Ian Munro has the unmistakable hands of a born farmer: thick fingers, scarred, mottled from years in the sun and being buried deep in the soil.
Soil is Ian Munro’s passion. Born at Walpeup in the Victorian Mallee, he credits the existence of the Mallee Research Station in the town with his interest in agronomy, which has led him to develop his business, Munash Natural Fertilisers.
The station was established in 1932, primarily to test the qualities of new strains of wheat. As a young farmer working 3000 acres in the 1960s, he says the existence of the research station gave him the ability to ‘knock around with the local agronomists and DPI (Department of Primary Industries) people’.
“That was a great help in developing an understanding of the fertiliser business and a lot of other related things,” says Munro.
He was also a shearer for 30 years; a different education, he says, in learning about how to deal with people and listen to their stories, and the stories of a region. Lessons in listening and communication which have served him ever since.
Moving from the Mallee to Pootilla, just out of Ballarat, Ian took up 150 acres (‘a toy farm’, says Munro) of land he had seen previously. It’s closeness to Ballarat meant his wife, a schoolteacher, could find work and his children could get access to good schools. He runs some of the farm to re-fattening lambs, and also runs a spreading and contract drilling business.
But his obsession and driving force is the creation of natural fertilisers and the holistic rejuvenation and remineralisation of soils.
It’s widely accepted that the greater part of Australia has very poor soil coverage, and farming practices pursued since colonisation have greatly damaged the remaining soil available for agriculture.
For Ian Munro, the approaches of rip the soil, spray every weed that you see and continue in that way until the land is exhausted is anathema.
Nature’s science is actually quite different to chemical science. We use natural elements, because if you don’t work with nature, it’ll give you a kick in the butt.Ian Munro, Munash Natural Fertilisers
Having worked for a small fertiliser company after moving to Ballarat, Munro realised the years of experience and learning he had gained in the paddocks of his youth equalled that of a science education – and then some more. He found he knew more about soils and what soils were actually like than his boss, and that farmers were asking for his expertise.
“You’ve got to understand the farmer and listen to the farmer,” he says.
“Good communication is always the answer. Talk about the things that he wants to talk about, not what you want to talk about. Then you’ll know exactly what’s going on, so you can do a soil test for them.”
Learning to deal with the acid soils of the region, Munro began to adopt an organic approach to giving life back to soil, rather than working it to dust. He discovered rockdust, a combination of basalt and granite combined with an activating catalyst, at an agricultural field day.
After examining its properties and trialling it extensively, he was sure enough of its ability to transform soils that he purchased the patent from its West Australian owner, and Munash was born.
“It’s exactly the same sort of material that came out of the volcanoes here in the region when they erupted and deposited ash and lava,” Munro says.
“That’s what formed the original topsoil here, and that’s why our product is able to balance up the soil and nutrients. It will help conserve 30 per cent more moisture because one of the rocks in it is attracted to water. It will help balance up all the nutrients, including heavy metals. It will bring an acid soil back towards balance as it has a neutral pH level, which helps control pests and bugs.
“So that's what it does. It actually stimulates the biology in the soil.”
Ian Munro says the mineral combination works across all soil types: black soils, red soils, grey soils, sandy soils, whatever condition they might be, including soils that have separated. He says Munash regard their product as a ‘soil conditioner’.
Of course being ahead of his time meant Munro’s championing to use of this organic rockdust were regarded with the famous scepticism of Australian farmers used to working in the same way for generations.
“Sometimes people want the chemical science, not the natural science,” Ian Munro says.
“Nature’s science is actually quite different to chemical science. We use natural elements, because if you don’t work with nature, it’ll give you a kick in the butt.
“We try and work with nature. We like to work with people who run stock, because they are passionate about their stock and and they know when they’re unhealthy. With cereal croppers, if something’s not right, you go and whack more on. We can help balance their soils, but it doesn’t work fast enough for them.”
Ian Munro believes the farming practices of the past still have validity today. It’s the rush towards faster, more profitable results that lead to problems such as overuse of pesticides, the constant need for new land to be opened up for farming, rather than taking a holistic tenure of the land already being farmed and treating it so it maintains itself.
“It’s how farmers did things when they didn’t have any money; they worked with what was around them,” he says.
“Today if you find a weed, you want to go and spray it. But for every weed you spray you get two more to grow. So everyone has a major weed problem because you leave residues in the soil. What we do is exactly the opposite of what the big fertiliser companies are trying to achieve.”
It seems to be an approach that is cutting through, with increasing numbers of local and interstate farmers turning to Munash’s products as an alternative to current practices, and finding their yields are growing.
Another passion, directly related to soil health says Ian Munro, is food quality. He considered his own health as he moved into his later years, considered the chemicals we put onto our crops and into our soils and the reactions they cause. He says our water supplies are becoming ever more polluted; so much so that in many places it’s only deep aquifer water that avoids being contaminated.
“We need to consider every thing that we put into our bodies, to avoid building up toxins and heavy metals,” he says. That starts with caring for the soil.”