news clipping from mackay mercury 2 november 2018

The following is a media release from Artspace Mackay, posted on the Mackay Regional Council website:

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An exhibition opening at Artspace Mackay tomorrow is called Sugar vs the Reef?

However, the theme is not one of conflict, but rather in-depth collaboration.

Wollongong artists Kim Williams and Lucas Ihlein have been visiting the Mackay region since 2014.

Over that time, they have sought to gain a deeper understanding of the sugarcane industry and investigate how artists and farmers can work together on large-scale ecology problems.

Community engagement at The Beacon

Kids planting sunflower seeds at the Beacon
Kids planting sunflower seeds at the Beacon

We always envisaged The Beacon as a way of bringing culture and agriculture together at the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens.

At the most basic level, The Beacon is a 26 metre diameter demonstration farm, showing how you can have diverse plant species living alongside sugarcane. So, we needed to put some sticks of sugarcane into the ground, and we had to plant a bunch of sunflower seeds in straight rows – two purely practical tasks. But we wanted to make these tasks special, by creating some meaningful rituals around what might seem a relatively straightforward farming activity.

Our planting site is located on “public” land at the Botanic Gardens, which gives us the chance to bring a range of different people together, gathered around this circle of soil we’ve been tending with great care since February.

Traditional Owners

While working with the soil, we’ve also been cultivating friendships and working relationships with the Yuwibara people, the traditional custodians of the Mackay region. Even though the Botanic Gardens is on land owned by the Mackay Regional Council, who give us permission to plant and dig, at a deeper level it is the Yuwibara Aboriginal Corporation that we turn to, to ask for permission to work, to dwell, to plant.

Uncle George Tonga performing the Welcome to Country at the SEED AND SONG event in August 2018
Uncle George Tonga performing the Welcome to Country at the SEED AND SONG event in August 2018. At the left is didgeridoo player Lyndon Francis.

Uncle Phillip Kemp and Uncle George Tonga have been very supportive, and through them we’ve been beginning to learn about some of the histories and cultures of this place. This is especially important since Kim and I live in Wollongong, on Wodi-Wodi and Dharawal lands, hundreds of kilometres to the south.

We’ve also recently gotten to know Aunty Deb Netuschil, who choreographs the Diranga Gangali Aboriginal Dancers. At our recent SEED AND SONG event, these local kids “danced us into the day” with a set of fantastic moves accompanied by the talented Lyndon Francis on the didgeridoo.

In the lead up to SEED AND SONG, we spent a few hours with Deb at the Beacon. She told us about her many community projects, including working with people in jail, and conducting linguistic history research to piece back together the Yuwi language of the Mackay region. Here’s something we posted on Instagram about that:

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A lovely late afternoon hour at The Beacon getting to know Yuibera Elder Deb Netuschil. Deb co-ordinates the Diranga Gangali Aboriginal Dancers, a group of talented local kids who will be dancing us into our community planting event this Sunday. . Deb told us about the work she's doing researching the local Yuwi language. At the moment she and her collaborators have pieced together about 1000 words. They’re working with a researcher from the state library in Brisbane, looking through archives for colonial records from early encounters to discover fragments of vocabulary. A fantastic cultural knowledge effort. . Come join us on Sunday 26 August, 12-4pm at The Meadowlands, Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens. Link to project website in bio. . #yuwibara #yuibera #Aboriginal #dance #language #knowledge #respect #land #country #agriculture #culture #indigenous #firstnations #education #research #linguistics #sugarcane #sunflowers #mackayregionalbotanicgardens #botanicgardens #gardening #permaculture #farming #planting #community #participation #sociallyengagedart #socialpractice #soil #soilhealth

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Australian South Sea Islander Connections

Crucial to our work at the Beacon is our relationship with MADASSIA, the Mackay and Districts Australian South Sea Islander Association. Without Starrett Vea Vea and Jemal Davis, and their team at the Community Hut located nearby, none of this tending would be possible. The fact that Jemal is on site every day with his work crew is the single most important thing helping the dual-crop grow and thrive.

