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The Late Percival Alfred ("P.A.") Yeomans
A MAN BEFORE HIS TIME
By ALLAN YEOMANS
Percival Alfred Yeomans or "P.A" as he became known to allalike, changed Australian agriculture. It is doubtful that any man in this country'shistory has had such a profound influence on the thinking and methods used by theAustralian agricultural community.
He was from the country, but grew up in a town. His father, JamesYeomans was a train driver, and close friend of our World War Two Prime Minister,Ben Chifley.
When P.A. started farming he had already achieved considerable successin business. He applied the same thoughtful and common sense approach to agriculturethat had proven so successful in his other ventures. He knew what Australian agricultureneeded. He created a "sustainable agricultural" system before the termwas even coined. A permanent agriculture, he believed, must materially benefit thefarmer, it must benefit the land and it must benefit the soil.
His ideas of collecting and storing large quantities of run off wateron the farm itself for subsequent irrigation was virtually unheard of, and quiteopposed to state soil conservation departments then, and by some even now. His ideasto create within the soil a biological environment to actually increase fertilitywas unique, and totally opposed to the simplistic approach of the agricultural chemicalindustry. His ideas that using tyned tillage equipment and a unique concept of patterncultivation could totally solve the ravages of erosion, was sacrilege in the eyesof extravagant and wasteful soil conservation services. They still are seen as asacrilege to convention by many, even to this day. A quotation from the great Germanphysicist; Max Planck, (1885 - 1947) seems so relevant to the concepts, the thoughtsand the beliefs of P. A. Yeomans:
"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die".
For how much longer must we say, "So let it be with Keyline"?
In retrospect, Yeomans' entry into the farming world appears almostinevitable. As a young, man after abandoning a possible career in banking, he triedseveral fields, including the then very new, plastics industry. At one stage he wasa highly successful door to door "Fuller Brush Salesman". The wealth andexcitement of mining however, fascinated him and during those hard depression years,and with a small family, he completed a correspondence course in mining geology.That course changed the direction of his life. In the wild and charlatan mining daysof the 1930's, he established the rare reputation of being a reliable and trustworthyassayer, and valuer of gold and tin mining projects. A reputation he held throughoutthe mining fields of Eastern Australia and New Guinea.
The family was constantly on the move. It took less than half a dayin the town of Snake Valley in south western Victoria to disprove the wild claimsof riches of yet another gold strike.
He eventually established himself as an earth moving contractor inthe early pre-war years. This business grew, and his company, P. A. Yeomans Pty Ltdbecame one of the major earth moving contractors supplying open cut coal to the wartime Joint Coal Board.
The enormous war time taxes on company and personal income continuedfor many years after the close of the war. A tax incentive however had been establishedto encourage the introduction of soil conservation practices, and encourage a possiblechange to, what we now call, sustainable agriculture. Food production would be enhancedand the terrible dust storms that ravaged the country, mitigated.
Income earned from non agricultural sources could be spent on savingthe land. If farm dams, fences and contour drains could be constructed economically,and beneficially, this could result in a considerable capital gain. Capital GainsTax itself did not exist. It came much later as yet another imposition on initiative.So was born the "Pitt Street Farmer" (or Collins Street, depending on yourstate capital city).
Consequently, in 1943 Yeomans bought two adjoining blocks of poorunproductive land, totalling a thousand acres, forty miles west of Sydney. The farmmanager was his brother in law Jim Barnes. Conventional soil conservation practicesthen in vogue, were commenced. These practices had been adopted by the newly formedstate soil conservation services. They unfortunately originated from the agriculturallyillogical practices, "invented" by the United States Corp of Engineers,guided and advised by U. S. Army construction officers. The doctrines of soil conservationdepartments, in Australia, have been fairly inflexible on these issues, and departmentafter department adopted and promulgated these extravagant and useless practices.In those years that's all there was and these practices were tried by Yeomans andproved wanting.
A horrific grass fire, fanned by one hundred kilometres an hour winds,raced through the properties. It was the tenth day of December 1944. Jim Barnes wasriding the horse "Ginger" that day, but they could not out run the speedingflame front. Only "Ginger survived the ordeal, and was retired to become a familypet. After this tragic accident, it was some time before a family decision finallyconcluded that, the farms should not be sold.
All the experience gathered in those years of mining and earthmovingYeomans then brought into play. The twin blocks became "Yobarnie", a combinationof Yeomans and Barnes and "Nevallan", from his two sons Neville and Allan.Ken was born later in 1947.
The cheap storage and transportation of water, over long distances,are usually the life blood of a successful gold mine, and Yeomans became convincedit could be the life blood of a successful farm in Australia. Yeomans then becamean avid reader and soon realised that conventional agricultural wisdom totally ignoredthe biological aspects of soil. The concept of totally inverting topsoil by usingmouldboard and disc type ploughs was progressively destroying the fertility of worldsoils.
He applied the wisdom of T. J. Barrett, Edward Faulkner, Bertha Damon,Friend Sykes, Andre Voisin and many others, to Australian broadacre fanning. So forthe first time in human history, techniques were developed that could produce richfertile soil, thousands of times faster than that produced in the unassisted naturalenvironment. This then became, after on farm water storage, the second major facetof Keyline which is also having a significant influence on Australian agriculture.
Being a mining geologist, and understanding the underling geologicalstructures, gave him an appreciation of land form that is almost totally lackingin the farming world. With brilliant insight he combined the concept of the everrepeating weathering patterns of ridges and valleys, with contour cultivation. Hewas well aware that when cultivating parallel to a contour line, the cultivatingpattern rapidly deviated from a true contour. He realised that this "off contourcultivation", could be used to selectively reverse the natural flow and concentrationof water into valleys, and drift it out to the adjacent ridges. He discovered thata contour line, that ran through that point of a valley, where the steepness of thevalley floor suddenly increased, had unique properties. Starting from this line,and cultivating parallel to it, both, above the line, and below the line, producedoff contour furrows, which selectively drifted water out of the erosion vulnerablevalley. He named this contour "The Keyline". The entire system became "TheKeyline System".
The effects that P. A. Yeomans and The Keyline System have had onAustralia and Australian agriculture is profound. His last book "The City Forest"Published in 1971 expanded the application of the principals. In it, the same Keylineconcepts are used as a basis for the layout and design of urban and suburban communities.City effluent and waste are considered as valuable commodities. He proposed the creationof tropical, and sub tropical rain forests, within the city boundaries, as park lands, as sources of exotic timbers and as the means of economically utilising city effluentfor the benefit of all. The City Forest has now become a textbook for landscape architectsand urban designers.
The equipment and the practices of Keyline, have become so well establishedas part of Australian agriculture, that it surprises many to realise this influence.In no other country in the world, have farm irrigation dams, contour strip forests,chisel ploughs, deep tillage cultivation, water harvesting almost become a nation's"conventional agriculture". P. A. Yeomans was constantly in conflict withbureaucratic orthodoxy. So no stone monuments, nor official recognition, has everbeen accorded to his works. The changed and changing face of the Australian landscapehowever, is his immense and worthy memorial.
Allan J. Yeomans
Gold Coast City, Queensland