Trees on Farms: Tree-planters in the Bega Valley

Fiona Firth


Every Mother’s Day my children and husband would head off with the trailer stuffed full of farm trees ready for a day of tree planting. I stayed home to mind the shop. Mother’s Day in Australia is the second Sunday of May. Second Sunday of the month was tree planting day, and autumn is the best time to plant trees in the Bega Valley. Plant trees for mother earth. The timing was coincidental but not lost on me.

The Bega Valley Shire is a local government area squashed between the Tasman Sea and the Great Dividing Range in the far south-east corner of New South Wales. Between 1965 and 1996 the population of the shire more than doubled. Over the same period the dairy industry restructured under pressure from changing market and policy settings, resulting in fewer but more intensive farming operations. Many farmers sold their least productive lands to newcomers who were interested in living in a rural area but in a different way to established practices. Through the 1980s the newcomers and some forward-thinking mainstream farmers formed an unlikely alliance as the new settlers assisted farmers to plant trees on their farms. Together they learned about the benefits of trees on farms and developed tree growing and tree planting skills, at the same time creating networks and links between the established community and the new settlers.

Less than thirty percent of the Bega Valley lands were cleared for farming after colonisation. The early squatters and selectors occupied land that was most likely lowland grassy woodland. They ringbarked the existing large trees and sowed European grasses to ‘improve’ the land. Colonists left the steeper wooded slopes with poorer soils. Into the 1960s the escarpment and coastal forests were still held as state forests and vacant crown land. Added to this hilly topography is a highly variable annual rainfall. At Bega, 350 mm is the lowest annual recording since the 1870s up to 1800 mm the highest. Large rainfall events sometimes drop over 600 mm of rain in just a few days.

The United Nations Association of Australia declared 1982 the Year of the Tree. The organisation used the awareness raised by the publicity of the year to encourage all levels of government and local community groups to plant trees, educate landholders of the benefits of trees and also begin education programs in schools. During the drought of 1979 to 1982 the annual average rainfall was 550mm across the Bega Valley. The long dry had focussed attention, locally and nationally, on the poor condition of trees and grasslands, dieback and insect attack in trees, and soil erosion and siltation of rivers and creeks. Previous generations of farmers in the Bega Valley had kept their farms ‘clean’ by removing native trees and shrubs. Now they were being encouraged to plant trees for shelter belts, woodlots and to conserve existing patches of remnant bush. However, with such a history of land clearing, there was very little information on how to go about this task.

In June 1982, Michael Hissink, a newly arrived local landowner and environmentalist, formed a branch of Men of the Trees (MOTT). This international organisation, begun in 1922 by Richard St Barbe Baker to plant and protect trees, was renamed the International Tree Foundation in 1992. Bega Valley MOTT was renamed Bega Valley Tree Planters (BVTP) to reflect that women and children as well as men were active tree planters. MOTT members were newcomers to the valley, and included young adults going ‘back to the land’ to pursue a modified version of agrarianism far from the cities they were escaping. Some of the members had tertiary qualifications in science and environmental science. Several were graduates of Australian National University’s Forestry school and one an ANU botany graduate. Many also arrived with a conservation or environmental ethic and wanted to mix their small-scale agrarian ambitions with living close to, and caring for, ‘the bush’.

To promote care for trees and the bush, group members worked with commercial tree propagators and mainstream farmers to plant tree plots and windbreaks along major roads to demonstrate to neighbouring landholders that growing native trees improved farm productivity by decreasing evaporation and providing shelter for stock. The group received support in 1983 from prominent local businessman and beef farmer Roy Howard, who made a donation of $1000 to the group to plant a demonstration woodlot and windbreak on his property near a main road, a visual signal that native trees could be part of the farming landscape. In the BVTP’s scheme the farmer prepared the site by ripping the ground, fencing areas away from stock and purchasing the trees from a local nursery. Recognising that planting the trees was a labour-intensive process, group members would plant the trees as a Sunday morning activity.

