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East Gippsland is an example that being part of community-based environmentally focused groups is protective of your mental health.

Oct 27, 2022

Words: Gippslandia

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It’s easy to ignore dirt. When did you last think of it fondly? Our guess is that you most recently scolded dirt for getting on your clean clothes. How dare it!

But more than dirt, we need soil. Dirt lacks organic material, it’s purely minerals and is devoid of life. Dirt is dead. Soil, on the other hand, has minerals too, but it also has organic matter and organisms… life.

You should care more about soil, as healthy soils lead to healthier, nutrient-rich food. If we don’t eat food with sufficient vitamins and minerals, we end up like dirt. As Gippsland is a highly productive food bowl for Australia, having healthy soils here is important to a heck of a lot of people!

Launching in 2013, TopSoils is a multi-partner project in East Gippsland that’s “focused on improving soil conditions for farm profitability through farmer-driven focus groups and demonstration sites”. It aims “to support change towards best management practices in soil health”.

At the time of the project’s establishment, Australian Bureau of Statistics (2009/10) data demonstrated that sustainable land management practices were not widely adopted in East Gippsland. For instance, only 12% of farmers were using soil testing to decide on fertiliser use.

In the project’s early years, soil and plant data was gathered from well over 100,000 hectares in East Gippsland, and initial research found that many farms were receiving little benefit from the expensive fertiliser they were applying.

"Ecoanxiety is real. Sometimes people feel so overwhelmed and feel powerless to make a difference."

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Penny Gray, the Far East Victoria Landcare Facilitator, explains that, “the farmers in the TopSoils program who have made changes to their fertiliser use or soil management [approach] did so after seeing the benefits of modifying farming practices at program demonstrations or field days.

“...[many] have moved more towards practices that increase ground cover and improve soil biology and soil structure. This might include planting more diverse pastures, using seaweed and chook manure and changing grazing management practices.”

TopSoils began as a five-year research project, but given its success, it has since been extended until 2023. The program’s willingness to listen to the local farming community has been credited for its continued positive outcomes.

In speaking with Penny about how local environmental groups, including Landcare, have assisted the recovery and, potentially, boosted the resiliency of our communities, she adds, “Local community-driven environmental groups are here on the ground. Landcare is well-connected to place, as it is a grassroots, community-driven movement. It’s trusted.

“People came to us after the bushfires to make sense of what was being offered in terms of funding, and their eligibility. We passed on a lot of information they didn't hear elsewhere. We found ways to consider community wellbeing in the projects we delivered.”

After the 2019–20 bushfires, a Landcare-led monitoring project has cameras out across 34 properties in East Gippsland, keeping an eye out for fauna as it returns to the area. Penny says, “This project was focused on positive messaging for the community about recovery and we were lucky enough to capture footage of several rare and vulnerable species.”

“Ecoanxiety is real. Sometimes people feel so overwhelmed and feel powerless to make a difference.

“Having environmental knowledge does not protect you from this, but it can allow you to make decisions that support environment recovery.”

Recent research published by a diverse team of researchers from the University of Melbourne and Federation University included notes on the long-term impacts of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, which found that being part of community-based environmentally focused groups “was protective of individual mental health three to five years after the fires. In places where many people belonged to a group, the benefits extended to others in the community, reinforcing the notion that active groups support community resilience.”

The April 2022 report presents similar findings, with one respondent sharing, “[It is] morale boosting. When you feel like you can’t get anything more done, to have someone put themselves out there to help. That’s a real mental lifter… Some of the plants that were planted last autumn are now a metre-and-a-half high, whereas if they were still in the pots waiting to be done, that wheel wouldn’t have started turning…”

This is supported by a larger 2021 report by KPMG that surveyed more than 1000 people in Landcare and found that 60% of respondents strongly agree that Landcare helps them connect to others and reported an improvement in mental health, with a calculated impact of reducing their healthcare costs of at least $403 annually.

From the ground up, our health is rooted in that of our natural environment.

Penny’s prescription for a healthy life in Gippsland echoes this: “We live in a beautiful place. Get outside and enjoy the nature that surrounds you. Take time to just be a human being, not always a human doing.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 24

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