seed and song poster

This August in Mackay, get your hands in the soil and have fun celebrating positive innovations in local agriculture!

Award winning artists in collaboration with council and local farmers welcome the community to be part of the Watershed Land Art Project at the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens. The project – a stunning circular crop of sugarcane and sunflowers – is a demonstration of local achievements in eco-friendly farming systems.

On Sunday, August 26 from 12pm to 4pm join us for SEED AND SONG. It’s your chance to help plant sugarcane and sunflowers, learn about soil health, and find out what farmers and the community can do to support the Great Barrier Reef and human wellbeing.

The Diranga Gangali Aboriginal Dancers and the Sakwolo Islander Dancers will perform, and fresh sugarcane juice and local healthy foods will be served!

Following the August planting, this living work of art will continue to grow until the sunflowers bloom and a harvest celebration and concert is staged on November 24.

Mackay farmer Simon Mattsson, a key member of the Watershed Land Art Project team, says:

Sugarcane and sunflowers help each other by supporting a wide variety of soil biology, which means better outcomes for both. If both species grow healthier then there is less need for the farmer to use chemicals to fix problems.

Artists Lucas Ihlein and Kim Williams, from Wollongong, have been working with the local community in Mackay since 2014. Last year they helped create Sunset Symphony in the Sunflowers, a concert in an amphitheatre carved out of a crop of sugarcane and sunflowers on Mattsson’s farm in Marian. Ihlein says:

Staging events like Sunset Symphony in the Sunflowers, and the new Watershed project at the Botanic Gardens, is a way to bring farmers and the wider public together, raising awareness of exciting new ecological farming methods being developed within the sugarcane industry.

Groups associated with the project include Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens (MRBG), Mackay & District Australian South Sea Islander Association (MADASSIA), Yuwibara Aboriginal Corporation, Central Queensland Soil Health Systems, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), Pioneer Catchments and Landcare, Artspace Mackay, Australian Farmers for Climate Action, Mackay Conservation Group, Reef Catchments, and University of Wollongong.


Sunday, August 26 from 12-4pm

Meadowlands, Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens

Car parking on Crowleys Road, off Alexandra St.

For more information contact the artists on 0423 745 736 (Lucas) or 0405 700 142 (Kim)

Check out


Download the Press Release as pdf here.

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Funding for SEED AND SONG comes from:

  • Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) via the Reef Guardians  Community and Stewardship Grant Schemes
  • Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF)
  • Australia Council for the Arts
  • Australian Research Council (ARC) via University of Wollongong

In-kind support from:

  • Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens (MRBG)


farming carbon and our climate

Coming up in Mackay – this excellent event, hosted at the farm of Simon Mattsson, one of the key agricultural collaborators on the Watershed Land Art Project.

THIS FIELD DAY IS FREE FOR LANDHOLDERS, with funding provided by Farmers for Climate Action.
The event is supported by Reef Catchment’s Regional Landcare Facilitator through funding from the Australian Government National Landcare Programme


Cane farmers, graziers and landholders are invited to learn more about methods being trialled by local farmers to build farm resilience and help counteract climate conditions and declining soil health.

Sunday 12th August
1pm to 5pm
171 Newmans Road, Marian
Register by 6th August
CLICK HERE OR PHONE 07 4968 4200
Download PDF Flyer here


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!


Soil testing the John Sweet way

Starrett Vea Vea has taken photos of some interesting recent activities in the Beacon. The images show John Sweet, along with Jemal, Kellie Galletly and her daughter Ruby testing the soil and inspecting the plants. They’re checking to see what’s happened in The Beacon since we began preparing the site in February by ripping, mulching, applying lime and biofert and planting several legume species.

beacon april

Since the planting event in late February, the legumes have come up quickly with the hot weather and rain.

checking the roots

One of the legume plants is pulled up to check the root system for the rhizobia nodules. They’re there – this is a good thing, as rhizobia bacteria fix nitrogen when they’re present in the root nodules of the legumes.

ruby getting soil sample

Ruby is doing the hard work, while the adults look on.

soil test

John measures the sugar content of the plants with a refractometer. To do this he washes the refractometer plate with distilled water. With a garlic crusher, he squeezes some juice from the leaves of a legume on to the glass plate. John then takes a reading of the sugar content in the sap of the plant.

What has this test revealed? According to John, there has been an improvement in the soil since we began working on The Beacon. We’re hoping that the things we’re doing are bringing the soil biology back into a healthy balance. If this occurs it will optimise the soil conditions for a healthy sunflower and sugarcane crop. Along with community members, we’ll plant the dual crop in early August as part of the Sunset Seed and Song event that’s currently in the planning stages.

