Farming's road to Damascus

John Traill at his Liverpool Plains property.

A Nuffield Scholarship is expected to lift a young farmer"s horizons beyond the home farm. But few start out realising that it is often the start of a never-ending journey. Kay Ansell looks at four scholars who have turned change into a way of life: two in this issue, two in December"s Ground Cover.

"The flow chart goes something like this: Nuffield - UK dairy farmer - holistic decision-making course - biological farming, with Nuffield firmly at the top." This is how John Traill summarises the zigzag of his life-changing journey that started with his Nuffield scholarship in 1999.

Photo: Looking after the next generation: John Traill at his Liverpool Plains property.

Mr Traill is passionate about sharing the hard-won lessons learned on the way to developing his system of biological farming. Innovation has become a way of life.

Mr Traill grows cereals on 1300 hectares of his 3500ha property on the southern Liverpool Plains in NSW, 85 kilometres west of Quirindi, where he also runs cattle and merinos. He defines "biological farming" as farming with nature.

"Insects, pests, diseases are there for reasons other than a deficiency of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides," he says. "They are symptoms of a problem in our system. Don"t get me wrong - we don"t believe in doing without chemicals entirely, but I believe we were overloading our chemicals. Now I use them judiciously."

He says biological farming is saving him money and creating healthier soil, and he cites a 30 percent reduction in chemical costs and a halving of his fertiliser bill.

He was already questioning the future of farming when he applied for his Nuffield scholarship, which was sponsored by the GRDC and the Grain Growers" Association.

His nominated area of study was climate change and its impact on nature - an issue he believes he may have experienced first-hand when he returned from his Nuffield tour in late 2000 to a rain deluge that delivered half his usual annual rainfall in just 10 days.

"That had catastrophic results for us. It introduced diseases - fusarium and black tip - and the best part of 1500 tonnes of wheat was downgraded to feed quality. It had a disastrous impact on our cash flow."

Understandably, it had Mr Traill asking: "Are we going to make it?" His conclusion was, "we needed a fundamental change".

He already considered himself a progressive grower and by his mid-20s was a role model for zero-till, having held several field days at his property. But he credits the Nuffield tour with encouraging him to be open-minded in his search for answers to the big questions, including how growers could meet the challenge of climate change, which he regards as likely to have the biggest impact on farming since the Industrial Revolution.

One of his answers came when he visited an unimpressively low-tech dairy farm in England. At a time when the average cost of producing milk there was 31 pence per litre and the return to producers was just 34p, this older dairy farmer had none of the latest gear but he was thriving. His secret? His cost of production was just 18p/litre.

When Mr Traill was looking for better ways to farm, the dairy farm reminded him that the costs of production were one of the few things over which he had control.

His Nuffield experience also encouraged him to enrol in a nine-day holistic decision-making course that focused on agriculture. The course encouraged people to question their assumptions and to continually ask whether a solution to a problem really dealt with the root cause.

Biological farming has restored his optimism in farming"s future, he says, and he is looking to the next generation to benefit.

"One of my goals is to make farming life so enjoyable and profitable and healthy that our children will want to continue farming."

He wants all farmers to consider applying for a Nuffield scholarship. "I can"t tell you what a difference it has made to my life. It has been life changing - I am realising how much more every day."

For more information:
John Traill, 02 6747 6280

New directions of achievement: Brendon Smart at his property in south-eastern SABrendon Smart"s study areas for his 1990 Nuffield Scholarship point to an early thirst for innovation - but they barely hint at the sweeping range of his current interests, which are still stimulated by his Nuffield experiences.

Photo: New directions of achievement: Brendon Smart at his property in south-eastern SA.

Mr Smart farms 3600 hectares in the southeast of SA, at Keith and Mundulla. "We also have vineyards at Hindmarsh Valley in the Fleurieu Peninsula, just south of McLaren Vale, and we do our own wine label as well - Peeralilla Hill," he says. "At Keith and Mundulla, we run livestock for both meat and wool. We are arable cropping and we are specialist producers under irrigation for lucerne seeds and vegetable seeds."

Back in 1990, he listed "soil and plant health, computer software, commercialisation and marketing pasture species" as his interests. While these activities have expanded, it is his development of an effective human resource model for his farm business that he regards as one of his most rewarding innovations.

Despite its importance, he says human resource (HR) management is generally overlooked by farmers.

Mr Smart is the current chairman of the Australian Nuffield Farming Scholars" Association, and he says the seeds of what became his HR quality management program were sown during his Nuffield scholarship year in 1990, while he was studying at Wye College in England.

HR management was part of the Wye College course, and Mr Smart was forced to reassess its role some years later when he lost valued employees at a time when he wanted to spend more time working on the business, rather than in the business.

"But for me to do that I had to step back and allow our guys in our team to have more involvement. So in about 1992 we called in some consultants and developed what we call a quality management program. It has been a success and the most significant thing we have introduced in the 25 years we have been in business.

"It put our business onto a new direction of achievement, growth, and well-being. I think we had totally underestimated the importance of human resource management back then - but it"s now one of our strongest points."

Mr Smart set up a board, run along corporate lines, with an external chairman and some external members, in addition to his family.

"By working on the business we are identifying opportunities, such as new technologies or better marketing systems, that we wouldn"t have before because we wouldn"t have had the time," he says.

Mr Smart has also been an innovator in cropping systems and was one of the early users of the Airtec spray irrigation system that controlled spray drift, making spraying more efficient and environmentally secure.

Taking up technology: Brendon Smart and son Damien with the Ausplow DBS seederIt suited his conservation farming approach, which continued with his support for the development and introduction to the eastern states of the Ausplow DBS (deep blade system) for minimum tillage.

"Nuffield impressed upon me that if you want to be sustainable and prosper in this business you have to be prepared to take up technology when you see its relevance."

Photo: Taking up technology: Brendon Smart and son Damien with the Ausplow DBS seeder.

He says Nuffield exposed him to some of the world"s best farming businesses, fuelling an ambition to match them. It also influenced his family"s continuing love of travel in the quest to learn more.

For more information:
Brendon Smart, 0417 820 301

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