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Tree farmer yearns to change the world

Submitted by on July 30, 2011 – 8:48 pmNo Comment

Mr. David Kennett is a revolutionary farmer, against all odds. Chau Vu writes about the man who plants trees in midsummer WA heat.

Mr. Kennet sharing knowledge from his successful AURIA project. Photo by Chau Vu

When winter, the traditional season for tree planting in Western Australia, draws to an end David Kennett buys leftover trees from nurseries and plants them throughout the summer heat.

Not wanting to pour money down the drain or attract attention, Mr Kennett has quietly experimented with his unconventional tree-raising techniques for a decade – and now plants successfully in midsummer with no subsequent watering.

“I even planted trees on January 1st this year when it was 46°C,” he said. “I had heat stroke at that time but I got 100 per cent survival of my trees.”

Thanks to his remarkable forestry research, this year David Kennett was a finalist in the prestigious United Nations Association of Australia’s World Environmental Day Awards. Now he hopes to take the knowledge he’s developed in Western Australia and transfer it to desert regions across the globe.

No seasonal limit

Having taken early retirement from his engineering career in 2001, Mr. Kennett’s journey started when he bought a piece of highly-degraded land in Western Australia. His goal: to find out how to make farm forestry viable in low-rainfall, eroded and saline areas.

The land he bought was unattractive to local farmers: full of weeds, badly salt-affected and with soil compacted by grazing stock. Nobody could have imagined that less than 10 years later, Mr. Kennett’s property would be full of greenery.

More surprisingly, through his AURIA forestry project, its owner has come up with new techniques which enable farmers to plant trees all year round without any pesticides, fertilisers or irrigation – even during summer in dry climates, with hot winds and low humidity.

David Kennett said he’s achieved exceptional survival rates and some of the tree species planted in 2007 have increased their biomass 10 times more quickly than those trees he planted traditionally in 2004.

Mixing old and new ideas

One of his approaches is to immerse the trees in water prior to planting and then “plant the trees far deeper into the soil than the traditional way,” he said.

He explained that watering the trees with a hose or watering can prior to planting does not fully saturate the root-ball.  Seedlings first need to be soaked in water so that their root balls get moist enough to sustain them until their roots can reach down to moisture below the ground. Very deep planting then also helps the new trees retain water by preventing it from evaporating.

“My latest method is water injection which will be applied when conditions are most challenging [very hot],” he said. Together with careful ground preparation, direct water injections under the trees helps retain ground moisture for a long time, and eliminates the need for more watering after the trees are planted.

Mr. Kennett has proof in a picture of the casuarina obesas he planted in late October 2010, when Western Australia experienced its driest winter, followed by its hottest and driest summer on record. The trees have grown up to his waist and appear to be flourishing.

Mr. Adrian Price, Natural Resource Management Officer of Shire of Dowerin observed Mr. Kennett planting trees in 40°C degree plus heat in Mid-December last year, and said the results were far beyond his expectations.

“Mr. Kennett achieves a higher survival rate than most other tree planting projects I have seen in Western Australia,” said Mr. Price, noting that some of the trees planted were not even in prime condition as they were nursery leftovers.

Preparing the soil

According to Mr. Price, Mr. Kennett’s success is not only a result of his experimentation, but also due to his sensitivity to the tree’s soil and nutrient needs.

Mr. Kennett indicated that he always gave considerable attention to site preparation before planting, such as deep-ripping to address soil compaction and help deep root system development.

“I use weeds by slashing them and turning them into the ground as mulch, thereby adding natural nutrients to the soil and minimise soil erosion,” he said.

He also companion plants, using plants species which can harvest water from deep below the surface and bring it up close to the surface, literally irrigating the surrounding ground.

Recognition and aspiration

Several very dry years have elapsed since Mr. Kennett purchased his land in Dowerin Shire, and the landscape has been transformed amazingly. The sloping, degraded farmland which ran down to severely saline flats has become a sea of vegetation with the natural fauna returning.

“First the microfauna would have appeared,” said Ms. Beth Boase, a local tree nursery owner who is also an environmental conservationist. “Then the insects such as ants, followed by various spiders and now the birds.”

She said that while most farmers planted around July and August, after they had sown their crops, Mr. Kennett’s year round planting trees was very encouraging.

“He appears to be pushing the boundaries traditionally acceptable for some species, but the quick growth rate is testimony to his determination to try new methods,” she said.

Mr. Rex Adams, the Deputy CEO of Dowerin Shire Council is also enthusiastic about the AURIA project. He said the council was impressed by Mr. Kennett’s efforts to rehabilitate the badly salt-affected land and council members often took people to talk with Mr. Kennett about the project and to see his trees.

Recently, Mr. Kennett has been busy preparing his submission for the Banksia Awards, which recognise outstanding environmental or sustainability achievements. While he was also proud to be recognised as a finalist in the WED awards, he has a pragmatic motivation for nominating AURIA in further competitions.

“I dearly wanted to be a winner this year in order to attract some sponsorship for my project,” he said, explaining that he now needed financial support from the government or an organisation to expand his research, especially to further develop the water injection method.

“So many countries have problems with desertification, such as China, Africa, South America” said Mr. Kennett.

He said he really hoped that his low tech, low cost solution one day could be applied by people from different parts of the world where food shortage, famine or deforestation still rage.

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