Trees for Farms, Trees for Life

Writer's Note: This post is the third in a series that explores the sustainable work of committed individuals. After exploring one man's experimentation with a stand-alone, solar powered car and a family's energy independence, this article follows the work of a dedicated tree planter and the organization that supports her.

Australia is one of the most biologically diverse continents on the globe. Ancient and delicate ecosystems support over 1 million species of plants and animals, 80 percent of which are found nowhere else on Earth.

These ecosystems are being threatened. Land clearing for farming, mining and forestry have stripped the landscape of its hardy fabric of fauna and flora. Tree clearance has left the thin layer of topsoil vulnerable to run-off and wind erosion. Habitat for animals is being lost, leading to diminished biodiversity and extinction. The land cannot sustain the current practices of humans.

South Australia, the driest state in the driest continent on the planet, has one of the country's worst land-clearing records. Farmers are feeling the brunt of this legacy. As they watch their top soil blow out to sea, and their paddocks scald from rising salt, they try to mitigate the results of their maladaptive land use by adding more fertilizer and pesticides or looking to the government for aid. Some simply walk off the land.

South Australia's ecosystem balance lies in the hands of these farmers. They need help.

Research (PDF) suggests that between 22 and 52 percent of farmland needs to be devoted to reforestation to hold down salinity levels, prevent wind erosion, and provide shelter for animals. But when a farmer works 14-hour days just to keep the family farm afloat, there's little time to devote to planting trees.

Help is at hand.

Trees for Life, a non-profit, non-political organization, was formed in 1981 by a group of concerned South Australians. Its primary purpose is to protect the land in South Australia from further degradation by growing and distributing below-cost native tree seedlings to landholders through The Tree Scheme. The largest community-initiated organization of its kind in the country, today it is a vibrant and vital part of the South Australian environmental movement.

Suzanne Arbon is a volunteer member of this movement. She grew and planted 500 trees this year for the owner of a property she caretakes. Suzanne can offset her carbon dioxide emissions with an annual planting of 100 trees. This year she's planted a few credits for you too.

I asked Suzanne to tell me about some of the programs run by Trees for Life.

Trees for Life provides resources for people to plant trees. It also runs Bush for Life education programs, offering free workshops for people to learn about preserving native trees, clearing weeds and a whole host of things to do with preserving the environment. It has a seed-saving group; licensed volunteers collect all the seeds that are provided to growers, from the native bush.
The Tree Scheme supports two different kinds of growers - landholders that collect materials to grow up to 1,000 local native seedlings for their own property; and volunteer growers who raise up to 500 seedlings for landholders who are unable to grow for themselves.

Growers collect seed-planting kits in November, at the start of the Australian summer. A kit includes recycled polystyrene boxes, plastic tubes to plant trees in, potting soil, fertilizer, seeds and gravel mulch. Seed planting is done by hand, requiring patience and a commitment of many hours' work. Following planting comes a ">daily commitment to keep the seedlings alive. A grower has to be home every day to care for the trees, until they hand their seedlings over to a landholder or plant the trees out themselves. Growers can't go away for a summer holiday.

Some volunteer growers, like Suzanne, get involved in planting seedlings out for the landowners they grow for. In addition, during the Australian drought this year, Suzanne hand-watered her charges for six months, ensuring survival of nearly every one of the trees she planted.

Volunteer growers don't get paid; in fact many contribute a $45 membership fee to support the work of Trees for Life. Suzanne gave me an insight into why people might make these voluntary sacrifices.

A lot of people grow trees with no direct benefit to themselves. They get the satisfaction of growing seedlings, knowing that they're helping out the environment and helping out some lucky farmer or landowner by giving him established seedlings ready to plant out. A lot of people who grow for landowners have a relationship going and they grow for the same people year after year and develop quite a friendship.

I do it because I get the satisfaction of producing something; it's creativity - you're creating something from nothing, basically from little, tiny seed. There's great satisfaction in planting out a little tree. I'm trying to help the environment and maybe improve my ecological footprint.

Volunteering with Trees for Life is a service to the community as well as to the environment. To someone who has just lost everything, trees can be a symbol of hope, as Suzanne explained.
A couple of years ago we had disastrous bushfires on the farming region of Eyre Peninsula. In the wake of the fires, a lot of city people grew trees specifically for those areas, helping to revegetate areas for those farmers who were already harassed because of loss of property, their home, sometimes even family members. Farmers were given donations of hundreds and hundreds of new seedling trees to help revegetate their property. That's something wonderful that city people can do to help the environment and to help their fellow man.

There are cases of community service in situations that are less extreme, as well. Seedlings need to be grown over the summer time, when farmers themselves are particularly busy, so volunteers can grow trees for farmers who don't have the time. School holidays in December and January are possibly the only chance for farmers or large landholders to have a break, so they aren't able to grow trees themselves and they really appreciate being given this donation of somebody else's labor of love to revegetate their property and preserve the environment.

Trees for Life grows over 1 million trees every year. In 25 years, Trees for Life has propagated 27 million native tree seedlings. Ten thousand South Australians donate money annually to support the work of 4,000 active volunteers. Trees for Life is helping South Australia combat global warming, one tree at a time.

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  • Posted on Nov. 26, 2007. Listed in:

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