Jemal Davis (orange shirt) with Uncle Doug Mooney (right) planting sugarcane at The Beacon. Far left: Uncle George Tonga applying natural fertilizer.
Jemal Davis (orange shirt) with Uncle Doug Mooney (right) planting sugarcane at The Beacon. Far left: Uncle George Tonga applying natural fertilizer.

As the chair of MADASSIA, Starrett jumped on board from the very beginning, recognising that a project about sugarcane has the potential to tap into the some important stuff for his community.

Uncle Doug Mooney, and Starrett Vea Vea tell stories at the SEED AND SONG event in August 2018
Uncle Doug Mooney, and Starrett Vea Vea tell stories at the SEED AND SONG event in August 2018

The South Sea Islander people have an indelible relationship with the establishment of the sugar industry in Australia. Without their yakka – which began as  slavery, (and was sometimes called “indentured labor”), the economy of a huge area of Queensland today would not be so heavily based around sugarcane growing and processing.

At SEED AND SONG, Starrett invited Uncle Doug Mooney, an elder in the ASSI community, to come along and share some of his stories about working with sugarcane by hand in the old days.

Sakwolo Islander Dancers perform at SEED AND SONG
Sakwolo Islander Dancers perform at SEED AND SONG

When we organise an event like SEED AND SONG, we think about how to shape the experience of the participants on the day. We try to bring together a whole mix of elements – fun, food, learning, work and entertainment. We’ve loved working with the Sakwolo Islander Dancers – who perform in their gorgeous costumes designed and handcrafted by their choreographer and visionary leader David Tass. Their work connects the yakka of agriculture with the rituals of contemporary Australian South Sea Islander culture.

Arts and Environment Support

This year we received events funding from two sources: The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), through their Reef Guardians program; and the Queensland Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF), through its “Green Arts” program. Both these programs encourage innovative cultural activities which have ecological benefit.

Kate Finch (right) from GBRMPA attending the SEED AND SONG event.
Kate Finch (right) from GBRMPA attending the SEED AND SONG event with her kids.

We’ve been collaborating with GBRMPA, and its Local Marine Advisory Committee (LMAC) for several years now as we develop our work in Mackay. Our approach has always been to celebrate the achievements of leading farmers in the sugarcane industry, and to create cultural events which help to share soil-focused farming ideas with the wider community.

Similarly, our RADF contacts, like Fiona Vuibeqa from the Mackay Council, have been very supportive of this unusual approach to using art to bring together diverse people, like farmers and the ASSI community.

The Beacon, in this sense, is a miniature “demonstration farm” – not only trialling and showcasing a range of methods which will help build soil, reduce chemical use, and cut down on the run-off which travels from the land out to the reef, but also testing out how land management can be done in a respectful, inclusive and cross-cultural way.

Future eco leaders get their hands dirty at the Beacon

Mackay primary school children visited the Beacon this September to learn about soil, water and biodiversity in agro-ecological systems.

65 students spent a morning onsite at the Beacon at Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens as part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s Future Leaders Eco Challenge (FLEC).

FLEC, GBRMPA’s annual event for Reef Guardian schools, invites students with keen interest in environmental issues to participate in a day of highly situated, hands on learning about environmental issues in their local community.

Students learned about the collaborative nature of the Watershed Land Art Project and the three workshops were designed to allow for meaningful and relevant learning experiences around  ecological farming innovations taking place in the Pioneer Valley watershed.

Sugarcane farmer Simon Mattsson facilitated an engaging workshop about soil health and how he achieves this in a practical sense on his farm. He spoke about growing legumes and the reasons he grows multispecies crops such as sugarcane and sunflowers. Simon shared his passion for improving the soil through regenerative agriculture and the positive outcomes this contributes to local waterways and The Great Barrier Reef. The highlight of this workshop was exploring the properties of good soil – especially handling the worms!

Reef Catchments project officer Carlos Bueno took the students on a learning journey about biodiversity. He sent the children on a walk to discover and assess the amount of vegetative diversity in a small area of land in the vicinity of the Beacon. Children learned about the many functions of plants and weeds. The takeaway of this workshop being that biodiversity is important in both ecological and farming systems.

