Even before you drive in the front gate, it is a striking property.
The imposing, majestic gums that remind the visitor that European farming methods have been practiced on this land for only a short period of time greet you as you make the turn and drive towards the Dean family home.
Marshall Dean and his wife Nicole have been farming here since 2012 and expanded the project by buying a neighbouring farm in 2018
The now 500–acre property, bordered by roadways and the main Gippsland rail line features some undulation, a noticeable ridge of higher ground and Flynns Creek which runs through the property from south to north and towards the Latrobe River.
It is the creek that has been the focus of a number of projects over recent years to return it to something like its former glory.
“Flynns Creek has a reasonable history of landholders doing the right thing over recent years,” said project officer with the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority Dan Cook.
“If we get one farmer fencing off a waterway and planting native trees to stabilise the bank that’s always great,” adds Dan.
“But at Flynns you have a great example of a ‘catchment approach’ where a group of farmers, along a long length of river have independently worked to rehabilitate their riverbank and as a consequence bring about a much bigger impact on downstream water quality.”
While driving around the Dean property, it is easy to see the work that has been done.
New lines of fence both create smaller, easier to manage paddocks for stock but also excludes them from the riverbank. Troughs have been installed to keep stock hydrated.
The signs of recently removed willow trees and poisoned woody weeds can be sighted as can the tree guards for some hundreds of native trees planted over the recent winter that will both stabilise the creek bank and provide shade and shelter in coming years.
Marshall says it was both the potential and the history of the property that first caught his eye.
‘It was probably the big solitary gum trees. There’re gum trees that are hundreds of years old along the ridge and dotted throughout the farm. The fact that it had a creek, a bit of ridge and a bit of character about it…that was my original attraction to the farm.”
Recent works on the creek compliment works done by previous owners in the early 2000s towards the southern end of the creek on Marshall’s property.
“Those older plantings are now 25 to 30 metres tall and you can hear water flowing when you get closer to it and we’re getting some natural weirs building up in that section which is around 400 meters in length.”
This ‘jigsaw’ approach to river improvement may not be as aesthetically pleasing to the viewer now compared to if the whole 1.2 km of creek were all remediated back in the 2000s, but it does show what is just around the corner in terms overall improvement.
It also reflects the ebb and flow of a landholder’s ability, financially, physically and emotionally, to take on the major works needed to put a waterway back into good health – let’s remember that this is hard work and often done with the ever-present threat of drought and dying trees not far away.
Work done in 2018 show both the risk and the reward that can come from investing in the landscape as the Dean family has chosen to do.
“I’m probably most proud of that part because it was the most challenging. It was right in the heart of the drought. We didn’t have a blade of grass on the place,” recalls Marshall, giving the listener the impression that this story is going to end badly.
However, Marshall is a practical sort of bloke who sees a problem and works out a solution.
“I knew it was going to be challenging, so I got onto some straw and mulched both sides of the creek…put the cows in to spread it all around…and planted up around 1500 trees on both sides of the creek and got about a 90% success rate and its looking fantastic. There are trees down there that are two years old, planted in a drought and they are six and seven metres high, so it’s gone really well,” recalls Marshall.
While continuing to manage the farm and improve it where he can, Marshall is clear that any loss of land placed behind fences has repaid itself with multiple benefits on the remaining farmland, both financial and environmental.
“There’s a little bit of land we’ve lost, maybe a couple of hectares along the creek, but the plusses are, the obvious ones for the cattle in wind shelter and shade. Also, there’s a honey producer along the creek, he grows a lot of trees for honey production. We’ve put a lot of flowering trees in for foraging insects, also for the bird life and biological control of insects in the paddocks, that sort of stuff. If you create a habitat for the birds, they’ll help you out on farm as well. So, there’s some good farming benefits as well as for the environment.”
Some of the work on the Dean property has been done in partnership with the Latrobe Landcare Network and through the Gippsland Lakes Coordinating Committee funded through the Victorian State Government for the health of the Gippsland Lakes.
“We’re about 1.5ks up from the Latrobe, which does flow into the Lakes. We’re ‘treed’ up on both sides with neighbouring properties having also done works to protect the creek, so this was a bit of a link up which attracted a bit of interest from Landcare and the CMA to get it linked up…if it helps the Gippsland Lakers it’s a benefit for everyone isn’t it?
As to the future, Marshall certainly hasn’t stopped making plans and looking to see what else he can do to both improve the farm and assist the environment.
“We’ve got about 28 paddocks, 500 acres. Some are around the six–hectare size and some bigger. So, the 10 and 12–hectare paddocks, we’ve started splitting those in half so we can do some more rotational grazing, spell paddocks a bit longer, try and build a bit more resilience into our pastures…As we build these paddocks, we’re putting some more solitary forest red gums in as shade in the paddocks…maybe some island plantings. There are some groups of trees that are reasonably close together that we’d like to fence off into maybe half an acre island–plantings and thicken it up with some smaller stuff. Provide a bit more shelter and a bit more cover.”
And while the livestock that will graze the property in coming years will no doubt appreciate their shelter afforded by all this planting, you get the sense that all of the emotional, physical and financial investment is for the next generation of Dean’s who currently have a 500–acre backyard. Probably not the worst environment to have on your doorstep as Australia manages its way through a pandemic.
“The kids have had somewhere to walk every day, ride their bikes, climb trees, swim in the creek, swim in the dam. It’s all a part of the farm life isn’t it?’