Overstory #88 - Revegetation Planning for Farm Forestry
Revegetation Planning for Farm Forestry
Revegetation is defined here as, "the planting of trees and shrubs, the encouragement of natural regeneration and the use of deep rooted and/or perennial crops and pastures" (Oates 1987).
Whole farm planning provides a framework within which revegetation can be integrated with farming. Whole farm planning considers the natural resource base, the physical improvements of the farm, land management practices, and the financial basis of the farm.
Landholders interested in revegetation tend to be planners by nature and are often recognised in a district as "good farmers." This reinforces the thesis that planning is fundamental to sustainable land use. The next step for these farmers is to become more conscious of the planning process to develop more integrated farm plans.
There is a role for input from a large range of professionals including landscape designers, but it is the landholder who must become the lead planner. Only the landholder can consider and balance all the strategic, technical and practical elements which make a whole farm and develop a plan which can grow and change over time.
General Eisenhower once said "plans are useless but planning is essential." In other words, planning is a process rather than bits of paper, or put another way, strategic planning rather than master planning.
Master planning (where detailed plans are implemented producing a final fixed state which represent exactly what is on paper) has been discredited in the planning profession due to its failure to deal with complex evolving systems such as cities. Many attempts at farm planning by consultants, including soil conservation officers and landscape architects, have tended to be master plans which encourage the notion of a final state for the landscape and farm. It might be noted that the final state for everything is death.
Strategic planning emphasizes on-going processes of development which respond to changing circumstances. It recognises that complex systems can never be completely described, predicted or controlled but that forces can be identified and worked with to develop a more balanced and productive system. Most important, strategy planning can help pinpoint the initial step to initiate the desired processes without later having to undo what has already been done.
The planning process can be considered as a sequence of five steps:
Inventory: the collection of relevant data.
Evaluation: organising the data into comprehensible patterns.
Strategy: the general direction and framework for development.
Design: the particular forms which express the strategy.
Management: processes of implementation and operation.
Feedback at every stage is essential. Without feedback, planning becomes a rigid ritual of no particular use. In fact, all steps occur to some extent simultaneously. For example, we usually have some notion of the strategy and even the management before all the data is in. Thus the planning process in practice involves the ordinary skills of responding effectively to the unpredictable and chaotic nature of reality.
The natural environment, seasonal conditions and our imperfect knowledge will determine what gets done and what succeeds. Capital and labour availability will limit what can be attempted, and the heritage of past decisions and developments, good and bad, must be accepted to some degree.
Whole Farm Planning
The following methodology for whole farm planning was originally applied to small farms where a shift from pastoral farming to more intensive tree based landuses often requires radical changes to layout and substantial capital investment. However it is also applicable to broadacre farms where diversification and revegetation demand good planning.
The planning process can be applied to four interwoven "development streams" which together constitute a whole farm.
This is the natural foundation upon which any farm is built. The land systems approach most effectively integrates all the data about the natural environment. Sustainable land use focuses the natural forces towards providing for human needs while continuing to perform the landscape's essential functions.
This is a planning term to describe the improvements which form the framework of any farming system. Infrastructure includes fencing, water supply, access, maintenance facilities, power supply and even shelterbelts. A method used in planning complex systems is analysis in terms of networks and nodes, zones and sectors and can be useful in looking at farm infrastructure.
In sustainable systems, infrastructure development reflects and reinforces the natural landscape. For example fencelines along soil boundaries make varying management possible and provide a permanent indication of differences which would otherwise be hidden. A contour belt of trees along a break of slope may mark sites susceptible to saline discharge while depressing the water table and reducing the risk, or it could delineate lower slopes suitable for cropping and upper slopes suitable for grazing only.
iii. Domestic environment:
Most farms are homes. Traditionally (and in any sustainable system) the home is an important sub-system in the farm economy. Well planned and managed, it can: - provide some family needs more effectively than the money economy; - be a refuge during environmental or economic catastrophe from which farming can re-establish; - provide a testing ground for new ideas, processes and species before they are applied on a broad scale.
