Future eco leaders get their hands dirty at the Beacon

Mackay primary school children visited the Beacon this September to learn about soil, water and biodiversity in agro-ecological systems.

65 students spent a morning onsite at the Beacon at Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens as part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Future Leaders Eco Challenge (FLEC).

FLEC, GBRMPA’s annual event for Reef Guardian schools, invites students with keen interest in environmental issues to participate in a day of highly situated, hands on learning about environmental issues in their local community.

Students learned about the collaborative nature of the Watershed Land Art Project and the three workshops were designed to allow for meaningful and relevant learning experiences around  ecological farming innovations taking place in the Pioneer Valley watershed.

Sugarcane farmer Simon Mattsson facilitated an engaging workshop about soil health and how he achieves this in a practical sense on his farm. He spoke about growing legumes and the reasons he grows multispecies crops such as sugarcane and sunflowers. Simon shared his passion for improving the soil through regenerative agriculture and the positive outcomes this contributes to local waterways and The Great Barrier Reef. The highlight of this workshop was exploring the properties of good soil – especially handling the worms!

Reef Catchments project officer Carlos Bueno took the students on a learning journey about biodiversity. He sent the children on a walk to discover and assess the amount of vegetative diversity in a small area of land in the vicinity of the Beacon. Children learned about the many functions of plants and weeds. The takeaway of this workshop being that biodiversity is important in both ecological and farming systems.

Ecological educator Kellie Galletly provided children an opportunity to learn about land use in the Pioneer Valley watershed through play. In groups, children were given scenarios about regenerative agriculture practices taking place locally which they were able to model at a miniature scale using small loose parts in a valley-shaped mound of soil. In this way children were able to understand how agricultural land use in the watershed affects the health of waterways and ecosystems.

As well as learning about agro-ecological farming at the Beacon, the students attending FLEC also planted trees with Jonathon Dykyj from Mackay Regional Council, learned about the importance of fishways with Matt Moore from Catchment Solutions and built insect hotels for biodiversity with Lynette Keir and Kimberly Blythe from Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens.

These organic and visceral learning experiences are aligned with the premise of place-based education – an approach to learning that allows children opportunities for authentic connection to community and cultivates a sense of responsibility for the natural environment and the people it supports.

In addition to all the ecological knowledge, it is hoped that the children, as a result of learning about the Watershed Land Art Project,  will have gained a sense of the attributes required to work with others on social and environmental issues and ultimately recognise their own capacity to be change makers in the community.

Photo credits: Robert Bole Photography

This blog post was written by Kellie Galletly, a Mackay-based educator who runs Edutones, a social enterprise that facilitates opportunities for authentic, child-centred, outdoor and community-based learning experiences across Mackay and surrounds. Kellie is a key contributor to the Watershed Land Art Project.

Cover Cropping at The Beacon

The legume crop at the Beacon grew lusciously and was incorporated back into the soil after flowering. This was done by brush-cutting the plants and then using a flail mulcher to chop the plants and existing layer of mulch into fine pieces. Tegan McBride from Garden of Tegan organic market garden brought along her BCS two-wheel walking tractor which was a very appropriate piece of technology for the size and purpose of the task.

As the Sugarcane and Sunflowers are still a couple of months off being planted, we decided that it would be a good opportunity to grow a winter cover crop.

Similar in purpose to the legume crop, a cover crop is a method of regenerative agriculture and is grown for the purpose of soil improvement. Cover cropping encompasses the four principles of regenerative agriculture which are:

  1. No bare soil
  2. Living roots in the ground
  3. Increase plant diversity
  4. Minimise tillage

When a cover crop is grown and incorporated back into the soil there is an increase in organic matter to feed soil microbes. The soil microbes break down the organic matter and the end result is called humus. During the decomposition process soil particles are bound together to form aggregates. A well aggregated soil rich in humus leads to many benefits for crop production including:

  • Aeration – plenty of space for air (and water) in the soil
  • Water retention – Inreased filtration and decreased surface evaporation and run-off
  • Nutrient enhancement – As a cover crop breaks down nutrients from plant tissues are released and made available to the following crop. More nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulphur (S) in the soil will enable a healthier crop with less of a need for synthetic fertilisers.

Cover crops also assist with:

  • Weed suppression – The cover crop takes up space and light, covering bare ground and out-competing weeds

Pest management – Adding a diversity of plants to agricultural systems allows them to be more robust and resilient. Any pest outbreaks are more likely to be brought into balance by natural controls.

Around Mackay, growing numbers of sugarcane farmers are adopting these methods as fallow and multi-species cover crops using  Mungbean, Soybean, Millet, Sorghum and Sunflowers just to name a few. In their ‘High-Yielding Cane’ publication, Sugar Research Australia recommends that a well-managed legume cover crop will provide the greatest benefits in comparison to other fallow options

For the Beacon, we chose Buckwheat, Lucerne, Fenugreek and Vetch for our cool season cover crop on the recommendation of local Biodynamics advocate John Sweet. The Fenugreek and Vetch are legumes with nitrogen fixing capabilities. Lucerne is a vigorous plant with a deep taproot that is able to access nutrients that shallow-rooted plants can’t and bring them up to the surface. The deep taproot can also penetrate compacted soils and provide a loosening/aerating effect. The Buckwheat accumulates phosphorus and builds organic matter quickly.

We planted our cover crop by hand, with the help of Starrett and Jemal from MADASSIA and their work crews. It was great to chat about our projects as we planted the seeds- conversations about what the Watershed Land Art Project means in the context of our watershed, the Pioneer Valley, as well as modern day Sugarcane farming. We were excited to learn about their latest community project at Eton, restoring a farmhouse as a museum to display the original artefacts and stories from the lives of local 19th & 20th century Australian South Sea Islanders.

It was so very nice to chat and learn with our hands in the soil. We are currently planning ‘Sunset, Seed and Song’ — the Sugarcane and Sunflowers planting event in August — hope to see you there!