Malcolm was born in the district and has farmed there all his life. He says “I’ve farmed for 35 years since I left school, but I was farming long before that too.”
The Murray Mallee soils are not easy to farm, organic or not, and Malcolm readily describes his country as fragile and marginal. He describes most of the 3,700 acres is “like station country”. About 1,000 acres of arable land forms an island if “crop able land” surrounded by lime stone plain. They have quite large area of native nallee and bush, ensuring several kilometers of protection from conventional farmers.
The 400 acre home block is close to the River Murray and mostly arable. On this land the Loechels’ crop cereals (mainly wheat), a small area of irrigated pasture including legumes, onions, melons and pumpkins. Around 70 to 100 cattle and a mob of 200 merino sheep complete the farming enterprise. He says “we thought this was barley country, but wheat is our proven earner, The yields may not be high but we get good protein and so far there is a demand.”
Malcolm says that he became organic after battling Lucerne aphids in the 1970’s. At that time Lucerne was a major income earner, but Malcolm was not comfortable using chemicals, which included Metasystox for flea and 2-4-D on the dry land. He describes them as “smelly, horrible things to use, even without considering the health problems they cause”.
He says that everyone told him organics could not be done in this country, but he was determined to try. After a few poor results, he decided to irrigate a few acres of wheat as an experiment. He said the evidence was plain that it could work if there was water. Once he had proven this, he was convinced to keep trying. He says “so much of what we are doing is just waiting on the season. This country has proven it can produce organic crops if the rain comes. Even 5 inches of rain will grow a crop, if it comes at the right time. Last year was one of our best season yet, with the rain following up right until harvest.”
Malcolm’s main problem in the wheat crop is saffron thistle, because the black seed is about the same size as a wheat grain. He says “if the saffron is a immature the harvester blows out the seed, which has an inverted parachute-like tail on it. Once it matures nothing can be done to separate it.”
Weed control on the Loechel property is achieved with grazing, a blade plought and a rather heavy prickle chain. The chain is considerably heavier than that used by some other farmers, but Malcolm obviously has great confidence in it. He says “it doesn’t take big horsepower to pull, doesn’t snag on rocks or stumps, breaks up manure and trash and leaves it on the surface. On our light sandy soil, the blade plough and prickle chain are ideal tools and conserve organic matter on the soil surface, to protect the soil.”
“We only crop about 80 hectasres per year, yielding up to I tonne per hectare, which we market to Four Leaf at Tarlee. They have a good business and we are happy with our relationship with them. We have only had one crop rejected, because of the saffron seed. This crop was later sold to a market in NSW.”
“Rotation is very important and we grow cover crops of oats, rye corn and vetch. Weeds are a continuous threat but if you understand their seasonal cycle and plan careful grazing and tillage, they are manageable.”
Malcolm also has a slightly different approach to compost application. He likes to grow a green manure crop after compost application, to incorporate it into soil, before cropping.
The cattle have few problems. Although the Murray Mallee is not generally regarded as good cattle country. Malcolm says “lice can be a problem in winter, but the added nutrients from hay and oats helps a lot”. He says “we sell most of our meat as organic now, but it is disappointing that there is no market for organic wool”
He emphasizes the need more research and trials of suitable crops to improve soil. He says “harbinger clover and rye corn reclaimed the poorer areas from erosion. While plants depend on mineral and atmosphere they are also a catalyst between the earth and the heavens, enriching both our soil and the air we breathe. It is far more fragile than most want to believe. Farming is about making decisions out there in the elements, not from the ivory towers of bureaucracy.”