Gradual Adaptation

Grahams-Aquaponics-webTipping Point is a project from The Cad Factory – serialised in the Narrandera Argus – that explores the different beliefs, practices and ideas that exist within a community. Celebrating these differences, learning from them and having a conversation that is removed from dramatic emotion and instead is focused on conversation as a form of sharing and learning.

Graham Strong is a local farmer who is our neighbour and therefore he and his family have often been involved in our adventure moving to this area. We have been fortunate enough to have neighbours who have been supportive of our seemingly unusual desire to move from the inner city of Sydney to create arts projects in this huge landscape. In interviewing Graham as a part of Tipping Point, we discussed how people adapt to changing environmental conditions. We also talk about how his farming practices have changed over the years, the motivation for these changes and what has come as a result of these.

Graham says, “The thing that I place value on in business, is building security, and low risk exposure. Not a very adventurous farming philosophy I know, but it means I can worry less about what the weather is or isn’t going to throw at me and concern myself more with directing my energies in a positive way.

“I am trying to avoid spending too much time talking about water and environmental conditions. Farming conversations always seem to be around water. My trajectory had been about wanting to avoid the conversation about too much or too little rain which is why I farm the way I do.

“We reduced our cropping program by around 80% half way through the last drought and replaced the cropping focus with an emphasis on wool/lamb, naturalized/native perennial pastures, and slashing input costs in the process. It’s been a gradual adaptation over probably twenty years to turn it into something that is in step with the reality of the meteorology. I inherited my country off someone who inherited country off someone who inherited country off someone who bought country from someone who stole country. Given this, I’ve always felt indebted to the past.

“The last thing I need is the burden of a current debt to a bank, when the past is so loaded with responsibility and darkness. So I’ve done everything to avoid that situation I have never wanted to take huge risks to get bigger, to farm more country, so I haven’t taken that path and have decided to stick with what I’ve got and to use that position and that time to adapt to climate change.

“Making the decision about whether you go with a high risk/high return business approach or a low risk/low return is up to you. I have chosen to have a low risk, low cost business model which to me means security.”

Experimentation and questioning the status quo is a recurring theme in conversation with Graham, and not just when the topic is farming. One example of this is Graham’s backyard aquaponics set up.

Aquaponics combines aquaculture and hydroponics to grow fish and plants, feeding the fish earthworms and bugs grown in compost bins.

“I think my experiments have been a little bit of a disappointment,” he said. “It works, kind of, but it’s pretty much like having an ecology in a test tube and it’s a pretty difficult experiment to maintain to an optimum level that might exist in the real world. For example I’ve noticed that the fish in the dam grow at ten times the rate as the fish in the aquaponics set up”.

In allowing himself to experiment with an aquaponics system, Graham has had the opportunity to make other deeper observations. “Maybe it’s reinforced to me that sometimes what we try and control isn’t going to be as powerful as what we can’t control or what we can more subtly set the controls for.

One of the other reflections that I’ve had is about the silver perch that I’ve got in the aquaponics system.

“I started thinking, what if I put in carp? They eat lots of rubbish, they’re really hardy, they could eat the slime off the inside of the tank, they’re probably going to have a better metabolism. They might grow alright and they might be quite edible in an aquaponic system. Certain cultures eat them and I think there’s no reason why you couldn’t eat carp. Perhaps it’s a cultural cringe thing but I think that’s the experiment we have to have.”

This idea to rethink a species, one that is considered undesirable or a pest, isn’t a new idea. Global examples include the slimehead fish being rebranded as orange roughy by the seafood industry in the 70s and the Patagonian toothfish which was rebranded as the Chilean sea bass. What happened as a result was that these fish, previously thought of as undesirable and inedible, became so popular that they were nearly fished out of existence.

Overfishing threatened the species numbers and the associated imbalances that occur as a result of damaging part of the food chain had numerous environmental consequences.

ABC Radio Gippsland recently interviewed local businessman Keith Ball. Keith discussed the perception that you can’t eat carp and that, “they are unpleasant and taste like mud”. Keith highlights that this is a problem of preparation and outlines methods of how to cook carp in a much more palatable way.

Maybe Graham’s suggestion isn’t just a solution to an aquaponics concern but could help alleviate the problems in our waterways. By exploring new ideas and new thinking, Graham is one of the unique and interesting stories in this region, a region that is full of unique and interesting stories.

Next week we will present another aspect, another viewpoint of life in our river system.

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