When conventional agriculture led to lower productivity and poor soil, this farming family made some simple, sustainable changes, with impressive results
Joe and Karen Bugeja have been vegetable farming in Western Sydney since 1989 and their family have been farming the same land since the 1970s. The farms are situated along Bents Basin Road, Wallacia, NSW, on the banks of the Nepean River, from which irrigation water is sourced.
The Bugejas grow a wide range of vegetables, including cabbages, leeks, radishes, garlic, lettuce and pumpkins, and most of their produce is distributed through Sydney Markets where they have held a stall for many years.
Since the 1970s, the Bugejas have used conventional farming methods, including intensive cultivation, overhead irrigation, chemical fertilisers recommended by agronomists, pesticides, fungicides and manures. Over time, they adjusted their farm management practices to maximise farm output. However, gradually they noticed a decline in productivity and an increase in pests and diseases that led to increasing plant mortalities.
Further investigation by the Department of Primary Industries identified in their soils a lack of organic matter and imbalances in plant nutrients with virtually no evident biological activity. With increasing costs and diminishing returns, the Bugejas seriously considered walking away from farming.
Trial with recycled organic mulch
In late 2011, Joe and Karen were introduced to the Sustainable Amendments for Agriculture (SAFA) Program conducted by the Centre for Organic Research & Education (CORE). This program provided them with affordable mulch materials and advice on how to integrate these materials into their farming system. Following a period of successful initial trials, the Bugejas converted their entire farms over to using surface-applied mulch that’s incorporated into the soil after each crop is harvested. Early results showed gradual reduction in chemical usage with corresponding benefits — less water (with corresponding less energy used), fewer chemicals, better yields, fewer mortalities, less run-off into the nearby river, less tilling effort required (saving fuel), and less plant stress in hot summers.
Full integration into farming system
Following the trial, Joe and Karen converted to using recycled organic mulches and seaweed soil conditioners on all crops. The result has been a total transformation in the viability of the farming enterprise and the quality of the produce. One additional observation by Joe and Karen’s children has been the identification of worms in the soil that had not previously been found on the farm since its establishment. Joe believes the worms have helped “cultivate” the soil, which has resulted in easier tilling, and less often, saving on expensive tractor fuel. Areas that have been mulched previously are then tilled to incorporate the decomposed organic matter into the top-soil horizon. This process has not only reduced weed growth but also assisted in moisture retention and reduced soil temperature fluctuations.
One additional observation by Joe and Karen’s children has been the identification of worms in the soil that had not previously been found on the farm since its establishment.
“In addition to weed eradication, the system has significantly improved our soil health, increased yields and dramatically reduced our chemical input costs, particularly with the issues around chemical herbicides at the moment,” says Joe. The SAFA program is now helping nearly 100 farms along the Hawkesbury-Nepean River Catchment achieve the same results as Joe and Karen have, while reducing the impacts on the river system.
For more information about the SAFA program and other CORE activities visit core.asn.au