Ecological educator Kellie Galletly provided children an opportunity to learn about land use in the Pioneer Valley watershed through play. In groups, children were given scenarios about regenerative agriculture practices taking place locally which they were able to model at a miniature scale using small loose parts in a valley-shaped mound of soil. In this way children were able to understand how agricultural land use in the watershed affects the health of waterways and ecosystems.

As well as learning about agro-ecological farming at the Beacon, the students attending FLEC also planted trees with Jonathon Dykyj from Mackay Regional Council, learned about the importance of fishways with Matt Moore from Catchment Solutions and built insect hotels for biodiversity with Lynette Keir and Kimberly Blythe from Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens.

These organic and visceral learning experiences are aligned with the premise of place-based education – an approach to learning that allows children opportunities for authentic connection to community and cultivates a sense of responsibility for the natural environment and the people it supports.

In addition to all the ecological knowledge, it is hoped that the children, as a result of learning about the Watershed Land Art Project,  will have gained a sense of the attributes required to work with others on social and environmental issues and ultimately recognise their own capacity to be change makers in the community.

Photo credits: Robert Bole Photography

This blog post was written by Kellie Galletly, a Mackay-based educator who runs Edutones, a social enterprise that facilitates opportunities for authentic, child-centred, outdoor and community-based learning experiences across Mackay and surrounds. Kellie is a key contributor to the Watershed Land Art Project.

SEED & SONG – news article by Michael Kane

Michael Kane, who was in 2018 working for Farmers for Climate Action (FCA) was a great support for our work at the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens. Michael wrote this news article immediately following the Seed & Song planting event in late August 2018. He now works with the Mackay Conservation Group.

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SEED AND SONG – The Watershed Land Art Project at Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens.

Seed and Song was launched on Sunday afternoon at the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens to a large and appreciative crowd of townsfolk, Yuwibara elders and family, farmers, Australian South Sea Islanders, artists and supporters from as far away as Brisbane and Melbourne.

Local grower Simon Mattsson teamed up with Lucas Ihlein and Kim Williams from the Watershed Land Art Project and a host of community groups and local businesses to create a living work of art – The Beacon – so called because it aims to attract the attention of visitors to the Botanic Gardens, sparking conversations about agriculture and ecology.

Over the coming months, The Beacon‘s circular crop of sugarcane and sunflowers will grow into a stunning visual demonstration of local achievements in eco-friendly farming systems.

The day began with a performance by the Diranga Gangali Aboriginal Dancers, and continued with a presentation from Australian South Sea Islander elder Uncle Doug Mooney, who shared stories about his history as a worker in the sugarcane industry. Later, participants took a break from planting sunflowers for a performance by the Sakwolo Islander Dancers – a local South Sea Islander dance troupe.

Artist Kim Williams said that involving the Aboriginal custodians and the Australian South Sea Islander Community was about paying respect to local culture: “While innovations in agriculture are the central focus of the project, in creating a community planting event we want to also acknowledge the cultural practices that are integral to the history of farming in the region.”

Local grower Simon Mattsson said the event was important to him because it was an opportunity to communicate the message of regenerative agriculture and make the story of farming accessible to everyone.

“It was a great cultural day and rewarding to receive support from local families who were willing to share their stories from over a century of cane growing history,” said Mr Mattsson.

Visitor Michael Kane, who was representing Farmers for Climate Action, said it was fascinating to see the cane planted. “It was a lot of fun to get my hands dirty with everybody while seeding the sunflowers too. The best part of the day was the light shower and double rainbow that appeared just after the planting was finished. A great way to end a fantastic community event,” said Mr Kane.

Local farmer John Sweet, a retired grazier, said he enjoyed catching up with everybody. “It’s a hot day but everybody is pitching in and there is a good community feeling behind it all. I’m looking forward to seeing the harvest event in November.”

The project received funding from the Queensland Government’s Regional Arts Development Fund, and from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) through the Reef Guardians Program.

Artist Lucas Ihlein said that this support recognised the critical connection between farming and the health of the Great Barrier Reef. “How farmers work their land affects the quality of the water in the Reef, and so it’s good that GBRMPA is encouraging projects like this which show how to reduce the need for chemical fertilisers and herbicides by focusing on soil health.”

