Farmer’s quest to find the right balance
19th October 2020
Jason and Caroline Willis
- Dirnaseer, NSW
- Mixed farm, cropping and sheep
- Biological system since 2004
Below is an excerpt of a story which first appeared in Vic No-Till’s member magazine From the Ground Up, Winter 2020. We had some incredible feedback on the story, as did Jason and Caroline. If you would like to read the article in full you can become a VicNoTill member to get a copy of the magazine which comes out three times a year. Membership gives you access to the latest in regenerative no-till farming systems in Australia, including our printed magazine packed with farmer case studies, the latest scientific research into soil biology and innovative farming systems plus a paddock roundup with VicNoTill farmers. Join the Vic NoTill farmer network HERE.
Building the right home for your biology
By Melissa Pouliot
Salt-of-the-earth conjures up imagines of cracked, lined hands, a large-brimmed hat pulled low, the same work clobber worn every day – only set aside for a rag when the holes grow too big and catch on the fence walking past. Conversation isn’t rushed and has a tendency to drift off in unexpected directions. Deep thinkers, who aren’t afraid of getting their hands dirty, who work hard and don’t have much time or tolerance for following the norm.
Western NSW fifth generation farmer Jason Willis, who farms with his wife Caroline at Dirnaseer, is as salt-of-the-earth as they come. “I’m a self-confessed workaholic,” were the first words of our interview. Followed closely by, “and I’m a good listener, because everyone has an interesting story.”
I couldn’t agree more. This is Jason’s story.
“Everything people eat comes from a farm; everything gets grown on a farm. I fervently believe it’s our responsibility as farmers to get this right.”
Jason Willis grew up on a family farm of 627 hectares (1550 acres) with two brothers. At school he did okay but excelled more when it came to physical pursuits. Skilled on the AFL field he had sporting opportunities, but his real dream was to be a farmer.
Knowing the family farm wasn’t big enough for him to stay, he understood from a young age that if he wanted to achieve his farming dream he would have to work for it. “I stopped playing AFL and focused fully on saving up to buy my own farm. I knew that to get what I wanted in life I would have to work my guts out.”
Jason managed a farm at Eurongilly, and old school friend Trevor Dawson was his agronomist. Jason describes Trevor as ‘way ahead of his time’, and he got Jason interested into biological farming by talking him into attending a course in Echuca in 1998 with Dr Arden Andersen from the US. Dr Anderson, a farmer and a doctor, has long made the connection between healthy and nutritious foods grown in rich soils and the health and vitality they offer.
“I had a total belief in my guts that conventional farming wasn’t where I wanted to be, I saw so many loopholes,” Jason says. “I’m not against chemicals, I’m not against organic farmers – but I didn’t want to be full on in either of them.
“I reckon the magic word to life is ‘balance’ and if you keep everything in balance, the best of both worlds can work together marvellously.”
After leaving the Eurongilly farm, Jason and his wife Caroline started a contract fencing business. In 2004 purchased a 220-hectare property (560 acres) at Dirnaseer which they named ‘Heaven’.
Dirnaseer is between Junee, Temora and Cootamundra in the NSW Riverina. Rainfall is anywhere between seven and 30 inches (177 to 762mm) and since moving to ‘Heaven’ the average has been closer to 16 (407mm). Jason and Caroline moved during a serious stretch of drought and in their first four years they averaged just four bags to the acre.
Having smaller acreage has made them even more determined to make it work.
“I reckon smaller farmers who’ve started from nothing and have had to buy their land and every single bit of machinery see farming from a different perspective. I reckon we’re more desperate to make things work because we don’t have the resources behind us. We have to get the most out of every little bit we’ve got.”
Although Jason says he has been ‘desperate’ to make things work for more than two decades, for much of that time he describes their biological farming system as an ‘outright fail’. The balance just wasn’t there.
