BiodiversityFood ShortagesSoil Erosion & ContaminationWater Contaminaton & Loss

The Pending Collapse of Western Australia’s Breadbasket?

In our travels to Tom’s old stomping grounds, we were shocked to find WA’s breadbasket degraded, eroded and overtaxed.

by Zaia Kendall, Permaculture Research Institute Sunshine Coast


Bare Paddock in WA, with some rocks and Pademelons visible

We recently went to Western Australia to see Tom’s family. Tom hasn’t lived in WA for 10 years now, and he was shocked by the severe degradation seen driving South from Perth.

There was evidence of overgrazing (it’s mainly sheep in that area) and excessive chemical use. The overgrazing has compacted the earth — there is no organic material left and when it rains the ground cannot absorb any water. There were some puddles in places on the side of the road. There seemed to have been a reasonable amount of precipitation over the summer. The average rainfall in that area is 500mm per year. A lot of erosion was visible, there are now bigger culverts than 10 years ago, so there must be more runoff which means more topsoil loss. There is evidence of salinity with trees dying in the lower levels.


The Rake and Burn method used on a paddock in WA

To stop tillage machinery blocking up, many farmers still work with the rake and burn method. They rake all organic material up into piles and then set it alight, thereby destroying the little organic material they have left on the land. This method has been used for a long time in broad acre farming in this area, and it is hard for these farmers to think of another way. So on top of overgrazing and excessive chemical use, organic material is burnt. There is no organic material on these paddocks to slow the water down when it rains, nothing to prevent severe erosion. Tom recalled that when he did biodynamic farming, his stubble rotted very quickly, but on neighbouring chemical farms the stubble would not rot at all. All the bacteria there would be dead or wouldn’t be silly enough to eat all that sprayed stubble (only humans are stupid enough to eat de-natured food…), so farmers burned the stubble instead.

Years ago, when farmers first moved into the area, they had to totally clear the land they bought. This was demanded from the government, possibly to ensure maximum crop returns. As the years go on, we see bigger and bigger farms (increased land prices make small farmers sell to bigger ones), with larger and larger debts to pay for all the heavy machinery, fertilisers and chemicals they need to use in the process. They need bigger and bigger (monoculture) crops to pay their debts and in the process use more and more chemicals and fertilisers. Very little thought is being given to soil health, much to the detriment of their land. This area used to be only sheep and hay, now it is being used for grain crops as well; the land is being incredibly overtaxed.


A Paddock full of pademelon and pigmelon

We saw paddocks that were infested with pademelon and pigmelon, highly resistant weeds that are not eaten by anything. Nature is doing a great job trying to put some ground cover down. The weeds seem to have become spray resistant, since we saw evidence of spraying in the areas where the weeds grew.


Pigmelon (left) and pademelon (right)

When Europeans (this includes the English by the way…) came to Australia, they thought they would be able to farm exactly the same here as in Europe. England and Northern Europe is temperate, with only a very short growing season and highly fertile soil. That area of Western Australia is semi-arid and never had any hard hoofed animals in great hordes travelling over the land. In semi-arid areas in the Northern Hemisphere, people would be nomadic and herd their small hard hoofed animals continually in different areas to find enough food and preserve the land for future use. No agriculture was done in those area, apart from some small scale polyculture.

In the 10 years that Tom has been away from WA, areas of land have severely degraded. That particular area of WA is called WA’s breadbasket. The question is how much longer will it be? Will there be a total collapse?

On the upside, we did see some evidence of efforts being made. There were small attempts made at planting trees in intervals to manage salinity. Sadly, there does not seem to be any follow up. The trees seem to have been planted 10 – 20 years ago, and there is no diversity in the trees, only Mallee trees were growing. Trees do not create any dollars for the farmers, so not much effort has been put into it.

We did see a few Wittaker interceptor banks, to manage salinity. It needed a bit more planting out, but the start is there. The Wittaker Interceptor bank works mainly for properties without sheep, since sheep destroy the vegetation on the banks.


Wittaker Interceptor Bank, not planted out

We also saw re-vegetation done on contour, which will create better paddocks. But is it all too little too late?


Diverse vegetation on Contour

We were shocked at the state of the land whilst we went through this area. The solutions are there, it is just a matter of getting people to listen to them. And it is hard for farmers that have farmed in a certain way for generations, ever increasing their chemical and fertiliser use, to change their ways overnight. All we can hope for is that governments and farmers see the light soon, and farmers start looking after their soil. Otherwise what was once a breadbasket, will just be a dustbowl.

Zaia Kendall

Zaia grew up in a family of musicians in Holland, and has a background in top sport and web development and design. She co-founded the PRI Luganville and PRI Sunshine Coast Inc with Tom, and runs all the background stuff, like finances, business administration, website design and maintenance, writes articles, records and edits videos and also organises the cooking and the kitchen on site. She has been researching and studying nutrition and health for 20+ years, has a certificate in Nutrition and continues to study by research, reading and daily observation. She is a certified member of the International Institute of Complementary Therapists and is a holistic food, health and lifestyle coach. She is also an active member of several musical projects and bands, involved in community music and runs occasional percussion workshops. Visit Zaia's website at DIY Food and Health.

5 Comments

  1. Comming from W.A. these pictures were disturbing to say the least! It would seem like our government are more concerned about job security and stuffing the tax coffers than they are with protecting our food sources. Until our food producers are shown how to farm sustainably and are given the choice to change (and the incentive via tax breaks etc.) we are going to see this sort of degradation and erosion in Australia accompanied by salinity and desertification. We can’t eat money…

  2. Thanks for this. I was in Perth recently, and flying there from Sydney at night I was puzzled by what clearly were fires on the ground, but in regular patterns. You have cleared up that mystery for me! The rake and burn fires were very visible at night from 10k up in the sky.

    It is sad to hear about how people are trapped in past practices. I hope things do change in terms of practices. I loved Perth and wanted to see more of WA, but that will have to wait til next time. Hopefully things might have started changing!

  3. Turn the bread basket into perennial pastures. Stop blaming the “hard-hoofed” animals for damaging the soil. There is nothing unique about soils in Australia that mean they can’t have grazing animals on them. The issue is management techniques, not the animals. This point has been proven again and again and again. Time-Controlled grazing of sheep and cattle would fix the soil problems in W.A. How about we get more animals there and give up on the grain production?

  4. Farms nearer to Perth seem only fairly recently have started chasing the dollar by putting in broad acre crops, which resulted in pushing the land beyond capacity for higher dollar returns. The land was able to cope with just grazing animals, which was their previous land use. We agree that the issue is management techniques, as the article states. Broad acre crop farming causes problems everywhere, but we also mustn’t forget that we cannot push hundreds of animals in a small space unpunished. Sound land management techniques need to be put in place whether the focus is on grazing animals or growing vegetable matter.

  5. Rising land values may be the root cause. Farmers who manage un-sustainably will have bad years. Land prices have gone up so they can borrow more and carry on as before. Then they are pushed to squeeze in more stock or switch to higher margin crops to pay the bank and maintain return on assets. The land near Perth will become residential at this rate.

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