Grains Research and Development

Date: 01.07.2005

Planting for the future

Photo of WA grower group leaders with GRDC Managing Director

WA"s four main grower groups recently put their heads together to consider R&D priorities and industry issues, reports Susan Hall

[Photo: WA grower group leaders with GRDC managing director Peter Reading at the WA Farmers" Federation Grains Conference: (left to right) Mingenew-Irwin Group vice president Clancy Michael, Liebe Group immediate past president Brian McAlpine, Peter Reading, WA No-Till Farmers" Association president Tim Braslin and SEPWA president Peter Roberts.]

Adopting new technology quickly and focusing on production and profit instead of agripolitics are two key requirements if the grains industry is to progress, according to a grower forum held during this year"s GRDC-sponsored WA Farmers" Federation Grains Conference.

Attention to the main game - technology, production and profit - and less preoccupation with industry politics was presented as a fundamental mindset needed for growers to remain competitive and viable.

These over-arching points were raised during a panel discussion, "Planting the Future", featuring four WA grower groups.

The background to the discussion was the declining terms of trade (2.2 per cent per annum) and estimates that half of the 3.2 per cent annual productivity growth is actually coming from increasing farm sizes, with the balance from research and development - largely funded by the GRDC.

It was the first time grower groups have come together to articulate their visions of what is needed to get ahead. The groups, almost by default, represent growers looking to R&D as the path for progress and security.

Tim Braslin, WA No-Till Farmers" Association (WANTFA) president and Katanning cropping manager, said WANTFA"s 1000 members were concerned with the lack of rotation options: "We need to look at rotation, nutrient cycling and water use and this means full residue retention, diverse rotations, better soil structure, full water holding capacity, nutrient cycling and adopting new technology."

Brian McAlpine, Buntine grower and Liebe Group immediate past president, said his group was totally profit-driven, aiming to add value to 120 farm business members by innovating and educating: "We want to continue to attract and validate R&D dollars to the area and successfully extend the information gained. Our goals are to grow membership and provide a more sustainable future for the industry."

Peter Roberts, South-East Premium Wheatgrowers Association (SEPWA) president and Ravensthorpe grower, explained how his group was born out of necessity in 1993 when grain being delivered in the Esperance port zone was of inferior quality. "Now, our 230 members, or 50 per cent of growers in the zone, deliver 75 per cent of the grain and it is a much higher quality."

SEPWA is very much a market-driven group. Its members visit markets around the world to find out for themselves what customers want and how they want it.

SEPWA also facilitates up to 16 on-farm, farmer-size trials each year.

"We aim to drive production, reduce costs, and adapt to change," Mr Roberts said. "We need to focus on the emerging economies and new competitors, South America and Eastern Europe, and address changing world consumer patterns. For example in 1970, 15 per cent of household spending was on food. Now it"s eight per cent.

"Overseas markets like Australian grain because it"s clean, dry, white and reliably supplied. However, our growers are not really receiving a premium for that and until they vertically integrate they"ll continue to suffer from the cost price squeeze."

Mingenew"s Clancy Michael, vice president of the Mingenew-Irwin Group (MIG), said his group"s main focus was environmental issues. He said new technologies were needed to support environmental management, which underpinned profitability and competitiveness.

He also illustrated the benefits of being involved in a grower group: "We"ve had the group benchmarked and it showed participation in MIG added, on average, $10,000 a year to members" bottom lines."

The group is now working to lift this further: "To raise this, we need to look at diversifying incomes, including value-adding such as regional branding," Mr Michael said.

The industry"s Single Vision states growers can no longer simply be producers but need to take part in an integrated value chain. The panel considered this a difficult step for grower groups that have specific agendas.

Mr Roberts said: "Being centred on our port zone, SEPWA is issue-focused, looking at all aspects, from farm to boat, so it"s difficult to add value to that, although larger groups may be able to."

Mr Michael said MIG also struggled to address this issue, especially as the group"s core focus was best practice. He suggested, however, that grower groups could have a role in placing opportunities, coordinated by professionals, in front of members.

All groups were open-minded about adopting genetically modified (GM) crops, with sustainability and profit the keys to any such decision. Panellists believed the GM focus was too much on the Roundup Ready® system, with other possibly beneficial GM traits such as frost, salinity or drought tolerance not receiving the same consideration.

MIG regularly surveys its members and in the past five years growers have become more accepting of GM crops.

"The survey also showed a majority of growers believe that by not adopting GM crops, productivity would decrease," Mr Michael said. "We need to be profitable and competitive on the world stage and if that involves GM crops, so be it."

Mr Braslin said WANTFA supported the ability to fully and properly research new technologies: "It would be very sad to see Australian growers lose something that potentially can improve rotations and farming systems."

Mr Roberts agreed, saying restrictions would end up working against growers: "For example, we grow a lot of lupins and get a very poor price, and the legume"s largest competitors in export markets are GM soybean and maize. So there"s no advantage in growing non-GM crops, in the hope you might be able to get a non-GM premium."

Regarding ongoing marketing and segregation questions, the consensus was the logistics would follow the money.

Mr Braslin also added that growers needed to take into account the performance and profitability of crop types on farm: "If there"s an advantage from a rotation, and a profit to be made from GM, a segregation solution will be found."

Mr Michael suggested Australian growers learn from how Canadian growers have handled GM, and that it was an issue for the whole industry, not just those growing GM crops. "MIG will support the development of GM varieties with obvious benefits such as frost tolerance, or varieties which directly benefit growers and consumers," he said. "We should not stop investigating any option with potential to increase production and profit in agriculture."

GRDC Research Code WAF3
For more information: Tim Braslin, 0427 423 109, brascont@katel.net.au;
Brian McAlpine, 08 9664 2053, brianmcalpine@bigpond. com;
Clancy Michael, 08 9928 1115, michaelcj@wn.com.au;
Peter Roberts, 08 9838 9060, p&jroberts@esat.net.au

Region National, North, South, West