In late November, the artists will host a community celebration for the blooming sunflowers at the Botanic Gardens, with local music, food and more opportunities for the public to learn about regenerative agriculture.


seed and song poster

This August in Mackay, get your hands in the soil and have fun celebrating positive innovations in local agriculture!

Award winning artists in collaboration with council and local farmers welcome the community to be part of the Watershed Land Art Project at the Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens. The project – a stunning circular crop of sugarcane and sunflowers – is a demonstration of local achievements in eco-friendly farming systems.

On Sunday, August 26 from 12pm to 4pm join us for SEED AND SONG. It’s your chance to help plant sugarcane and sunflowers, learn about soil health, and find out what farmers and the community can do to support the Great Barrier Reef and human wellbeing.

The Diranga Gangali Aboriginal Dancers and the Sakwolo Islander Dancers will perform, and fresh sugarcane juice and local healthy foods will be served!

Following the August planting, this living work of art will continue to grow until the sunflowers bloom and a harvest celebration and concert is staged on November 24.

Mackay farmer Simon Mattsson, a key member of the Watershed Land Art Project team, says:

Sugarcane and sunflowers help each other by supporting a wide variety of soil biology, which means better outcomes for both. If both species grow healthier then there is less need for the farmer to use chemicals to fix problems.

Artists Lucas Ihlein and Kim Williams, from Wollongong, have been working with the local community in Mackay since 2014. Last year they helped create Sunset Symphony in the Sunflowers, a concert in an amphitheatre carved out of a crop of sugarcane and sunflowers on Mattsson’s farm in Marian. Ihlein says:

Staging events like Sunset Symphony in the Sunflowers, and the new Watershed project at the Botanic Gardens, is a way to bring farmers and the wider public together, raising awareness of exciting new ecological farming methods being developed within the sugarcane industry.

Groups associated with the project include Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens (MRBG), Mackay & District Australian South Sea Islander Association (MADASSIA), Yuwibara Aboriginal Corporation, Central Queensland Soil Health Systems, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), Pioneer Catchments and Landcare, Artspace Mackay, Australian Farmers for Climate Action, Mackay Conservation Group, Reef Catchments, and University of Wollongong.


Sunday, August 26 from 12-4pm

Meadowlands, Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens

Car parking on Crowleys Road, off Alexandra St.

For more information contact the artists on 0423 745 736 (Lucas) or 0405 700 142 (Kim)

Check out


Download the Press Release as pdf here.

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Funding for SEED AND SONG comes from:

  • Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) via the Reef Guardians  Community and Stewardship Grant Schemes
  • Regional Arts Development Fund (RADF)
  • Australia Council for the Arts
  • Australian Research Council (ARC) via University of Wollongong

In-kind support from:

  • Mackay Regional Botanic Gardens (MRBG)


farming carbon and our climate

Coming up in Mackay – this excellent event, hosted at the farm of Simon Mattsson, one of the key agricultural collaborators on the Watershed Land Art Project.

THIS FIELD DAY IS FREE FOR LANDHOLDERS, with funding provided by Farmers for Climate Action.
The event is supported by Reef Catchment’s Regional Landcare Facilitator through funding from the Australian Government National Landcare Programme


Cane farmers, graziers and landholders are invited to learn more about methods being trialled by local farmers to build farm resilience and help counteract climate conditions and declining soil health.

Sunday 12th August
1pm to 5pm
171 Newmans Road, Marian
Register by 6th August
CLICK HERE OR PHONE 07 4968 4200
Download PDF Flyer here


Cover Cropping at The Beacon

The legume crop at the Beacon grew lusciously and was incorporated back into the soil after flowering. This was done by brush-cutting the plants and then using a flail mulcher to chop the plants and existing layer of mulch into fine pieces. Tegan McBride from Garden of Tegan organic market garden brought along her BCS two-wheel walking tractor which was a very appropriate piece of technology for the size and purpose of the task.

As the Sugarcane and Sunflowers are still a couple of months off being planted, we decided that it would be a good opportunity to grow a winter cover crop.

