River Cottage Australia

Sustainable Farming with Michael Hulse

Michael Hulse and his wife Wendy are market gardeners on 40 hectares of land, along the Deua River, west of Moruya. Here he shares his knowledge about sustainable farming.

As well as growing six varieties of potatoes, legumes and pumpkins, leeks and lots of garlic, Michael has been experimenting with different varieties of passionfruit for the past two years. He grows his produce for 10 months of the year and takes it to the Capital Region Farmers Market in Canberra. He also sells his produce at 2 markets in Moruya. His label is called ‘Deua River Farm Produce.’

Michael is a forward thinking bloke who wants to take farming back to its roots and use more sustainable farming methods to harvest fresher, tastier and more nutritious produce. This is because as Michael says mass produced food is getting ‘dangerous’ as it is being sold to the community with fewer nutrients.

In particular, Michael’s focus is to use more ecological farming methods. Dating back to the 1940’s, before soluble fertilisers were being used. Michael’s forward thinking approaches include using a mixture of organic ‘no-till’ farming, rolling methods, as well as the use of organic fertilisers to develop and harvest his crops.

What is 'No Till' Farming?

‘No Till’ farming is a way of growing crops each year without disturbing the soil through tillage or plowing for planting and weed cultivation.

Typically right throughout farming history, farmers plowed their soil to plant seasonal crops. Then the introduction of tractors in the 20th century meant it was even easier for farmers to churn their pastures. However, plowing and tillage have become not only major sources of soil erosion, but also the churning up of soil can also release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Hence, no till farming reduces and even in many cases eliminates altogether the advent of soil erosion.

No-Till farming also has many other eco-friendly benefits. For instance, it increases the amount of water that penetrates the soil, increases organic matter retention, as well as increasing the variety of life in the soil. This variety of life includes both disease-causing organisms and disease suppression organisms. It is also believed that the most beneficial element to this form of sustainable farming is that it makes the soil more resilient and fertile, as well allowing for more time in sowing. 
Hence, Michael is all about using no-till farming in order to put organic matter back into the soil so that natural microbial activity will play out naturally and break down into humus.

One of the issues however, with no-till farming is that it is believed to lead to a heavier use of chemical herbicides to then kill weeds.

A common method used to get around the use of synthetic herbicides (also employed by Michael himself) is through the use of a ‘roller’ or ‘cover top roller’, which is effectively a roller mounted onto the front of a tractor. In essence through a crimping action, the ‘roller’ knocks down a weed-suppressing mat through rolling the cover crop plants in one direction, crushing and then crimping their stems.

In Michael’s case this then leaves a layer of straw or mulch on the ground, preventing weeds from growing. He then has machinery that plants into the mulch and allows the microbes to feed of that. As Michael says, this then allows for the microbes to do their thing and he doesn’t have to turn the soil over for four years. The microbes are much happier when you don’t have to invert the soil.

Michael and his 'small acre' farming methods

The whole premise behind Michael’s use of no-till farming, as well as the use of organic fertilisers is to create and increase microbial activity in the soil. Michael believes that this activity produces the healthiest pastures. Hence, Michael’s main prerogative is to experiment with older and more eco-friendly farming methods dating back to the 1940’s before the agricultural industries bought out soluble fertilisers.

Many in the farming community believe that soluble fertilisers diminish the role of nitrogen-fixing bacteria and increase the elements that feed off the nitrogen- which then in turns speeds up the decomposition process of organic material and humus.

The soil structure then also changes due to the lack of this ‘organic material’ and becomes less sufficient in storing water and air. As a consequence, this then drains away important nutrients and soil microbiology also slows down. As Michael says, it also doesn’t work out in a sustainable sense either as many of the soluble ingredients such as phosphate is imported from overseas.

Michael no longer uses soluble fertilisers and instead employs a few different fertilsing methods on his property. These include a seaweed farm, worm farm as well as a tea brewing station. Michael uses his worm fertiliser every four days before the full moon. His Tiger and Red-Wriggler worms are kept in 16 bathtubs where they churn through lumps of rotting hay. Michael then uses the worm wee and castings as the fertiliser. Michael also uses chook manure pellets as sources of nitrogen and phosphate on his crops.

Michael's 3 eco-friendly fertilisers

1. Seaweed Farm
2. Worm Farm
3. Chook Manure Pellets 

The small acre farming that Michael is pursing is tiny but intensive. Michael does most of his harvesting by hand and only uses machines for harvesting his potatoes. Michael’s main purpose for pursing this type of farming, aside from promoting more environmentally conscious farming methods, is also so he can sell directly to the customer and cut out the middleman- small farmers are able to make a more fruitful living.

Ultimately, Michael wants to develop these methods long term so small farmers can be more profitable, whilst focusing on sustainable growth. Through promoting these methods Michael also hopes that other farmers in the community will be able to build up their soil in a more eco-friendly manner right from the get-go.


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