‘Welcome to the Oatbelt’ with Matthew Evans | MADFIG, Merredin

Cover photo Matthew Evans and guests enjoying breakfast with MADFIG, Merredin

September 13, 2023 | Nyaki Nyaki Noongar Country

From Bridgetown the Matthew Evans tour headed to DPIRD’s Merredin Operations Centre, 5 km west of Merredin in the heart of WA’s Wheatbelt. The program was co-hosted by Merredin and Districts Farm Improvement Group (MADFIG) and the South-West WA Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub.

Following a warm welcome by Glenice Batchelor, Executive Officer of MADFIG, we enjoyed a tasty breakfast of Merre Granola with yoghurt and fruit, goat-cheese and vegetable quiche, Merre Muesli bars, croissants, danishes and local flour and local jam scones provided by Merre Local.

Our first presenter was pioneer businesswoman, Estelle Madaffari from Merre Local. Estelle and husband Paul, run a mixed-grain and sheep farm near Merredin. She has long held an interest in nutrition and growing and producing quality food. Surprisingly, Estelle shared that Merredin is the largest oat-growing region of WA and produces 7 billion bowls of oats annually making it the 4th largest oat-growing region in the world. However, she grew increasingly frustrated watching all this food get shipped to other parts of Australia or overseas, and not being able to buy any of the local grain in town. She decided to do something about it and got into the game to make granola for local consumers, a product she named Merre Granola.

Oats are considered a super-food and its fibre is a known pre-biotic for gut-health. Oats also contain high levels of beta-glucan that is clinically proven to fight diabetes and lower bad cholesterol to prevent atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. Estelle proudly shared that Merre Granola is free from preservatives or additives and is processed in Perth with nuts from South West WA and chia seeds from Kununurra, WA. The learning curve to develop a quality product and market was steep. In addition to local markets, Merre Granola is now sold in a café chain with 47 cafés across Queensland and WA.

The success of Merre Granola led Estelle to wonder what else they could do with a local flavour and hit upon Merre Local, a Merredin store that produces and sells local foods. She shared Merre Local quickly surpassed her expectations. One big surprise for Estelle was once Merre Local was open many local growers came ‘out of the woodwork’ to inform her they grew foods that she hadn’t known were grown locally, to see if they could sell their produce in the shop. Merre Local is a shining example of “build it and they will come.”

“Welcome to the Oatbelt”

Matthew Evans addressing the MADFIG breakfast at DPIRD, Merredin

At this point Matthew Evans was introduced and in reference to Estelle’s presentation, he opened with an enthusiastic “Welcome to the Oatbelt.” He shared he loved the concept of making local food available to locals. He mentioned how alarmed he was with what Estelle had shared minutes earlier that finding appropriate packaging for her granola proved more difficult than growing the food.

Matthew is a chef by trade and has lived in Tasmania for 15 years, where he and his wife, Sadie, own a 70-acre farm near Cygnet. He began by saying he read Dirt by Dave R. Montgomery where he’d learnt that sixteen civilisations were lost due to poor farming. For about 10,000 years the way we farmed was to clear trees and plant crops. If the land already grew grass, we brought in animals to graze. When the land became unproductive, we moved on and started over. Since humans began to farm this way, we’ve abandoned about 40% of all agricultural land.

To put the amount of precious land that is available for agriculture into perspective, Matthew did a visual demonstration of this using an apple and a penknife, cutting away parts of the apple to represent parts of planet Earth that can’t grow food. We are left with less than 1/32 of planet Earth’s surface to grow food. (If you want to see this demonstration, we recommend watching Matthew’s ‘Soil’ TEDx Talk on YouTube). Unfortunately, the small amount of arable land gets smaller every year.

On average we lose about 9 kg of topsoil for every meal we each consume. In Australia this corresponds to 2.9 billion tonnes of lost topsoil every year. Topsoil is lost and replaced all the time. We’ve gained topsoil over the past 500 million years, but we’ve lost topsoil at an alarming rate in the past 200 years. In arid parts of Australia, it can take 1,000 years to make 1 cm of topsoil, however, we lose topsoil on average about 30-40 times faster than we make it.

“To grow food we need, on average, 6 inches of topsoil, sunshine and occasional rain.”

As Matthew explained, 98% of the food we eat comes from food grown on land and to grow food we need topsoil. Plants co-evolved with soil, and he wrote his book “Soil” because he wants people to care about soil.

Soil without the organic matter and biology is just dirt.

Soil biology is beneficial to our health. On average 56% of cells inside us are not human. For instance, many of the bacteria found in our gut microbiome are found in soil. Soil is important for our immunity and ongoingly inoculates us. For instance, research has shown the best way for infants to acquire immunity for life is: 1) full-term, natural birth; 2) breastfeed for as long as possible, and 3) through exposure to soil in the first 3 months of life.

