra’s would wake us a 5-6am every morning, sitting on the branch of a tree right outside the camper that just a few short years before had been a pastoral wasteland. That’s part of the great joy of this 120 species forest wonderland: that the local wildlife have benefitted enormously from what we’d established, proving that we can create systems that are economically and ecologically profitable, not just one or the other.

We continue to manage the forests at Dalpura, now the main tasks are in high pruning, thinning, selective harvesting and coppicing. The coppice management is a throw-back to my childhood where on our family farm that was a job my grandfather charged me with: thinning the regrowth back to one straight stem and then managing that stem to be straight and worthy of the mill.

One of the true delights of my job is that I can wander through these beautiful systems a couple of times a year with George, having a yarn with a great friend discovering at every turn something new, seeing the results of our decisions first hand and wishing we had more area to plant.

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