“Around me I was seeing conventional farming getting way, way out of balance with increased rates of ‘cides and nitrogen while organic farmers were struggling to produce with reports coming out that a lot of organic food was fairly low in nutritional composition. I was striving to find middle ground and forever searching for answers.”
About six years in, with Jason still contract fencing to support the farm, he went to a meeting at Eurongilly showcasing a new biostimulant. He starting using it, and it worked in some paddocks but not in others. One of his farming mentors Tom Brabin at Eurongilly encouraged Jason to become a distribution agent.
“The way Tom presented it to me was that it could help uncover the secrets as to why it worked in some paddocks and not in the others. That was my real motivation for becoming an agent – trying to work out what made it tick.”
Jason’s soils are red chromosol with iron buckshot, and he describes his biological activity in March 2016 as ‘awesome’.
“I put my shovel in the ground to see how much moisture I had. The shovel slipped in my hand and twisted and the soil ran off like an avalanche. There was literally two inches of worm castings on top of the ground.
“I levitated. My neighbour said it just looked like potting mix. I thought ‘finally, an awesome result’.”
But then came a wet winter and his euphoria plummeted. The year sticks strongly in Jason’s mind as his worst year ‘by a country mile’.
“It was as wet as a shag and I spent a fortune trying to grow a crop. The euphoria of seeing those worm castings followed by what happened in winter was ugly. And the worse part was not understanding how or why.”
Being in slope country, to Jason’s way of thinking his crops shouldn’t have gotten flooded and died the way they did in large areas of several paddocks.
“It was so wet in the faba beans that I had pan-size fish swimming in the deep spray tracks from applying cropsure and a fungicide in desperation.
“The clay was saturated, anaerobic – with roots literally growing above the ground. When it dried out the beans were a total failure and I didn’t bother harvesting them. What a disastrous turnaround in one season.”
Jason says he had been diligently implementing the principles of world-renowned people such as Christine Jones, who he highly respects, who taught him that through stimulating biology his plant roots could access the required nutrients symbiotically.
“I’d been trying to get results but for our soils this just wasn’t the total answer.”
After 2016, Jason wrestled with several pressing questions:
- Why did the nodules on his legumes die after six weeks?
- Why did his crops look lethargic?
- How can soil have two inches of worm castings then not grow a crop?
“Nobody had the answers and I figuratively saw dust fly off their heels running away from me. I figured if this is the way I want to farm, it is up to me to work out how. My intuition was telling me there had to be a reason, I just needed to find it.”
Searching for answers he jumped at the chance to do a soils microbiology masterclass at Western Sydney University.
“There were a lot of very influential speakers there but as I sat through it I was feeling dejected as I wasn’t learning anything new to answer my questions,” Jason says. “Then they put a slide up. I quite often refer to lightbulb moments, and I had a lightbulb moment right then and there.”
Jason says he and Caroline already knew the secret to life for them was ‘balance’ – balance between work and family.
“But then I realised, holy shit, I’d been focusing 100% of my energy on biology for the past 10 years and achieved poor results and the whole time it was because my approach to soil life was way out of balance.
“I had put no emphasis on nutrition or any of the other things that are needed to get my soils and farming system into balance. It was a real firecracker moment.”
It wasn’t until he met Peter Norwood at the 16th annual VicNoTill conference in Echuca in 2018 that a few more things started to fall into place on his quest for answers.
“I was actually pretty frustrated throughout the first conference day as I’d sat through all these great speakers but I still wasn’t getting the depth of information I was after. I was still searching for that person to make a difference for me.
“When nutritionist Peter Norwood spoke, although most of what he was saying was way over my head, I made gobs of notes and thought ‘wow, this guy is onto something here’.”
The following day at the conference Q&A panel discussion, Peter confidently answered all questions put to him which really impressed Jason, and he made a point of getting his card so he could arrange a meeting.
“I set up a meeting at my place and invited a mate who is a top farmer and was using the same biological stimulants as I was. He has completely different soil types to me and the stimulants were working well for him, but I just couldn’t understand why they were working for him and not for me.”