Some soil bacteria are also good for our mental health by producing so called ‘happy hormones.’ Mycobacterium vaccae was used to treat terminal lung cancer patients in a clinical trial. The bacteria made the patients feel happier by increasing levels of chemicals like serotonin and norepinephrine, and the treated patients lived longer too. M. vaccae lives in soil and we can get it by eating food with traces of soil e.g., unwashed spinach. Vaccae is airborne too and we can acquire it walking through a forest.

“Plants don’t eat rocks”

Soil biology is good for us, but what does it do for soil? Matthew shared humorously, “it turns out plants don’t eat rocks. The soil bacteria solubilise elements like iron or phosphorous from rock and feed it to plants.” Plant roots are like an “inverted” gut. With humans most of our microbes are in our gut, whereas with plants it’s the region that surrounds them. The rhizosphere, the region around plant roots, actually ‘farms’ bacteria, and has the highest concentration of microbial life. Plants roots can digest the bacteria in a process known as rhizophagy and use the microbes as a food source and absorb the solubilised chemical they carry with them that are vital to us.

Plants get oxygen, nitrogen, carbon from air and these are the source of macromolecules like carbohydrate, fats, and protein for us either from plants or animal meat. However, we also need other essential minerals or trace elements. We require tiny amounts of things like selenium, manganese and magnesium that are absolutely vital to us. We get these vital elements into plants by their interactions with the biology in living soil. What happens in soil, ultimately, happens to us.

To conclude Matthew invited questions from the audience.

How are we solving the global loss of arable land?

There are people all over doing great work in this space. Countries like Australia with old and fragile soils are leading the way to rebuild topsoil. Bruce Maynard, near Dubbo in NSW, and winner of the Bob Hawke Landcare award in 2022, is achieving great results directly sowing annual crops into existing perennial pastures. Niels Olsen, a beef farmer in Victoria, is producing extraordinary results using his novel approach to grow 1-2 cm of topsoil in one year by driving huge amounts of plant growth using what he calls the Soilkee (pronounced soil-key). Note, you can learn more about Niels and the Soilkee in Matthew’s book, Soil.

We know how to regenerate soils, however, the problem with “regen” is some farmers tend to get frightened off by the term. I like to think in terms of what is beneficial. What’s a good outcome? We know there are regions of Western Australia and Tasmania, that if we keep doing what we’re doing now we won’t be growing food there in 500 years. This is the trajectory. We know this. Is it beneficial? If you were managing this land is this the best outcome? So, it’s more about changing the farmer’s attitude. Rather than go backwards like we did with our parents or grandparents, what can we do, moving forwards, to manage landscapes better and grow food without using synthetic fertilisers and chemicals?

Landscapes have always had animals. They co-evolved together. Without animals, the landscape isn’t healthy. Animals can positively impact land in incredible ways. One example is with Microbats. We have small animals called Microbats that fly all over the landscape and do these little ‘poos’ everywhere, dropping nitrogen and spreading nutrients all over. If you have trees on both sides of your paddocks, microbats, or small marsupials, they’ll fly and spread tiny amounts of fertiliser all over your paddocks. It’s called the Peppershaker Effect. Having been digested by an animal these nutrients are super-available to plants. It’s things like this that might help us farm difficult areas into the future.

How can we measure healthy soil?

Carbon and colour are easy to measure. We want to avoid turning soil as we lose carbon, air spaces and water filtration every time leading to compaction. Healthy soil has numerous interactions with the living plant. Healthy soil contains worms, slaters, and other insects. It also has mycelium from fungi. Flavour reflects nutrient density and micronutrient availability. More flavour reflects better or improved soil biology.

Farm Systems Research – DPIRD

From here we headed out to look at some of the research being done on site by DPIRD and the Merredin Dryland Research Institute. Project Lead, Caroline Peek, explained they are undertaking research relevant to low rainfall production systems that face significant challenges. The Eastern Wheatbelt is one such region stretching from Mt Marshall in the north to Lake Grace in the south where rainfall averages <325 mm annually. The challenges farmers face in these regions include changing climate with more variable rainfall and higher temperatures; rising input costs; limited rotational diversity; soil constraints that impact soil water availability and concerns over social license, market demand and greenhouse gas emissions.

