Farmers in the Wheatbelt could finally be making a return on their investment from planting trees.
But while landholders have been encouraged to plant oil mallees in their thousands in the hope of an alternative income, it could be brushwood that fills the gap.
Meckering manufacturer Bowman Brush has begun sourcing locally grown brushwood for its fencing business, paying farmers roughly $400 per tonne of brush.
For third generation Moora farmer Ian McGillivray, the planting of 15,000 brushwood trees six years ago has finally begun to pay off.
He’s been paid for his first delivered consignment of 1822 kilograms of plantation grown brushwood.
“The idea was to plant the brushwood with our three children Ben, Kate and Sam so they could harvest it to help pay for their university studies,” Ian McGillivray said.
The McGillivray family crop roughly 1200 hectares of wheat, oats, lupins and barley and run 3600 MPM Merino breeding ewes, and have over the years planted salt bush, tagasaste and brushwood on the property.
“For this project, we chose to plant the brushwood in an area that couldn’t be cropped on a part of the farm where the Moore River runs through,” Ian McGillivray said.
Using a Chatfields tree planter, brushwood was planted on a five-hectare site at roughly 3333 stems per hectare.
The seedlings were planted one-point-two metres apart, in rows two-metres apart, with every four rows having an access gap for harvesting.
“The first year we had a poor survival rate of about 50 per cent, because the Melaleuca atroviridis didn’t seem to grow well on the heavier country,” Ian McGillivray said.
“The second year of planting we tried a different species Melaleuca hamata on sandier soil and had an 80 per cent establishment.
“After that, the trees required very little maintenance with the kangaroos causing some damage and fire breaks required.
“By the second and third year, we had started to graze the area and the sheep wouldn’t touch them.”
Over the past decade, natural resource management groups have encouraged farmers to plant trees for both environmental purposes and with the prospect of one day making money from them.
Wheatbelt NRM’s project manager Georgie Troup spent four years working on a project called the Brushwood Industry Development on Saline Land with the Moore Catchment Council.
During that time, nearly two million brushwood trees were planted over a three-year period, starting in 2006.
There continues to be interest from Wheatbet farmers in growing brushwood, with over 10 per cent of projects funded through Wheatbelt NRM’s Soil Conservation Incentives Program contributing to this continued investment in the resource.
The industry is being further supported by the development of economic modeling tools, which allow farmers to compare current paddock use with agroforestry options including brushwood.
Georgie Troup said she had enormous satisfaction from knowing that a farmer had finally been paid for his brushwood.
“Brushwood is a viable option because it is a native species that grows well on a number of soil types, pumping groundwater, providing habitat for wildlife and excellent shelter for livestock,” Georgie Troup said.
“It’s also a renewable resource as it coppices after harvesting, so there is no re-establishment required.
Creating the market has been Bowman Brush, a South Australian company that has now re-located to the tiny Wheatbelt town of Meckering, in WA.
Owner Clive Bowman said the decision to move was prompted as brushwood in SA was gradually becoming more difficult to access and harvest.
“A managed investment scheme by the Reward Group of 400 hectares of brushwood north west of Meckering came on the market last year,” Clive Bowman said.
“We decided to trial plantation timber versus wild brushwood in our product, and found it to be superior, so the decision to move was made.
“Now we are harvesting 16 to 17 tonne of brushwood each week, turning it into fencing panels and selling through WA fencing contractors.
“There’s a whole range of things that makes it a better product, the consistency of quality, easily accessed by comparison to wild brushwood and it lends itself to modern harvesting techniques.
“The sustainability will be much better and it will become an industry.”
When the business began in Meckering 12 months ago, it was a patch of brush in a paddock with no power, water, roads or infrastructure.
Now Bowman Brush is a manufacturing business employing 13 people locally.
While the company harvests from its own plantation, it has begun sourcing from farmers, including Ian McGillivray.
“We have developed techniques to handle all sorts of brushwood, but ideally the base of the cut stem needs to be no thicker than your thumb with a minimum height of one and a half metres,” Clive Bowman said.
“A plant that doesn’t have too many forks and isn’t too thick is best, because the fencing panels we make are only about 40 millimetres thick.”
Harvesting the brushwood may now prove to be the biggest challenge for farmers.
Ian McGillivray said he eventually used air-powered sheep hoof trimmers to cut the stem.
He said employing a cutter at 20 cents per kilogram was an option, but would halve returns, making the introduction of a machine harvester critical.
“Our next harvest of the rest of the crop is probably 12 to 18 months away, and by then we could be getting up to 10 tonnes,” Ian McGillivray said.
“Our yields are on average six kilograms per tree and our best tree made eight dollars and yielded 20 kilograms.
“We’re not making a lot, but we are getting a return on a patch of land that had previously produced nothing.”
Brett Bowman 0427 763 793.