In revegetation, the domestic environment should be an arboretum and nursery for species which may have potential for stabilising the landscape, shelter, or commercial crops. In the agribusiness approach to farming, the domestic scene is ignored as irrelevant and tends to become an incongruous island of suburban consumerism in a sea of agricultural production. That such farms are alienating, unbalanced and increasingly uneconomic is becoming more widely accepted after less than a generation of obsession with domestic escape from rural reality. The domestic environment is really a microcosm of the farm and planning its development or redevelopment can be a first step towards whole farm planning.
This is the engine, linked to regional and world economics, which makes or breaks the whole farm. Husbandary and management have traditionally been seen as the key factors in making a living from farming. Today it requires increasing consideration of design at one end of the business (especially where trees add a third dimension) and marketing and finance at the other.
Past strategies of maximising production and specialization have contributed to over-investment in capital equipment, vulnerability to market collapse, high production costs, land degradation and product contamination. Post-industrial economic forces demand more emphasis on input cost minimisation, diversification and recognition of the value of "information" as an essential and continuing input. The imperative of sustainable resource use requires the same changes. Thus farms will increasingly involve several enterprises integrated in ways which complement and support each other.
In the four-point approach outlined above, it is important to note the increasing complexity of planning and management as we move from landscape to enterprise. However, the landscape always remains the foundation and reference point for farming. If we fail to work within its parameters then success at other levels will be superficial and short lived.
Documentation of a whole farm plan could include written material, timelines and budgets as well as plans and overlays. Since landholders are generally unfamiliar with the use of plans, some brief notes on the practicalities of using plans may be useful.
Ideally each farm would have a comprehensive base map at an appropriate scale (1:5000 for broadacre farms) with one meter contour intervals. This accurately describes landform and slopes but is very costly to have prepared for a single farm. A practical alternative is to use an aerial photograph (preferably colour) as a base for a farm plan.
Clear plastic overlays can then be prepared showing the existing features of the land, improvements, and farming enterprise. It is best to document these as three separate overlays which relate to the development streams mentioned previously.
The landscape overlay might show drainage lines and swamp topography (contours transferred from a topographic map) soil features, rock outcrops, natural vegetation, specific land degradation and "problem" areas.
The infrastructure (improvements) overlay would show fencing, water systems including dams, lanes, buildings, powerlines and plantings and include the main features of the homestead. The homestead (domestic) systems should be recorded on another larger scale plan (1:250 or 1:500) using the same series of overlays which apply to the whole farm.
The enterprise overlay would show paddock names, sizes, characteristics and land use history. Most of the documentation for the farm enterprises would consist of more conventional records and budgets.
By various combinations of overlays and base photos, different aspects of the farm can be highlighted and draft overlays of proposed changes prepared. A number of different options can be developed reflecting different development strategies and external factors including markets. By developing drafts of the Enterprise plan, the implications for infrastructure and landscape systems can be explored and vice versa.
Even the landscape overlay can evolve over time. It may develop into a land systems map showing components derived from slope class and soil types. As revegetation proceeds, new drafts can be used to map all the woody vegetation systems on the farm.
More definite plans of proposed changes can be prepared covering a specific time period (e.g. 5 yrs) with associated timelines, specifications and budgets. Annual reviews can adjust the plans in the light of new information or changed circumstances.
Increasingly government assistance for land degradation control is being tied to landholders having a whole farm plan. While these sorts of controls may result in less than adequate planning, they do indicate the importance of better planning within farms. The general crisis of farm financing and the relatively unregulated nature of agricultural land use (compared with forestry for example) may lead to whole farm plans being increasingly seen as a precondition for bank finance and planning permits for new land uses.
- A portion of the annual budget of any farm (or public land management) should be allocated to revegetation. Areas of annual expenditure might include research, planning and design, site preparation and pest control, fencing, planting and seeding, follow up maintenance and general management and harvesting.
- In general, some planting should be done each year to spread the risks of bad seasons and develop a regular demand from nurseries (commercial or on-farm).