Similar in purpose to the legume crop, a cover crop is a method of regenerative agriculture and is grown for the purpose of soil improvement. Cover cropping encompasses the four principles of regenerative agriculture which are:

  1. No bare soil
  2. Living roots in the ground
  3. Increase plant diversity
  4. Minimise tillage

When a cover crop is grown and incorporated back into the soil there is an increase in organic matter to feed soil microbes. The soil microbes break down the organic matter and the end result is called humus. During the decomposition process soil particles are bound together to form aggregates. A well aggregated soil rich in humus leads to many benefits for crop production including:

  • Aeration – plenty of space for air (and water) in the soil
  • Water retention – Inreased filtration and decreased surface evaporation and run-off
  • Nutrient enhancement – As a cover crop breaks down nutrients from plant tissues are released and made available to the following crop. More nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and sulphur (S) in the soil will enable a healthier crop with less of a need for synthetic fertilisers.

Cover crops also assist with:

  • Weed suppression – The cover crop takes up space and light, covering bare ground and out-competing weeds

Pest management – Adding a diversity of plants to agricultural systems allows them to be more robust and resilient. Any pest outbreaks are more likely to be brought into balance by natural controls.

Around Mackay, growing numbers of sugarcane farmers are adopting these methods as fallow and multi-species cover crops using  Mungbean, Soybean, Millet, Sorghum and Sunflowers just to name a few. In their ‘High-Yielding Cane’ publication, Sugar Research Australia recommends that a well-managed legume cover crop will provide the greatest benefits in comparison to other fallow options

For the Beacon, we chose Buckwheat, Lucerne, Fenugreek and Vetch for our cool season cover crop on the recommendation of local Biodynamics advocate John Sweet. The Fenugreek and Vetch are legumes with nitrogen fixing capabilities. Lucerne is a vigorous plant with a deep taproot that is able to access nutrients that shallow-rooted plants can’t and bring them up to the surface. The deep taproot can also penetrate compacted soils and provide a loosening/aerating effect. The Buckwheat accumulates phosphorus and builds organic matter quickly.

We planted our cover crop by hand, with the help of Starrett and Jemal from MADASSIA and their work crews. It was great to chat about our projects as we planted the seeds- conversations about what the Watershed Land Art Project means in the context of our watershed, the Pioneer Valley, as well as modern day Sugarcane farming. We were excited to learn about their latest community project at Eton, restoring a farmhouse as a museum to display the original artefacts and stories from the lives of local 19th & 20th century Australian South Sea Islanders.

It was so very nice to chat and learn with our hands in the soil. We are currently planning ‘Sunset, Seed and Song’ — the Sugarcane and Sunflowers planting event in August — hope to see you there!


Soil testing the John Sweet way

Starrett Vea Vea has taken photos of some interesting recent activities in the Beacon. The images show John Sweet, along with Jemal, Kellie Galletly and her daughter Ruby testing the soil and inspecting the plants. They’re checking to see what’s happened in The Beacon since we began preparing the site in February by ripping, mulching, applying lime and biofert and planting several legume species.

beacon april

Since the planting event in late February, the legumes have come up quickly with the hot weather and rain.

checking the roots

One of the legume plants is pulled up to check the root system for the rhizobia nodules. They’re there – this is a good thing, as rhizobia bacteria fix nitrogen when they’re present in the root nodules of the legumes.

ruby getting soil sample

Ruby is doing the hard work, while the adults look on.

soil test

John measures the sugar content of the plants with a refractometer. To do this he washes the refractometer plate with distilled water. With a garlic crusher, he squeezes some juice from the leaves of a legume on to the glass plate. John then takes a reading of the sugar content in the sap of the plant.

What has this test revealed? According to John, there has been an improvement in the soil since we began working on The Beacon. We’re hoping that the things we’re doing are bringing the soil biology back into a healthy balance. If this occurs it will optimise the soil conditions for a healthy sunflower and sugarcane crop. Along with community members, we’ll plant the dual crop in early August as part of the Sunset Seed and Song event that’s currently in the planning stages.