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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 all alike, changed Australian agriculture. It is doubtful that any man in this country's history has had such a profound influence on the thinking and methods used by the Australian agricultural community.
He was from the country, but grew up in a town. His father, James Yeomans 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 success in business. He applied the same thoughtful and common sense approach to agriculture that had proven so successful in his other ventures. He knew what Australian agriculture needed. He created a "sustainable agricultural" system before the term was even coined. A permanent agriculture, he believed, must materially benefit the farmer, it must benefit the land and it must benefit the soil.
His ideas of collecting and storing large quantities of run off water on the farm itself for subsequent irrigation was virtually unheard of, and quite opposed to state soil conservation departments then, and by some even now. His ideas to create within the soil a biological environment to actually increase fertility was unique, and totally opposed to the simplistic approach of the agricultural chemical industry. His ideas that using tyned tillage equipment and a unique concept of pattern cultivation could totally solve the ravages of erosion, was sacrilege in the eyes of extravagant and wasteful soil conservation services. They still are seen as a sacrilege to convention by many, even to this day. A quotation from the great German physicist; Max Planck, (1885 - 1947) seems so relevant to the concepts, the thoughts and 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 almost inevitable. As a young, man after abandoning a possible career in banking, he tried several fields, including the then very new, plastics industry. At one stage he was a highly successful door to door "Fuller Brush Salesman". The wealth and excitement 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 days of the 1930's, he established the rare reputation of being a reliable and trustworthy assayer, and valuer of gold and tin mining projects. A reputation he held throughout the mining fields of Eastern Australia and New Guinea.
The family was constantly on the move. It took less than half a day in the town of Snake Valley in south western Victoria to disprove the wild claims of riches of yet another gold strike.
He eventually established himself as an earth moving contractor in the early pre-war years. This business grew, and his company, P. A. Yeomans Pty Ltd became one of the major earth moving contractors supplying open cut coal to the war time Joint Coal Board.
The enormous war time taxes on company and personal income continued for many years after the close of the war. A tax incentive however had been established to encourage the introduction of soil conservation practices, and encourage a possible change to, what we now call, sustainable agriculture. Food production would be enhanced and the terrible dust storms that ravaged the country, mitigated.
Income earned from non agricultural sources could be spent on saving the land. If farm dams, fences and contour drains could be constructed economically, and beneficially, this could result in a considerable capital gain. Capital Gains Tax 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 your state capital city).
Consequently, in 1943 Yeomans bought two adjoining blocks of poor unproductive land, totalling a thousand acres, forty miles west of Sydney. The farm manager was his brother in law Jim Barnes. Conventional soil conservation practices then in vogue, were commenced. These practices had been adopted by the newly formed state soil conservation services. They unfortunately originated from the agriculturally illogical practices, "invented" by the United States Corp of Engineers, guided and advised by U. S. Army construction officers. The doctrines of soil conservation departments, in Australia, have been fairly inflexible on these issues, and department after department adopted and promulgated these extravagant and useless practices. In those years that's all there was and these practices were tried by Yeomans and proved 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 was riding the horse "Ginger" that day, but they could not out run the speeding flame front. Only "Ginger survived the ordeal, and was retired to become a family pet. After this tragic accident, it was some time before a family decision finally concluded that, the farms should not be sold.
All the experience gathered in those years of mining and earthmoving Yeomans then brought into play. The twin blocks became "Yobarnie", a combination of 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 convinced it could be the life blood of a successful farm in Australia. Yeomans then became an avid reader and soon realised that conventional agricultural wisdom totally ignored the biological aspects of soil. The concept of totally inverting topsoil by using mouldboard and disc type ploughs was progressively destroying the fertility of world soils.
He applied the wisdom of T. J. Barrett, Edward Faulkner, Bertha Damon, Friend Sykes, Andre Voisin and many others, to Australian broadacre fanning. So for the first time in human history, techniques were developed that could produce rich fertile soil, thousands of times faster than that produced in the unassisted natural environment. This then became, after on farm water storage, the second major facet of Keyline which is also having a significant influence on Australian agriculture.
Being a mining geologist, and understanding the underling geological structures, gave him an appreciation of land form that is almost totally lacking in the farming world. With brilliant insight he combined the concept of the ever repeating weathering patterns of ridges and valleys, with contour cultivation. He was well aware that when cultivating parallel to a contour line, the cultivating pattern rapidly deviated from a true contour. He realised that this "off contour cultivation", could be used to selectively reverse the natural flow and concentration of water into valleys, and drift it out to the adjacent ridges. He discovered that a contour line, that ran through that point of a valley, where the steepness of the valley floor suddenly increased, had unique properties. Starting from this line, and cultivating parallel to it, both, above the line, and below the line, produced off contour furrows, which selectively drifted water out of the erosion vulnerable valley. He named this contour "The Keyline". The entire system became "The Keyline System".
The effects that P. A. Yeomans and The Keyline System have had on Australia and Australian agriculture is profound. His last book "The City Forest" Published in 1971 expanded the application of the principals. In it, the same Keyline concepts 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 creation of 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 effluent for the benefit of all. The City Forest has now become a textbook for landscape architects and urban designers.
The equipment and the practices of Keyline, have become so well established as 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 with bureaucratic orthodoxy. So no stone monuments, nor official recognition, has ever been accorded to his works. The changed and changing face of the Australian landscape however, is his immense and worthy memorial.
Allan J. Yeomans
Gold Coast City, Queensland