Tim Marshall reports on the first certified organic golf course in Australia. Kabi Golf Farm was registered with the BFA as in conversion for three years, and progressed to organic this year.
Kabi Golf Farm is the first certified organic golf course in Australia. Kabi is called a golf farm because it integrates a mixed fruit orchard into the fairways, and because it brings the whole-farm approach to a golf course in a new and unique way. It is located near Boreen Point, just north of Noosa Heads, and is owned by Kwareena P/L, which operates an organically maintained timber plantation nearby.
The farm is managed by Rena Merchant, with assistance from Barry Chandler and the greenkeeper and farm manager, Troy MacLaren.
The obvious question is why an organic golf course. At one level the answer is also simply, why not? Acres has now reported on organic lawns, organic racehorses, aquaculture, and almost every other imaginable primary industry enterprise.
Rena is obviously passionate about the farm, both the golfing and orcharding aspects. She has a great awareness too, of the environmental issues involved in turf management on the scale of a commercial golf course. Indeed in the past, golf courses, and, to be fair, other playing fields, have been heavy users of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Rena told Acres "generally people are not aware of the environmental cost of their recreational activities. They demand perfection from a green, but do not know the cost of providing it. Yet many people go home from their game with a migraine, and they use barrier creams for rashes. They may be reacting to grasses, but they also may be reacting to the chemicals."
It is also true that in the last decade there has been an increased awareness of the need for environmentally responsible turf management and there are now many research and training programs providing information on integrated pest management, chemical reduction, alternating herbicides to reduce resistance and correct chemical application techniques. Still, some of this may be rather late in coming, and even the intergrated pest management (IPM) program falls short of the truly integrated system that well managed organic husbandry provides. It is still very easy for greenkeepers to fall back on bad habits and to reach too quickly for the chemicals. There is also a disincentive to close the course for a suitable withholding or re-entry period, or to tell the players that the course has recently been sprayed. The greenkeeper is perhaps reacting to this perceived requirement for perfection, whether it comes from themselves, management, or the players. To make matters worse, golf courses and playing fields are often located alongside waterways. They may be found on land subject to flooding, or for other reasons considered less desirable for productive agriculture or housing. Or it may be that the developers perceived the river or stream to add scenic interest to the course. The proximity to water inevitably heightens management issues such as fertiliser use, pesticide use and waste management.
As an early pioneer of organic growing in this industry, Rena has attracted her share of derision too. She says "so many people said it can't be done, that I just had to do it."
She continues "it (the project) provides a good opportunity to talk to people about what organic golfing is, and to explain the ways we have found to get around the problems."
A browse over the visitor's book provides ample evidence of people's delight with the experience, as a golfing challenge, as a learning experience, as a pleasant visual and recreational experience, but also because of the very relaxed mood of the farm.
Rena says "really I just wanted to grow fruit, to play some golf, and to have some fun. The farm turned into a serious business over time." The experience of golfing at Kabi is clearly fun for the golfers too. Many comments in the visitor's book mention how challenging the professionally designed course is and others refer to the relaxed atmosphere.
Rena is also clearly pleased to have found a very aware and skilful greenkeeper in Troy MacLaren. Troy says "it is a challenging golf course. The golfers appreciate the concept of a clean, chemical free course, and it has a relaxed, no stress feel about it."
Design of the golf course
The name Kabi is derived from the Indigenous Australian tribe that was resident in the area, known as the Gubbi, or Gubbi-Gubbi tribe.
Kabi Golf Farm was previously dairy pasture, and then an agistment property, so the designers had few structures or impediments to the design. The clubhouse is a relocated Queenslander, steeped in local History. The upstairs balcony provides a pleasant outlook over the course and conservation areas. Native vegetation plantations surround the golf course on all sides, and a mixture of native trees and orchards divides the fairways. The trees play a role, as hazard areas. There is also natural rough, which provides habitat for many species. Players can claim a free drop if their ball lands in the orchard areas.
It is a very pleasant environment, with gently undulating slopes, native trees, mulched orchards and low growing flowers and herbs planted between the orchard trees, to provide colour and insect diversity.
The property is visited by over 30 bird species and many ducks, ibis and kangaroos lazily loped away as we drove over the course in the cart.
The toilets are Clivius Multrum compost toilets.
Green management at Kabi
The main grass in the fairways is Paspalum and Cooch. According to Troy it has a lower water requirement and tolerates low mowing. Low mowing it the single most important strategy for weed control. While some weeds tolerate low mowing, in this regime the grass just has to be better at tolerating frequent cutting. This tips the competitive edge in favour of the grass. Persistent broadleaf weeds are then managed by hand weeding as often as possible. Troy does admit to being surprised at how well the Bermuda Grass handles the broadleaf weeds, but his conscientious weeding and weed seed exclusion also plays a big role.
The other major environmental factor that assists with weed control is the substrate under the tees. The area has a very firm clay soil and tees were constructed using excavated material from the dam. This does not provide a good seedbed for many weeds, and as long as there is grass cover, they get little opportunity to establish.
Troy has also experimented with some natural products as herbicides. For instance he has used polenta as a pre-emergent. I had not seen polenta used in this way in Australia before, but cornstarch meal is used in the USA. The polenta came from certified product, supplied by Kialla Farms.
Troy told Acres "the usual cultural controls for turf management, including scarifying, are even more important here, and we have to keep right on top of them, because they are all we have got. If things get really bad with weeds, we do have to put in time hand weeding, so better to control them with sound green management practices."
Nutrition is provided by BFA certified products. Troy intends to use more Vermicast product in the future and eventually have "our own worm farm to break down all the collected weeds and grass clippings."
Cigarette butts are an important consideration on the course. The solution is to provide smokers with a small empty film canister, to collect the butts and return them to the rubbish bins in the bar area.
There are some fungal problems, which occur naturally as conditions dictate, mainly Spring Deadspot in areas with low nitrogen, and some Helmothsperum when it rains, or Dollarspot in foggy mornings in winter. Troy believes that these will not get out of hand and will reduce as he builds more balance into the system. In any case, damage is not enough to spray, which would undoubtedly counteract the benefits of the organic system. He feels that he is gradually creating a better humus situation, with the current soil management regime. He intends to heavily renovate some areas in March 2003, and oversow with Poa. Troy says he will tolerate Poa and other grasses that are generally considered a weed in golf courses. He says especially annual grasses only present in Winter, do not really pose a threat, as the tall seedheads are easily removed by mowing. He says many courses have an expensive annual herbicide program to kill off wintergrass that would die out in Summer anyway.
Due to the organic materials used in the soil profile, there are some insect pests in the greens but the Sacred Ibis and Magpies feast on the chemical-free Mole Crickets and Grubs, taking on the roll of resident pest controllers!
Orchards receive the same fertility amendments as the greens. The trees are young and there have been few problems. Aphids are treated with natural oils. Commercial supply of fruit is expected to commence in the next 12 months.