Recycled Organics: Protecting Water In Sydney’s Food Bowl

By Christopher Rochfort 18 July, 2019

Through its SAFA program on recycled organics, CORE is protecting Sydney's food bowl. Their Rochfort expands

CORE established the Sustainable Amendments for Agriculture (SAFA) Program in 2004 that provides farmers with organic materials from community recycling schemes
It reduces stockpiling, provides farmers with low cost/no cost inputs & also helps them fight the impacts of climate change such as drought a that threaten farm (and food) viability
Hawkesbury-Nepean catchment - Sydney's food bowl - is water stressed & suffers from drought; SAFA programme targeted >60 farming operations with reports of success

The Sustainable Amendment for Agriculture Program – SAFA

In 2004, CORE established the Sustainable Amendments for Agriculture (SAFA) Program that provides farmers with organic materials from community recycling schemes including garden, tree and wood waste materials that are pre-processed before going to the farms. CORE manages “overflow” material for government and private sector members’ recycling operations where there is excess to normal market needs.

As a result, it reduces stockpiling in recycling facilities (which causes environmental impacts such as odour and combustion fires), eases market saturation (downward pressure on pricing) and provides farmers with low cost/no cost inputs for their farms. It also helps farmers fight the impacts of climate change such as drought and extreme heat conditions that threatened farm (and food) viability.

SAFA helps reduce stockpiling & provides farmers with low/no cost inputs

One of the areas the SAFA program was implemented was in the Hawkesbury- Nepean River System close to the Sydney metropolitan area and the largest source of recycled organics in Australia.


Water stressed Sydney’s “food bowl”

The Hawkesbury-Nepean river system had a well-documented history of water stress from excess extraction and blue-green algae bloom outbreaks caused by high nutrient inflows from urbanisation, waste-water treatment plants and agricultural operations along the river system. This facilitated the New South Wales Government to introduce “Nutrient Smart and Water Smart Farms” projects to address these major issues. The river system has substantial allevial flood plain soils that attracted intensive farming operations to develop that is long regarded as Sydney’s “Food Bowl”. Over time, much of the soils reduced in organic matter levels to less than one percent thus impacting water and chemical fertiliser holding capacity.

Accentuating the river stress has been the impacts of climate change mentioned earlier, including drought and extreme heat (see chart left below). Australia’s top five warmest years on record included each of the years—2013, 2014. 2015; 2013 was Australia’s warmest year on record with temperatures steadily climbing since 1950.


The Hawkesbury-Nepean catchment is water stressed & suffers from drought

The Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology reported rainfall deficiencies in the Hawkesbury-Nepean catchment as being “Severely Deficient” for the period from April 2017-February 2019 (see map right above). This had followed the “Millennium Drought” experienced in Australia over the first decade in the 2000s.

SAFA program & results in the food bowl

The SAFA Program targeted over sixty farming operations from five hectares to fifty hectares along the Hawkesbury-Nepean River System, many of which irrigated using water pumped from the river system. Farmers formally signed on to the program and were assigned qualified horticultural staff from CORE to help integrate recycled organics into their farming systems. All had never previously used community collected recycled organics, that resulted in downward adjustments in their water and chemical fertiliser applications. Farmers were also trained in final preparation of the material and methods of application to their soils. Soils varied from sandy loam to clay loam in their texture depending on how close the farm or parts of their farm were to the river.

Programme targeted >60 farming operations…

…farmers reported recycled organics lasting “longer” than manure

Many farmers needed repeat applications over a number of years to bring their soil organic matter levels above one percent. Adjustments to spreading machinery were required to apply recycled organics, however farmers observed that applications of recycled organics lasted “longer” than manure applications they had previously applied. Farmers had independent testing laboratories analyse their soils over time to ensure the physical and chemical properties were acceptable for crop growing.

Farmers were surveyed during the program about their observations after using recycled organics for a minimum period of three years. Some of the findings include:

The SAFA Farm Location Map to the right identifies the cluster locations of groupings of farmers in the program along the Hawkesbury-Nepean River System. Most of the farms draw water from the river system for irrigation and additionally their farms drain directly or indirectly back into the river system. All the farms used conventional intensive farming practises that included regular tilling before each crop, regular chemical fertiliser applications (combined with animal manure after a number of crops), and usually pumped irrigation using electric or diesel pumps.

Other farmer success stories include earthworms returning & reduced plant loss




Many reported degradation of soil structure and other soil health and plant issues before joining the program. One farmer reported after a number of years in the program, his children had observed earthworms in the soil which have not been evident for three generations of farming at the farm. Some farmers also reported a significant reduction in plant losses from soil diseases such as Phytophthora and Pythium.


Further Reading

  • Organic Agriculture Can Fight Climate Change – Organic agriculture is so much more than no pesticides as CEO of Go Organics, Spencer Leung, shows with lower GHG emissions, reduce energy & mitigating climate risks to farmers
  • Water-Energy-Food Security Nexus In Asia’s Large River Basins – The water-energy-food security nexus is complicated but as Maija Taka, Marko Keskinen & Olli Varis show, the tensions can be alleviated. Plus, they share 3 WEF cases in Asia’s largest river basins
  • 5 Reasons Plant-Based Will Be Unleashed In Asia – Are you ready for Asia’s plant-based revolution? David Yeung, Founder & CEO of Green Monday, shares 5 reasons its coming soon including that it is only a matter of time before the current global food system collapses
  • Role Of Businesses In Water Conservation – With the backdrop of Singapore’s industrial water challenges, Professor Asit Biswas & Dr Cecilia Tortajada show what Unilever & Nestle are doing on water management but also the behavioural challenges they face
  • Can Loop’s 21st Century Milkman Fix Plastic Plague – Called the 21st Century milkman, is Loop’s circular shipping platform the answer to our planets massive plastic problem? Corporate Knight’s Adria Vasil explores
  • More Food In A Changing Climate – China’s 120 million hectares of farmland, equivalent to 2x France, is threatened by urbanisation & rampant pollution. CWRs Hu on China’s challenging path to food security in a changing climate
  • Global Agriculture & Water Scarcity – With more than 25% of global agri grown in high water stress areas, WRI’s Frances Gassert tells us why tension between global crop production & water supply is expected to grow
  • Water Ten To Revamp Chinese Agriculture – Takeaways from Shanghai’s Global Agriculture Sustainability Forum are reviewed in relation to the new Water Ten Plan. Fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation & product tractability markets look set to change. China Water Risk’s Hu on what the new plan means for the future of Chinese agriculture
Christopher Rochfort
Author: Christopher Rochfort
Christopher Rochfort is a qualified horticulturist and the co-founder and Chief Executive of The Centre for Organic Research and Enterprises (CORE). Previously, Christopher had worked in local government, owned a wholesale nursery and retail garden centre before establishing one of Australia’s first composting facilities dedicated to recycled organics. Christopher has also had a major involvement in the development of the resource recovery, horticulture and water industries in Australia and internationally. Since establishing CORE in 1996, Christopher has undertaken numerous projects and programs involving the collection/diversion, processing and marketing of recycled materials. Christopher has an extensive understanding of the aspects required to introduce successful recycling programs from kerbside to market. Chris is a committee member on multiple Australian Standards committees, is a member of the Australian Institute of Horticulture and is currently developing standards for biofiltration of stormwater and other surface run-off. Chris was invited as a panellist in 2014 to the United Nations Water Crisis forum held in New York and invited by the Nanjing Government to address the 2019 Tech Week Forum.
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