Planting Legumes at The Beacon

planting the legumes

The Beacon Legume Planting Day was a success! The rains held off until 11am, which gave us enough time to make a great start.

We had 27 people along as participants – just the right amount to make a critical mass, not too many to be unmanageable.

Philip Kemp from the Yuwibara Aboriginal Corporation came down to be part of it, and there were people from Mackay Council who work in arts and sustainability, Katie from Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Mel from Pioneer Catchments and Landcare, and of course all our key players including Starrett from MADASSIA, Kellie our education expert, and farmer Simon. Oh, and Councillor Laurence Bonaventura, who has been a great supporter of our work since last year’s Sunset Symphony in the Sunflowers. Charmaine Miller had done an interview with us on radio my105.9, and she came along with her son. And we were graced by a bunch of lovely cheeky kids of all ages too.

legume species list

Here’s how it went:

We started off with an acknowledgement of country, followed by a short update on the who what when where and why of our overall art+farming project.

Simon Mattsson explained the biological significance of planting legumes (in a nutshell, legumes fix nitrogen in the soil and improve the soil biology to give our future crop of sunflowers and sugarcane a better start). He brought along a mature soyabean plant from his farm to show the nodules that form on the roots.

simon with soyabean plant

Then Kim, Sophie and I pickup up our ukuleles and led the crowd in a rendition of “The Legume Song”. The tune is based on a sugarcane planting song from Barbados, which Kim adapted with new lyrics to local conditions!

After this, Simon demonstrated the use of “innoculants” to help the legume seeds along.

planting day

Simon uses a cement mixer to combine the seeds with the innoculants:

cement mixer

simon with legume seeds

Everyone got stuck into it, forming into small teams of 2 or three, and working their way along rows that Kim, Sophie and Deb had marked out, and planting deep into the mulch layer:

planting legumes

planting the legumes

sam and son

Some of us were more higgledy piggledy than others, so it will be interesting to see what patterns the seedlings produce when they emerge!

After an hour we had a break for some delicious sugarcane juice provided by Sugar Rush – a local business just starting out.

sugarcane juice

sugarcane juice closeup

It was terrific to work with Karl from Sugar Rush – Simon and Luke provided the cane freshly harvested from the farm in Marian. And Susie made some excellent home baked scones for our morning tea which disappeared almost instantly.

We were pleased to get so many legumes into the soil, although we didn’t quite finish the job. That honour was saved for Starrett’s crew who planted out the rest of the legumes on Monday morning. Now we wait and see what happens!

(all photos in this blog post are by Cherrie Hughes and Lucas Ihlein)

Watershed Mackay in the Media – Legume Planting

In the lead up to our legume planting at The Beacon, Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens, we made two media appearances. The first was an article by journalist Camilla Warner in the Mackay Mercury entitled “Art and Agriculture Sprout into One”:

mackay mercury article

The second was a radio interview with Charmaine Miller, on my105.9 radio, which is run by the Mackay and District Aboriginal and Islander Media Association. It was a full house in the studio with Kim, Lucas, Starrett and Simon, all talking about working together on the Land Art Project at the Botanic Gardens and discussing why we’re involved from our diverse backgrounds and professions.

at the radio station

Kim and I brought our ukuleles along, and everyone sang “The Legume Song” on the air – a “world premiere” – which was a thrill. (if you want to listen to the song on its own, click here).

Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens hosts unique Land Art Project.

the Beacon - prior to planting
The Beacon – mulched with hay – prior to planting the first crop of legumes (photo by Flow Motion Media)

A unique work of land art is being launched in Mackay this week.

Watershed: The Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens Land Art Project is the creation of Wollongong artists Lucas Ihlein and Kim Williams, in collaboration with a host of local farmers and community organisations.

The project involves the planting of a dual crop of sugarcane and sunflowers on the Meadowlands at the Botanic Gardens. The artists hope to raise awareness about the importance of soil health in agriculture, bringing farmers into dialogue with the wider community through events and workshops.

Some of the key collaborators in the project include Mackay & District Australian South Sea Islander Association (MADASSIA), Yuwibara Aboriginal Corporation, Central Queensland Soil Health Systems, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), Artspace Mackay, and Reef Catchments.

On Saturday 24th February from 8am-10am, the public is invited to join the artists to celebrate the commencement of the project. Participants are invited to take part in the planting of a crop of legumes which will help to build nitrogen in the soil.

For more information contact the artists:

0423 745 736

View or download a PDF flyer for the event here.