For 200 years agriculture has flogged the fragile Australian landscape with a combination of overstocking via set stocking limits, overuse of synthetic inputs which have degraded our soils and conventional farming methods which have seen much of our fertile topsoil either blown away on the wind or washed into rivers we’ve turned into drains.
In the past three decades sustainability and regeneration have become buzzwords for landholders looking to escape the corporate model of costly inputs as they’ve tried to rebuild that lost fertility and increase productivity and profitability.
Mining companies have received plenty of bad publicity by wanting to dig huge holes in fertile farming country like the Liverpool Plains.
New reports are showing that many of these heavily subsidised mines are dug until the easy pickings are exported, then sold off so the companies don’t have to rehabilitate the moonscapes they’ve created.
Coal Seam Gas (CSG) companies have been heavily criticised for working the system to get taxpayer subsidies so they can sell our gas cheaply off-shore, meantime jacking up the price for local users – all this while opponents claim the fracking method used for gas extraction is irreparably damaging priceless underground aquifers and cracking stream beds, making our precious freshwater reserves poisonous.
As I discovered this week, Alkane Resources, parent company of the Dubbo Zirconia Project (DZP) near Toongi, just south of Dubbo, approaches environmental stewardship in an innovative and unlikely way.
MIKE SUTHERLAND hailed from the local area before a career in mining took him around the world.
He now heads up Alkane’s NSW operations but well before that he was the state’s forest Landcare Coordinator, so when he was planning how to manage the 2500 hectares of land surrounding the DZP, he went headhunting, and he didn’t have to look too far.
Fergus Job grew up around Yeoval and was catchment manager at Little River Landcare when the DZP planning was in its early stages and had numerous discussions with Mike Sutherland about how the country around the proposed mine should be managed – so it was only natural that he was the target to run the newly formed Toongi Pastoral Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Alkane Resources.
He’d left Little River after five-and-a-half years in 2011 and moved to Surat in western QLD to manage a station for AA Company, which is the home of their Western Waygus which is the largest full-blood Waygu herd in the world outside Japan, a 90,000 acre property with broadacre and irrigated farming operations.
“The opportunity came in April in this year to come back to Dubbo and to take over here at Toongi Pastoral and work with Mike and Ian Chalmers,” Job said.
“There’s two really big things for me and on a personal level one of them is that I can’t influence a mining company by sitting on the outside and throw sticks at them but if I’m actually in the business and managing a landscape on their behalf we can actually influence the outcomes and tell that story of coexistence appropriately – there has to be co-existence between Natural Resource Management and mining resource management so that’s one of the big things for me.
“From the landscape management perspective these guys are a start-up company, there’s no preconceived ideas about agriculture – the number one output is manage the landscape sustainably, it’s an 80 to 100 year project so we get to set it up right, right from the word go and not too many people get that opportunity in business to actually do that,” he said.
He believes this is an almost unique situation to make some valuable case study material which could help lead the way for miners and farmers to interact harmoniously with both caring for country.
“There’s two really important things; the conversation that I started with Mike Sutherland back in my Little River days was about setting up an agricultural business that had an open book and the flip side of that is that we’re a public company, or Alkane Resources is a public company, so we have full transparency, there’s no, ‘we can’t hide anything in the system’,” Job said.
“So we get an opportunity at Toongi Pastoral to do that right from the word go, to measure and record the things in the landscape that need to be done and keep it practical so that it’s economically viable as a business unit.
“I haven’t been given a free ride – so the mining company hasn’t just come in and said here’s a heap of money, go out and put a shiny farm together, they’ve actually come to me and said what do you need and what resources do you need and how much is it going to cost for us to set up a sustainable organisation and once we get to that point, you’ve still got to make money and you’ve still got to contribute to the greater part of the business,” he said.
Fergus has accumulated 25 or 26 years of experience since he left school both through education and other business experience.
“The whole coexistence thing is about do we manage the landscape that we operate within and how do we actually integrate with the people around us, whether that’s the neighbours on the other side of the fence or whether it’s the greater community,” Job said.
“There’s a lot of opportunities to do different things with the local community, first and foremost we need to actually record and get a little bit of a hold on economically and from a business structure on the piece of landscape that we’re being asked to manage.”
Part of the farm area contains 1021 hectares of biodiversity offset to be managed on behalf of the mine without locking it up and throwing away the key.
“So we’re going to manage that for an environmental outcome, we’re going to manage our agricultural business for an environmental outcome and we’re going to manage our mine for the same environmental outcome, they’re totally different businesses and totally different outputs but the basic ethos between those three businesses will be the same,” Job said.
“It’s 450 hectares of what we’d call Invasive Native Scrub (INS) pine vegetation, the remainder of the biodiversity offset actually high-value agricultural land, grassy box woodland so yellow box and going down in to fuzzy box and the riparian zone so there’s a real opportunity to take some of that landscape that’s been highly modified historically, restore it back to its previous state without turning it into land where we lock the gate and throw the key away because that’s what happens in a lot of mining cases, they actually just put a fence around it , lock it up, throw the key away and nobody manages it.
“We need to be really really careful because we can say best management practice but it’s not best management practice, what we’re going to do is come up with a system that works really good for this environment,” he said.
He also says it’s important to regard this operation as a guide for operating principles rather than a template to be slavishly replicated on other properties.
“What we do here may not necessarily work on another block of dirt on the other side of the catchment or in another catchment somewhere else, but just to show that you can actually do it and you can actually be conscious and planned and thoughtful about where your landscape’s going over the next 80 or 100 years,”, Job said.
“Probably the greatest disappointment for me is that I probably won’t be here in 80 or 100 years to see it, that’s probably a big disappointment.”
Alkane Resources managing director Ian Chalmers says it’s important to the company that they have minimal impact, starting at the exploration stage and right through to actual mining operations.
He says getting the best people in place at the start is the key to making the best decisions for all concerned.
“In doing what we’re doing on the environmental farming side we’ve got two very very good guys – that’s one of the things we pride ourselves on, we will always try and get the best people that we possibly can, in on the ground doing the right things,” Chalmers said.
“Sometimes you might sit back and say why are we doing this, but actually when you stand back and look at it the cost-benefit and the social benefit and the environmental benefit just outweighs any additional costs – I think that’s a really important thing, the path that we’re following.
“I mean it’s really what we’ve set out to do, you know, we set out to have minimal impact, we’ve always approached projects such that we can, if we can continue farming it again, it’s part of a buffer zone around it too, we don’t want to be seen as just some horrible nasty mining operation sitting in a very pleasant farming environment, we want to make sure that we blend in with what we’re doing, but in doing that we want to put a level of expertise and high standards with that, that makes sure that we do turn it into a profitable farming operation,” he said.
I asked him how he got on dealing with two traditional Landcarers who now have a major input into land management decisions whether the company may have to spend a bit more upfront in certain areas.
He laughed, as if these sorts of conversations were not unusual occurrences.
“It’s a good question because yes, I’m an exploration geologist just by training, that’s what I’ve spent all my life doing but I’ve also had the benefit of doing that, of working all around the country and overseas in farming and rural environments and interacting with people and those environments and I always look at how we impact, you know our initial contact is very important to us, how we interact with the people that are on the land and how we can then turn that in to something of value,” Chalmers said.
“It’s all part of the environmental management but also to minimise the impact, we’re operating outside a sizeable regional centre here and we want to be part of the community, all of our people will live in Dubbo, I mean most of our people from Tomingley either live in Dubbo or nearby so we want to be part of the community and we think long-term and this is a long-term project, it’s potentially 80 years, 100 year project and it needs to be part of the community to be successful.”