Looking at the soil profile at the Merredin Dryland Research Institute

The 10-year, large-scale trials began in 2020 to investigate the effectiveness of different farming systems on climate and system resilience. Their aim was to compare regenerative systems that incorporate a range of practices to build soil health e.g., maintain soil cover, maximise biodiversity and incorporate livestock, with conventional systems. Briefly, the trial systems are:

  • District practice – a control representing local best practice with incremental adaptation
  • Continuous cereal cropping – a monoculture benchmark; a control for minimal diversity
  • Ag tech – to evaluate early adoption of innovation to rapidly change the system to maximise profit and resilience for both crop and mixed-crop livestock rotations
  • Permanent pasture – self-regenerating annual and perennial systems to maximise soil carbon levels
  • Bio-stimulants – soil and plant growth using different bio-amendments
  • Summer active & perennial species – to assess viability of a range of perennial and summer-active crops and pastures in the Eastern Wheatbelt
  • Soil re-engineering – removing soil constraints; incorporating lime and mechanical soil improvement.

Caroline detailed several metrics will be evaluated ongoingly across the 10-year study. These include nutrient and water use efficiency; soil carbon and organic matter; microbial activity; soil quality, nutrients, and pH; yield and grain quality; weed and disease burden and nutrient density of produce. The research will also assess the effectiveness of the various systems with or without the use of livestock.

To learn more about this research, please contact Caroline Peek via email at: Caroline.Peek@dpird.wa.gov.au

Lunch

From here, we headed to the Cummins Theatre in the centre of Merredin. Glenice Batchelor welcomed everyone and began with a brief overview of MADFIG which was established in 2013 and incorporated in 2015. With a focus on broadacre research, MADFIG aims to share valuable and practical research with farmers and their communities. Glenice is also a Director of the Perth Natural Resource Management (NRM) Group that oversees Regen WA, one of the day’s co-hosting organisations.

Local elder Michael (Mick) Hayden from Nyaki Nyaki Aboriginal Cultural Tours was invited to perform a Welcome to Country. Mick shared he’d spent the previous afternoon with Matthew on a tour of the Merredin Reserve and educating him on local bush tucker food. Matthew spoke up and said that he loved the experience. “There we were looking at 5 plants within a 100-meters and while I was thinking ‘we’d starve to death out here,’ Mick was finding things to eat that tasted like caramel ice-cream or cherries. It was amazing.”

Glenice mentioned that lunch was catered by Cynthia and her team from Dimensions Café in town, and that Walker’s Hill in Lake Grace and Goldfields Brewery in Southern Cross had generously provided the beer and wine, respectively, for our meal. She then invited Matthew to share about his suggestions for the buffet meal that are found in his book, The Real Food Companion.

Matthew shared he loved home-cooked food. “It’s better than restaurant food as the food is generally fresher and used sooner. It’s not planned and prepared ahead of time like in restaurants and they don’t have all the food handling restrictions either. Think about roast potatoes. If you ever store roast potatoes overnight in the fridge they don’t taste as good the next day or the day after. That’s restaurant food. They don’t cook potatoes just for you when you want them, they’re cooked in bulk and stored. I was happy to suggest some home-cooked favourites for our meal.”

The first item was a simple cheese biscuit, a bit like shortbread with cheddar and parmesan cheese, that was perfected by Matthew’s Mum over the years. Next, was a ‘Taxi-Driver Curry.’ Matthew once asked his taxi-driver what he missed from his Pakistan home. Food was his answer and being a chef, they talked about cooking. His driver ended up sharing how to make this simple, elegant lamb curry. For dessert there was a sticky mandarin pudding with maple syrup that Matthew developed himself.

Following lunch, Meg Gethin, Regional Node Lead, from the South West Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub, one of our day’s co-hosts, spoke briefly about their role. Led by the Grower Group Alliance, the Hub is funded through the Future Drought Fund until June 2024. Their goal is to inform, educate and host events to help farmers and small businesses drought-proof themselves. The South-West Hub is unique as it’s the only non-university-led hub in Australia. Rather than an academic, top-down approach, they are led by what farmers’ want.

The Hub’s major project is Water Smart Dams that aim to increase water capture and dam efficiency. They showcase DR-SAT, drought resilience self-assessment tool, which is free and uses satellite imagery to track farm changes since 2017. They also provide online resources on topics like water infrastructure, de-stocking, and weather forecasting. A key focus is on mental health and how dry periods affect farmer mental health. All Hub events are listed on the MAD FIG website.

“If we eat what’s in season it’s better for us and we’re actually doing the world a favour too.”

Matthew Evans speaking at the MADFIG luncheon at the Cummins Theatre, Merredin

Matthew was then introduced for his second keynote presentation for the day. He began with we all have a common interest in eating food. His 70-acre farm in Tasmania produces about 20,000 meals per year. They grow around 70 species of vegetables with up to 10-12 varieties for some species e.g., tomatoes. They run a dairy, cattle meat, plus pigs, chickens, ducks, and bees.

