Grower Groups - Having fun is part of Yuna's winning ways

By Kay Ansell

The traditional camp oven is both practical and symbolic for Western Australia"s Yuna Farm Improvement Group (YFIG), which won the 2003 GRDC Neighbourhood Grower Group Awards, announced in March.

The Yuna group, located 80 kilometres north-east of Geraldton, often end their day"s activities with a social gathering around the barbie, sharing the steaming contents of the cast-iron casserole cooker and a few cold ales. "Everyone brings along their own food and sticks it into the pot on the fire," says YFIG"s president, Andrew Williamson.

Just as valuable is the opportunity these occasions offer for tossing new ideas into the pot: ideas about how to improve their activities, develop as professionals, support their community and have a good time along the way.

This inclusiveness and responsiveness to fresh concepts were among the qualities that helped the small, close-knit group beat entrants from around Australia to win the $8000 prize.

The GRDC Product Service and Delivery Manager, Vic Dobos, says it is clear from the group"s application that its members have fun - an important benefit of grower group membership. He says the award is just one example of GRDC"s backing of grower groups, which includes support for coordinators who provide the links between groups and offer access to professional development opportunities or engage in farm-based research and development activities.

YFIG"s plans for how to spend the prize money are typically outward looking. Mr Williamson says they will pile into a bus and visit other community groups and end-users down their value chain, such as maltsters, grain handlers and abattoir operators.

Even weeks after the announcement at Grains Week in Perth in March, the YFIG"s 20 farming family members were still "stoked", he says.

Yuna has several houses and a local tavern that also runs the general store and post office, a primary school and local sporting facilities. The group"s members are spread between five and 50 kilometres from the town, throughout the area"s rolling hills and sandy plains.

"The farms have grown bigger and there are fewer families but we definitely want to keep our community going," he says.

"Our membership includes just about every farming family in the district.

"We are predominantly a young farming community. The average age of members is 27 and many of the older generation have had their time and are not afraid to step back and let us have a go.

"Naturally, youth is looking for easier and better ways to enjoy the farming life."

Mr Williamson says Yuna"s growers face some harsh conditions: the region is very open to wind erosion and its sand plain lakes present drainage problems in the wetter areas.

Summer daytime temperatures hover around 40oC and soar up to 45oC, but the isolation and challenges have united the members in their quest to improve their farming practices. At the start of each year, the group - which has no paid staff - sets its agenda by ranking the issues its members regard as most important, after wide consultation.

Trials are designed and sited and the results are collated into one booklet. The responsibility for organising field walks at trials is spread among the large committee to make sure the workload is shared and that younger members gain the organisational experience that underlies the group"s succession planning.

YFIG"s interests are diverse. "We run whole and half-day courses on anything from spraying to succession planning to men"s health - you name it and we will run a course on it, providing that it benefits the community.

Because we feel that we want to improve our whole lifestyle and not just what we do on-farm - it"s what we are here for, and that includes having fun."

Among the Yuna group"s bigger achievements was a three-year $700,000 GRDC-funded project on precision agriculture, which was led by the CSIRO in conjunction with Landmark. Its final report was presented in February this year.

It is also leading the way on chemical resistance issues, including its involvement with the WA Department of Agriculture in a trial examining the long-term control of phenoxy-resistant wild radish.

As part of its support of the local community, the group share-crops on Yuna"s recreational reserve. Where horses once pounded past on picnic race days, a thriving canola crop was cultivated last year with the proceeds being used for the benefit of the farming community.

Now, back to that camp oven. What ingredients would YFIG"s president see as essential to a grower group"s success: "Basically, open-mindedness, a willingness to share ideas and to have a good time!"

For more information:
Andrew Williamson, 08 9931 1018

GRDC Research Code: MIG 0002, program 6