Climate change: Nuffield scholar picks theme of the century by Alec Nicol

AT FIRST glance, John Traill's decision to use his Nuffield Scholarship to study the impact of climate change on agriculture seems a strange one.

His business is not unlike thousands of family farming enterprises around Australia. With his parents and his wife as partners, he produces grain, wool and cattle on two properties at Quirindi in north-western NSW.

Nuffield prides itself on producing agriculture's next generation of commercial leaders, so how is a study of something as cosmic as climate change going to benefit his business?

"If the current models for climate change are accurate, it will have the biggest impact on agricultural production of any event since the Industrial Revolution," Mr Traill says. "If we want sustainable agriculture we need to look at the way we're farming, see how much that's contributing to climate change, then develop systems of producing food, fibre and perhaps fuel that accommodate the changing conditions."

Thanking outside the comfort zone

Mr Traill's scholarship introduced him to a number of farmers with similar concerns, but it was the academics he met who encouraged him to think outside his comfort zone.

As a result he's become intensely conscious of the amount of energy our farming systems consume. He believes that the world will become more energy-conscious and that, just as with the 'clean green' tag, we'll eventually use an energy index as a selling point.

"Our present lifestyle is unsustainable and people will start to look for products that have used energy efficiently," he says. "We need to think about developing an energy index for everything we produce. We use a harvest index as a management tool, so calculating the amount of energy required to produce a tonne of grain, a side of beef or a lamb carcase is a natural progression.

"Our current system of farming depends on petrochemicals, unrenewable resources. We use large amounts of energy in fuel, fertiliser and herbicide production and the people I talked with on my study tour encouraged me to ask why and whether there are other ways of doing it."

Looking at his own backyard

That challenge prompted Mr Traill to reexamine his 15-year cycle of no-till farming. "We were seeing the development of glyphosate-resistant ryegrass, getting a 40 per cent return on nitrogen fertiliser if we were lucky and we've got an anaerobic soil with decomposing organic matter but no 'humus'. It's an ideal situation for the development of fusarium and other diseases.

"The Nuffield Scholarship encouraged me to go back to the start and find out why this has happened. That doesn't mean I want to become an organic farmer — organic farming won't feed the world — but I want to look at our soil and ask why it needs the fertiliser and the herbicides we're using. I want to look for the most energy-efficient form of farming and I think that means giving nature a chance."

Benefits to the farm business

Mr Traill remains enormously enthusiastic about his Nuffield experience, saying that the time away from his business paid handsome dividends.

"Importantly, I had tremendous support from my family but you learn that, to survive and grow a robust, dynamic business, it must be able to survive the absence of one of its key managers for a period. Our business not only survived my absence... it grew. My wife took on the responsibilities of grain trading while I was away and she's now an even more important and integral part of the business. Our business is better organised for the experience."

Program 6 Contact: Mr John Traill 02 6747 6280

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