Briefly, Matthew was born in Wales in the UK and moved to Australia with his family in the 1970s. His keen interest in food started at home growing up. Rather than learn good practical skills from his dad, like how to build a house, he chose to spend his time in the kitchen, learning how to cook from his mum. “I got interested in food because I wanted to cook, I liked cooking and I really liked eating.” His passion continued to grow as a chef, and further as a restaurant critic. Eventually he became a farmer. His burning questions was why did local food taste better than it did in fancy restaurants and why do some vegetables taste better than others? What he discovered is that food tastes better from someone who cares for what they grow. The better flavour was an expression of the ‘soul of the farmer’ and how they treat the soil.

Since European-style farming began, we’ve damaged over 40% of arable land to the point it is infertile. Matthew openly admitted that he damaged his first farm. After a few years of ‘throwing everything at it’, he killed the soil, and he moved on to his current farm and de-stocked. This time they set aside 40% of the farm for wildlife and the rest they devoted to farming and working with nature.

Matthew is on a mission to get people to care about soil and importantly, where their food comes from and that they can enjoy good food every day. Unlike the way he grew up, when good food was only ever eaten on birthdays and at Christmas, he learnt from Italian friends that we can eat well every day. It doesn’t have to be posh. It can be simple we just need to know how to prepare food. As he’d touched on earlier, “we can get better quality food from home growers because they can look after their own ‘patch’ better, more intensively, than farmers.” On his farm they have a no-dig policy and the soil organic matter has increased from 4 to 12% over the past few years. His carrots and other veggies taste better every year reflecting the improvement in his soil. “And our soil still wouldn’t be as good as a home gardener because you can take better care of your soil.”

Matthew shared his aim is to get people to really care about what they eat. He concluded with “what we eat has impacts way beyond here where we are. Looking after the soil and growing nutrient dense food is good for us and our family; it makes cooking easier. It’s good for our community because we employ local people. The way we grow food, how we choose food and cook food can be good on a larger scale. If food travels less far; if nature gifts us food easier and we eat what’s in season – it’s nature’s way of saying ‘hey, it doesn’t take me much effort to grow this’ – if we eat in season it’s better for us and we’re actually doing the world a favour too.”

To end his presentation, Matthew invited questions from the attendees.

Is there an easy way to make compost?

Compost can be as simple or as hard as we want it to be. Compost turners are great as one of the problems is getting air into the compost and they help with that aspect. Importantly, start with all your food and veggie scraps. However, they are high in nitrogen so you need to add some dead material like dry grass or straw to balance this out. Keep adding to it, keep it moist and turn often. If it’s too moist and tends to clump and stick together add more dry material. If it’s too dry add more fresh matter like green grass clippings. A compost pile essentially supercharges what natures does when organic matter falls to the ground.

I watched “The War on Waste.” They said food waste in landfill rubbish sites that’s compacted doesn’t compost because microbes can’t get to it. What do you think about this?

We get compost from all sorts of things like paper cups. For several years in Tasmania, we’ve had to use takeaway stuff like cups that are compostable. If we don’t compost them and they go to the rubbish tip, it creates methane. If something is compostable, we need to compost it.

Aren’t compostable cups only compostable in commercial compost piles?

Commercial composts are generally faster due to their higher temperatures. We compost things on our farm that are labelled compostable. Most do compost eventually, however, we’ve had some items that never compost. I do worry about some of these products.

What do we do with meat scraps?

You probably want to avoid putting meat in composts heaps as you will likely attract rats. You could put them in worm farms. A simple, low-tech worm farm – a pipe in the ground with some holes in it – will probably work. An inverted plant pot filled with veggie scraps will also work; worms will just come up from below to eat the scraps. You don’t have to start from scratch yourself. Community gardens often have compost piles and worm farms so tap into what is happening around you.

How can we rejuvenate or improve soil?

I’m not the gardener. My wife, Sadie, is the gardener, and she says three things to improve soil, in this order: compost, compost, compost. Add compost but don’t dig it in. Soil hates being turned. Maybe the first time you establish a garden bed you might dig in compost and other organic matter, and after that, don’t dig. We only top-dress with compost. All the life within the soil comes up to the surface and takes the goodness down below to the plant roots where it’s needed. Maintain a diversity of green living plants.

The 2023 Matthew Evans Regional WA Tour is funded by the Western Australian Government’s Agriculture Climate Resilience Fund, supported by the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development in a collaboration between Perth NRM, RegenWA, the Institute of Regenerative Leadership, Certified Organic Biodynamic WA, Gathered Organics, Loose Produce, Merredin & Districts Farm Improvement Group, Wheatbelt NRM, Northern Agricultural Catchments Council, Midwest Food Industries Alliance and Galloway Springs.