- Reliable sources of proven species and provenances should be established to assure continuity in programs while unproven species can be trialled in small plantings to continually expand and improve planting stock.
- On arable land, planting and direct sowing can be combined with a cropping phase using the same treatments to prepare ground for crop and trees and allow a period without stock before fences must be in place.
- Fostering or responding to natural regeneration must be more opportunistic since favourable conditions, such as following bushfires or droughts, tend to be episodic. Response to changing markets can also provide unpredicted opportunities, (e.g. decline in wool prices gives an opportunity to destock marginal wool country and allow regeneration).
- Fencing technologies are critical for broad acre revegetation since protection from stock is the greatest cost in any program. Management neglect or fence failure is the greatest cause of tree loss. Heavy conventional fencing is inappropriate in almost all situations for the following reasons: 1) lightweight electric fencing systems are now well proven for all livestock and are less than half the cast of conventional fencing; and 2) land form fencing with frequent changes in direction can be affordable if light weight systems are used.
- Pruning and thinning are the key management tasks which follow from any successful broad acre revegetation program and can provide useful yields of firewood and fodder within 5 years. Failure to perform these tasks will generally reduce the long term values and yields from revegetation.
i. Trees are long term elements in the landscape with the following implications:
- successful establishment involves planning and action over several years.
- planted along badly located fencelines or other farm improvements, they can lock the farmer into maintaining that position for a generation or more.
ii. Changes in land use and management need to be considered. For example:
- a shift to cropping and wide cultivators may make scattered paddock trees a distinct disadvantage
- stubble burning and herbicides can have detrimental effects on trees
- diversification into goats can increase the relative attraction of tree fodder, require more elaborate fencing to protect trees and change noxious species such as gorse and blackberries into valuable fodder species.
iii. Vehicle movement and mustering can be restricted on otherwise accessible land by inappropriately located trees and fencing.
iv. Trees are tall and add a third dimension to an otherwise two dimensional landscape, having a huge impact on wind, frost, sun, fire, views and visibility. Good planning and design maximises the benefits and minimises the problems created by this third dimension.
v. Tree harvesting is an inevitable consequence of successful revegetation and involves large weights and volumes. Designs should take this into account and allow for the use of appropriate machinery.
The role of revegetation should not be confined to landscape stabilization. Perennial crops and pastures (included in wider definitions of revegetation) are now widely recognized as an essential aspect of sustainable pastoral farming while tree crops are providing opportunities for enterprise diversification. Development of low cost establishment techniques and the application of basic selection and breeding techniques will greatly improve the economic viability of new tree and shrub based enterprises while major advances with conventional crops will increasingly depend on centralized and specialized genetic engineering with all its environmental and social hazards. The progressive development of sustainable land use will be characterised by increasing use of perennial vegetation systems. This is a fundamental premise of the Permaculture concept proposed in the 1970's by the author and Bill Mollison.
Mollison, B, and D. Holmgren. 1978, Permaculture One. Corgi, Melbourne, Australia.
Oates, N. and B. Clarke. 1987. Trees for the Back Paddock. Goddard & Dobson, Australia.
Victorian Govt. 1987. SALT ACTION Draft Strategy. Victoria, Australia.
This article is excerpted with the kind permission of the author from:
Holmgren, D. 1994. Trees on the Treeless Plains: Revegetation manual for the volcanic landscapes of Central Victoria. Holmgren Design Services, Hepburn, Australia.
To order this or other publications by David Holmgren, contact Holmgren Design Services at the address given in About the Author, or visit .
About the Author
David Holmgren is a permaculture designer and consultant. He is perhaps best known as co-originator of the permaculture concept and for co-authorship of Permaculture One (1978) with Bill Mollison - a milestone in the application of environmental design to productive land use. Since 1978 he has authored numerous articles and several books, conducted workshops and courses, and consulted for urban and rural projects in Australia and New Zealand. Contact David at: Holmgren Design Services, Hepburn Permaculture Gardens, 16 Fourteenth St, Hepburn. 3461, Australia; Tel/Fax: +61 (0)353483636; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Web site: