MEET YOUR PROGRAM MANAGER: Challenges lead to new research line-up by John Harvey

Ross Gilmour, John Cullen, Jim Fortune, Martin Blumenthal, Kirsten Pietzner, Jan Mahoney

THE RECENT outstanding performance of the grains industry has seen growth from a $3.3 billion industry in 1990- 91 to a $8.4 billion industry in 2001--02. Productivity growth has been higher than in any other broad acre industry, averaging 3.2 per cent per annum.

The industry's commitment to research and innovation has been a major contributor. However, the recent 'Crop Updates' in Perth and the 'GRDC Adviser Update' in Bendigo, Vic, among other feedback, have sent a clear message that there are many challenges confronting the industry. In most cases, the complexity of these challenges is daunting.

For example, if the cost-price squeeze continues as expected, the industry will need to increase productivity by 30 per cent over the next 10 years, just to tread water.

At the same time capturing quality markets and high yields will remain critical, while our customers are growing ever more demanding. In relation to the resource base and environment, there are those in the community (and particularly in the scientific community) saying that we need a revolution in broadacre agriculture - to develop farming practices that are uniquely adapted to the Australian continent.

Given these many challenges, what can the GRDC do that will really make a difference?

Our commitment to the regional panel structure remains as enthusiastic as ever. But one significant change for the better has been the simplification of our program structure from 25 programs (52 subprograms) to the six shown in the diagram. Each of the programs is managed by a program team consisting of six regional panel members and a program manager.

My role as Executive Manager Program Operations involves overviewing the five programs of research and innovation (Programs 1-5) - ensuring investments are coordinated and consistent with the Corporation's strategic intent.

Ground Cover brings you the new line-up of GRDC program managers who introduce each of the programs and themselves, in agreeably varying styles.

Program 1: Winter Cereal Improvement

The Winter Cereal Improvement Program encompasses crop improvement for wheat. barley, oats, triticale and rye. The scope of the program includes plant breeding, agronomy, breeding technology, grain quality for end use, germ plasm development, pathology (where directly related to breeding) and education. The program also manages the GRDC's investments in functional genomics and longer-term archiving of plant genetic resources.

Ross Gilmour is the program manager. He joined the GRDC last year and tells Ground Cover readers in his own words:

"I grew up on a mixed grain and beef property that my brother now runs on the Darling Downs. It was a great place to grow up.

"I never really considered a career other than agricultural science and I did my PhD working in Paul Brennan's wheat-breeding program in Toowoomba.

"For 10 years, I worked in Western Australia as a wheat and barley breeder, and for five years worked in Southeast Asia on the genetic improvement of plantation crops. I returned to Australia in March 2000.

"I have a broad range of interests in science and technology (S&T), including areas not related to agriculture. My wife, Marie, is involved in launching satellites, which has broadened those S&T interests.

Our son, Michael (aged 2), has applied to join the NASA space program."

Program 2: Crop Improvement

The Crop Improvement Program aims to increase the profitability and sustainability of the grains industry with the release of new, better-adapted varieties of pulses, oilseeds and coarse grains for different farming systems.

Crops range from those of major importance grown over wide areas stich as canola to those confined to specific regions, like sorghum, to still others that occupy niche areas, such as millet. Some of them have a major export focus while others support important domestic industries. However, they all play an important role in the overall profitability of the different farming operations. The program also helps foster the links between Australian programs and the various international centres to ensure access to new germplasm for the different crops.

John Cullen is the program manager. He told Ground Cover he joined the GRDC in 1995 from Griffith University and has been involved in the pulse, oilseed and coarse grain areas since then. He is well acquainted with the issues and the people involved. Prior to joining the GRDC, John was involved in the assessment and commercialisation of university research and has also worked in industry as an engineer.

He believes improvements in productivity are essential for the future of the industry. That means better cultivars, better crop management and improvements in grain quality. These areas should also benefit from program focus on germ plasm enhancement, agronomy, pathology (related to breeding). biotechnology and improved education of both growers and researchers.

Program 3: Crop Protection

The Crop Protection Program focuses on developing and delivering cost-effective, robust and environmentally responsible solutions to current and potential threats. This includes investment in cultivars that are resistant to disease and pest challenge, management of resistance to pesticides as well as better understanding of pest biology, crop-pest interactions, management and genetic solutions. The program also focuses on stewardship for the broader society involving local and national crop protection issues that can affect applied management, and risk-based approaches to crop protection threats and hazards.

Jim Fortune is the program manager and has provided the following 'potted history'.

"After schooling in country WA and Perth I gained my Ag degree from the University of WA. During high school and uni I had the opportunity of working on farms in the WA wheatbelt followed by a PhD in Agronomy at Massey University in New Zealand. I returned to Australia in the mid-1980s to Victoria (Dookie) and WA (Muresk) as a lecturer, before returning to the Uni of WA as a Research Fellow. Most of my work involved plant-animal interactions (pastures, weeds, fodder, stubbles) and I was actively involved with CLiMA in their first couple of years - including introducing tagasaste into farming systems.

"A shift to Adelaide University coincided with the successful development of the CRC for Weed Management Systems. I joined the GRDC in 1998 bringing a broad range of experience in agriculture and an enjoyment of the diversity of skills and collaboration necessary to deliver effective outcomes for the grains industry. This still fuels my enthusiasm, while Jamie (12), Nicola (9) and Lynnette (unspecified) remind me of life outside agriculture."

... and some might call it an ode to crop protection:

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Has smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.

- Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

Program 4: Sustainable Farming Systems

The Sustainable Farming Systems Program encompasses all things sustainable - getting the most out of our soil and water resources in ways that protect their long-term use. The scope of the program includes effective rotations, precision agriculture, managing subsoil constraints and salinity, crop nutrition, soil microbes, pasture improvement for cropping systems and climate risk. Importantly, the program manages the 30 or more farming systems groups around the country.

Martin Blumenthal is the program manager. He tells readers:

"A family background in dairy farming in the Manning Valley of NSW combined with a desire to work in the third world attracted me to study Agriculture at the University of Sydney. There, a project on soybeans led to a life-long interest in the contribution legumes make to agriculture. (Soybeans were even on the menu when I married my wife, Sue!)

"I grew more than 400 different legumes for potential use as pasture leys in southern Queensland. I did my PhD on how best to fit subclover and murex medic into rotations in the central-west of NSW. My supervisor, Ray Ison, taught me a lot about the systems approach to solving problems. The next eight years were spent working on Lotus -a perennial legume suited to acid and saline soils.

"In 1997 I joined the ranks of management with NSW Agriculture as Program Leader Soils - I worked hard at ensuring NSW Ag was well placed to develop farming systems that made more efficient use of water and reduced deep drainage.

"This year I joined GRDC to work with growers in developing sustainable farming systems and the challenge continues."

Program 5: Value Chain

The Value Chain Program. 'Value chains' have become the dominant organisational arrangement in global food markets and the GRDC Value Chain Program responds to this development in the industry. In contrast with a 'supply chain' where production is often insensitive to market requirements, a 'value chain' is demand-driven. It recognises real opportunities for all chain participants to contribute to chain efficiency and to increase product value through skilful management.

Kirsten Pietzner is the program manager, who joined the GRDC in August 2000 as policy analyst in the Managing Director's Office and, in November 2001, took on the additional role of program manager. Prior to joining the GRDC, she worked for the Grains Council of Australia (GCA), where her responsibilities were in the areas of quality assurance, food safety, quarantine, plant health and trade. There, she developed the Graincare on-farm quality assurance program.

The GRDC program invests in innovative technologies on-farm, management practices and new grain products that will enhance grower profitability.

"The program is investing in market intelligence; grain storage, transport and handling logistics; grain quality management and marketing; product safety and integrity as well as new grain products," says Kirsten. "I strongly believe that such investments

will lead to increased grower profitability and an overall improvement in our competitive performance."

Program 6: Product and Service Delivery

The new Product and Service Delivery Program is designed to focus and integrate the delivery of outputs to Australian graingrowers from GRDC's total investment in research and development.

Other important users include advisers, researchers and government. The program provides an integrated marketing framework using a range of communication and commercialisation avenues to deliver the outcomes of research and innovation to industry. Partnerships and alliances with grower groups and the private sector will play an increasingly important role in the delivery of GRDC products and services.

The program embraces the concept of 'building a learning industry', which means providing a broad range of products and services to build industry capacity - offering the skills and knowledge required to support the ongoing development of the Australian grains industry. The program will expand to include education and training opportunities, including community/school education projects.

Jan Mahoney is the program manager, having recently joined the GRDC staff to take up this position.

Jan was formerly with the Department of Natural Resources and Environment in Victoria where she was responsible for purchasing R&D in all Victorian agriculture industries. Extensive experience with the grains industry has included roles as researcher, manager of a research farm and field testing program, working in industry development and agribusiness, science policy analyst, grains industry program coordinator, Regional Manager, North West Victoria, and Program Manager, Agriculture Industries.

She served as the first TOPCROP National Coordinator, responsible for the early commercialisation of varieties and also served for the last two and half years as a Director on the GRDC Board.

On a personal note, Jan has enjoyed success as a racehorse owner as well as competing in various equestrian disciplines. She is a partner in a cropping and grazing enterprise south of Horsham in Victoria. Her 19-year-old son helps provide a different perspective on life.

Region North