By David Horwood
A review by Hassall & Associates of the GRDC"s $5.4 million annual investment in farming systems projects and groups reports widespread support from participating growers and a range of financial, social and environmental benefits.
Growers appreciate having research done on their properties or in their regions, and interacting with researchers, other growers and the GRDC system.
Hassall & Associates evaluated nine farming systems projects, representing all GRDC geographic zones. In addition, the coordinators of all 23 active projects were surveyed.
The GRDC supports many kinds of farming systems projects and groups - from grower-initiated and run groups that charge membership fees, to agency-run projects that engage existing or newly established groups of farmers across a specified region. Some groups are informal, while others are fully incorporated and may even have subsidiary operations run for profit.
Some projects have up to 18 groups of collaborating farmers. Group membership averages 270, ranging from fewer than 100 up to 1400.
The review found that farming systems projects collectively provide a satisfactory financial return on investment, particularly in more marginal areas, or where there is breakthrough technology available to overcome constraints to crop production. In the regions where they are conducted, projects have increased the profitability of cropping systems by an average of about 10 percent (range 3 to 25 percent). The total net present value over 25 years of on-farm benefits arising from GRDC investment in farming systems projects is about $153 million, with a benefit-cost ratio of almost 5.
Important social benefits include grower involvement in R&D, increased learning opportunities, and new or enhanced partnerships. Most participants rate farming system projects as 7 to 8 out of 10 for impact on their personal skills and competencies.
Environmental benefits are less apparent. The review found "probable" benefits arising from significant reductions in the number of cultivations and from improved crop rotations.
The review says environmental sustainability should be addressed in a more meaningful way in future projects, stating that explicit attention to environmental benefits is "sadly lacking" in most projects.
Graingrower claims of improved sustainability on their farms were difficult to substantiate. The review expressed concern about increased chemical use, herbicide resistance and dryland salinity in most cropping regions.
There may be opportunities to form closer links between farming systems projects and Landcare and conservation farmer groups at regional levels, and for linking R&D with catchment and sub-catchment natural resource management priorities.
A key recommendation is for the GRDC to manage future projects under a dedicated program devoted to farming systems. Currently, farming systems projects are managed under the GRDC Sustainable Farming Systems Program, where they represent only about 20 percent of the program budget.
The review recommends setting up a single national coordination project to draw together results and maximise the benefits of the entire farming systems program. The GRDC has already responded in part to this recommendation by appointing Dr Ann Hamblin as coordinator for farming systems projects.
One of Dr Hamblin"s roles is to streamline administration - particularly funding applications, which are often regarded as slow and cumbersome.
Another proposal is that livestock enterprises should be included in projects, recognising the role of livestock in farming systems.
After analysing what makes projects effective, the review"s overall recommendation is that GRDC investment only be made when certain conditions are satisfied:
The review questioned the value of long-term core trial sites, after receiving feedback about their inflexibility and inability to maintain the interest of leading growers. Grain producers need to fit research into their seasonal activity cycles, and the projects need to be able to evolve to adapt to new technologies.
GRDC support does make a difference. This example shows what would happen with and without GRDC support for a typical project. The curve for net benefit is the difference attributable to the GRDC.
For more information:
Ian Rogan, 02 6884 6250, firstname.lastname@example.org
The full report is available from the GRDC website at www.grdc.com.au/growers/res_summ/HAS00002/contents.htm
GRDC Research code: HAS 00002, program 4