Science challenged to find grain's next step-change

Brad Collis reports on the challenges ahead that were discussed at the recent Future Broadacre Agricultural Landscape Conference in Perth

Fly-in fly-out farmers, family farms run along corporate lines and with corporate partners, and larger regional centres with fewer surrounding towns. This is a glimpse of the future for farming"s next generation, by one of Australia"s largest grain growers, Chris Henderson, who farms 15,000 hectares in WA"s south-eastern wheatbelt.

Mr Henderson provided a grower"s perspective when the future of broadacre agricultural landscapes was analysed by academics, researchers and policy-makers in Perth recently.

Mr Henderson was optimistic about the next 30 years, but predicted farms, especially grain farms, would be operating quite differently to today.

He believes that many recent innovations, such as owner-managers commuting to their properties for seeding and harvesting, more diverse rotations to allow year-round cropping, no-till and precision agriculture, and GM technologies, are a sign of what"s to come.

He said the benefits of research and development were clearly understood by growers, and their reliance on research would continue.

Looking ahead 25 to 30 years, he predicted the main research priorities, depending on different landscape circumstances, would be:

He placed particular emphasis on the future role of biotechnologies and genetic modification: “GM is the great hope for the future, for staying in front of agronomic challenges, including growing crops on saline land,” he said.

Mr Henderson lashed state governments that have imposed the GM moratoriums which he said had caused important investment to leave Australia: “These governments have been spineless in not standing up to people who have been spreading misinformation.”

He said that while research had proved vital, gains had been incremental, and this would not be enough. The research priority had to be "step change" and GM crops would be one such major step.

Changes already underway meant it was not hard to see the coming of remote-controlled farm machinery, large capacity on-farm storage, income streams from further along the value chain, corporate investment in family-owned farms, and the banning of practices such as stubble burning.

Mr Henderson said that by 2030 it was likely that the number of farms would halve, but he still believed the most efficient would be owned and run as family operations, on corporate principles and in partnership with other corporate investors. He described fly-in fly-out (or drive-in/drive-out) farmers as the worst case scenario for rural communities, but a reality that was already happening.

The GRDC-supported Future Broadacre Agricultural Landscapes Conference in June was a joint initiative of the Department of Agriculture, University of WA, Murdoch University, Curtin University and CSIRO. The two-day conference and one-day workshop was to understand future research priorities for the grainbelt, primarily in WA, but also as a pointer to the national scene.

In the October issue of Ground Cover, conference organiser Dr Miles Dracup, from the Department of Agriculture WA, will report on the workshop in which some of the industry"s leading researchers mapped out their blueprint for future research priorities.

GRDC Research code: DAW 00094, program 6

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