Figure 1. Wallaga Lake tree planting, 1992

The farmers, tree propagators and tree planters all had to learn new skills. Planting native trees was a new venture for them, and they were the farmers without any history that might have guided large-scale tree planting efforts in the district. What worked on the Monaro tablelands, or west of the Great Dividing Range was not necessarily optimal on the coast, so they had to adapt existing techniques and systems from other areas to local conditions. As understandings grew of the benefits of planting local species, selection moved to planting only local provenance species. Ecological communities along the coast were different to hinterland grassy woodlands. Local nurseries began large scale seedling and tube stock production of a range of local species for the differing ecological zones. Studying successful and failed plantings over time, built expertise of successful practises for local conditions. These included: designing appropriate windbreaks, selecting successful species, finding the optimum size of plant and time of year to plant, and learning the benefit of good site preparation and post-planting watering regimes. The need to guard trees from rabbits became evident and added a further step in the process.

Children were also taught the benefits of trees in the environment with the group members undertaking education activities, building shade houses at primary schools, teaching children how to propagate trees and care for trees in school grounds. With young families as group members, children always participated in tree planting days, usefully picking up empty pots to return to the nursery to be reused, an early introduction to recycling.

Figure 2. Brogo Wildlife Corridor, 1994

As Landcare and other government programs took over planting programs with farmers, Bega Valley Tree Planters shifted focus to a broader environmental protection agenda. In 1993 the group used grant money from Greening Australia to plant a wildlife corridor across privately owned land. The corridor joined the coastal forests of Mumbulla Mountain (later to become Biamanga National Park) to the escarpment forests of Brogo wilderness (later incorporated into South East Forests National Park) aiming to facilitate native animal movements between isolated pockets of remnant vegetation and the intact forests.

While early land clearing had removed much of the tree cover in the farmed areas of the Bega Valley small patches of remnant vegetation still existed on private property. In the 1994 the group administered a grant from the Australian Nature Conservation Agency for a ‘Save the Bush Program’. The grant money paid local botanist Jackie Miles to identify patches of remnant bushland. She then prepared species lists for the landowners and included information on how best to manage and care for their bush. The group hoped that increasing the knowledge of, and pride in, their patches of remnant bush would encourage landholders to ensure its survival in the future. Field days were also held at these properties to increase public awareness.

The benefits of belonging to BVTP were two-fold. Most of the members were owners of small acre rural properties and, by being involved in the group, they learned tree planting and land care skills. Group members also planted trees on each other’s properties. A more important benefit came from the community building. Most young families who arrived in the Bega Valley through the 1980s did not have local connections and their properties were spread over a wide area of the Bega Valley. By joining the group and going to monthly events, members met not only like-minded people, but also mainstream farmers. The activities built community connections between what were, in other settings, quite distinct groups.

Conclusion

The efforts of tree planters in Bega Valley are now visible across the landscape. As my daughter drives her children around the Bega Valley, she proudly points out all the trees she planted as a child. The Bega Valley Tree Planters operated from 1982-1996, and in that time planted more than thirty thousand native trees and shrubs on private land. Since that time more landholders have been convinced of the benefits of planting trees and are supported by government funded programs such as Landcare, Farm Forestry, and Greening Australia.


About the Author

Fiona Firth is completing a PhD in the Australian National University investigating social and economic change in the Bega Valley between 1966 and 1996. Her thesis highlights the movement of ‘new settlers’ into the Bega Valley at the same time as marginal dairy farmers were leaving the industry. Contact: [email protected]


Further Reading

NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Lowland Grassy Woodland in the South East Corner Bioregion-Profile, https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/threatenedSpeciesApp/profile.aspx?id=20070

Daniel Lunney and Alison Matthews, Ecological Changes to Forests in the Eden Region of New South Wales. In: (eds) J. Dargavel, D. Gaughwin and B. Libbis, Australia’s Ever-Changing Forests V, Proceedings of the Fifth National Conference on Australian Forest History (Canberra: ANU Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, 2002).

Department of Arts Heritage and Environment and the Institute of Foresters of Australia, Think Trees Grow Trees (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1985).

Anthony Scott, History of Land Use in the Murrah/Dry River Catchment, NSW South Coast, CSIRO Land and Water Technical Report, 54/99, 1999, http://www.clw.csiro.au/publications/technical99/tr54-99.pdf

International Tree Foundation website, https://internationaltreefoundation.org/history/

Rebecca Jones, Green Harvest: A History of Organic Farming and Gardening in Australia (Melbourne: CSIRO Publishing, 2010), 93.

Jackie Miles, ‘Summary of the Bega Valley Tree Planters (previously Men of the Trees) Activities 1982-1996’. The archives of the group are stored by the author.