Jason had long ago given up on soil tests, having never come across anyone who could provide him the right direction from test results, but at that first meeting Peter kept asking to see them.
“I wanted him to come out and walk around my paddocks but he kept wanting to see the tests. I didn’t think there were any answers in them but when he saw them he started rattling things off that were happening in my soils and I was stunned. How did he work all that out from a soil test?”
Knowledge and understanding
Caroline was also there and asked Peter if he could look at hair sample tests she’d had done years prior due to health problems she’d been having.
“Caroline, who is a lot smarter than me, asked him what these tests told him and he began to rattle off some of the ailments she’d had, just from looking at the tests. He diagnosed her results in 10 minutes on a hair test what had taken some of Australia’s top specialists two years to diagnose. Caroline said, ‘we’re using him’.
“We were just so impressed with his knowledge and understanding of nutrition plus the fact that his heart is in the right place, something which is very important to us.”
Since then Jason has been immersing himself in nutrition, going through an emotional roller coaster of being overjoyed to ‘pissed off’ as to why information has not been readily available for decades to every single farmer.
“Am I the only one who doesn’t know this? I can’t believe that it is not mainstream teaching or it’s not common knowledge.”
Whenever Jason has a question or problem to discuss with Peter, the answers are generally found in research papers from decades ago about plant, human and soil health. One example is a recording of a lecture with US agronomist Neil Kinsey where he quotes Dr Joe Walters MD from Southern California .
“During the 1960s and 70s Dr Walters didn’t supply one single drug for 17 years to cure any disease. In this time period he treated 1500 patients from all around the world who had come to him so he could help them stay well, and he did it all through nutrition.
“There are so many people who’ve known all this time that if we can get our soil nutrition right our plants get the right nutrition and our animals get the right nutrition from these plants, then people eat plants and animals with the correct nutrition and we wouldn’t see the same level of diseases in plants, animals or humans we currently see. The frustrating part is why is this not more common knowledge?”
Finding someone who could read his soil tests like a road map has been critical to get where he is today.
“I use the analogy of road map because if you want to get somewhere you’ve never been before, you open a road map. I fervently believe now that Peter’s ability to read soil tests is my road map to farming success.”
Last harvest things finally started turning in the right direction, and he’s excited about what this year might bring.
“I’d gotten to the point in the three to five years prior that I could not grow a legume. They’d nodulate to start with then they’d die off. I was blaming the application of my treatments – I was using liquid fertilisers with zinc in them, and tank mixing freeze dried inoculant. That didn’t work, then a year later I applied peat rhizobium straight onto the seed, but that still wouldn’t work.”
He can see in hindsight that his soils were so out of whack they couldn’t sustain biological life.
Jason says results of a paddock trial show that lime applications are what made the difference.
He now realises that for his soil, calcium levels should ideally be 68% and that there is a dramatic impact on soil biota when calcium levels drop below 60%. At the start of 2019 his soil pH levels were at 5.2 and calcium levels were 29.9%.
“I hadn’t used lime for years because I’d been told my pH was okay. I’d never had anyone tell me to put lime on because my base levels of calcium were low – they’d only tell me to put lime on if my pH was low.”
What he discovered was that the calcium helped flocculate the soil, feed the biota and tie up excess iron and aluminum. The rejuvenated biology went to work and released the tied-up phosphorous from the iron and aluminium.
This allowed an increase of phosphorus from 168kg/ha to 406kg/ha. It also released another 1200kg/ha of calcium over and above what was applied.
“The soil is the plant’s stomach and the biology eat from the table first,” he says. “Increasing calcium from 38% to 61.4% and stimulating the biology raised the barley yield from 1.92 tonnes/ha to 2.76. This is 840kg/ha extra or 69% higher yield of better-quality grain on 108mm GSR (220mm for the year).”
- To read the full article, which includes results of Jason’s 2019 barley paddock trial, join VicNoTill.