Being left speechless is not something to which Geoff Thomas is accustomed. But he was lost for words when presented recently with the GRDC Seed of Gold Award, which recognises outstanding contributions to the grains industry. “Gobsmacked,” is how he describes it.
It is a humble response from a man whose five decades of work has had a substantial impact across Australia’s grainbelt, not only in managing research programs but also in ensuring their outcomes are taken up.
“What has given me the greatest satisfaction is that I’ve continued to work at the interface between research, consultants and growers on the issues important to improving the grains industry at the farm level,” he says.
Mr Thomas has held a variety of leadership and extension positions in both the public and private sectors, through which he has strived to ensure the benefits of research are realised on-farm. It is this relentless pursuit that saw him receive the GRDC Seed of Gold Award – an honour that has been presented only once before.
“There would not be many people in the Australian grains industry who do not know Geoff or are not aware of the leading roles he has played,” says Stuart Kearns, GRDC regional grower services executive manager, who presented the award.
“Geoff has been a powerful advocate for advancing agriculture through the uptake of improved knowledge, understanding, technology and farming systems.”
Framing advice in the context of the farming system rather than simply presenting a piece of technical information in isolation is key to achieving agricultural advances, Mr Thomas says. This is because when you propose a change, a grower must be able to see how it will be incorporated into their system, and what the benefits and risks could be.
One way to ensure research projects are effective at the farm level is through evaluation – to understand why advice has or has not been adopted – so that future projects are better planned. This has been another of Mr Thomas’s key drivers.
“We tend to spend a lot of time running projects and too little time evaluating their outcomes,” he says. “I want to know what the outcomes are in terms of changed practice and why or why not changes are made.”
Evaluation is a key component of Mr Thomas’s GRDC-funded Low Rainfall Collaboration Project – his last major project as he enters retirement. Running for 10 years and reporting this spring, the project aims to foster greater knowledge sharing between south-eastern Australian farming groups.
“Overall, the groups themselves say the project has been enormously effective in terms of sharing information and supporting each other,” he says.
Born into a farming family in Pinnaroo, South Australia, Mr Thomas majored in soil science at the University of Adelaide before completing a diploma in agriculture extension in Melbourne, which incorporated elements of farm business and sociology. This was an important phase because he says it taught him about the issues that were important to growers – knowledge he took into his long career with both the Victorian and SA departments of agriculture where he held important leadership roles.
“I’ve always made sure we were researching the right things – the things that were important to growers rather than the things that were important to scientists – and making sure the results were in a form that growers could adopt,” he says. “And that led me to have a real interest in the farming systems approach.”
Most recently, Mr Thomas has been running programs through his business, Thomas Project Services, which he established with his wife Mary. These include the low-rainfall project as well as the South Australian Grain Industry Trust, which he managed until 2012. He was also the founding business manager at Australian Grain Technologies, which today is the largest plant-breeding entity in the Southern Hemisphere.
Mr Thomas has also been national president of peak body Ag Institute Australia, and president of the institute’s SA division. His contribution to agriculture has affected “just about every corner of the nation”, Mr Kearns says. “His standing in the grains industry is truly remarkable.”
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