“Future Farm” Research, Education, and Implementation Centre 

Some Difficult Truths

Firstly, some context. The focus of this idea is on dryland farming systems, but other systems could also be included e.g. viticulture. 

The foundation of this idea is drawn from a number of reports, one of which is the pivotal publication Report On The Condition Of Agricultural Land in South Australia (2004). The report states that there are 10.2 million ha of agricultural land in the state (although there is also another figure used in the report that says 15 million ha). 

Consider this figure when reading the results of the report below :

  • About 781,000 hectares have a moderate to high inherent susceptibility to water erosion by virtue of soil type and land slope.
  • About 2.4 million hectares have a moderate to high susceptibility to wind erosion, and 3.5 million ha have a moderate to low susceptibility, "but which can be at risk during extreme rainfall events"
  • “At least 1.9 million hectares ... is either already in a degraded state due to acidity, or is on the brink of damage due to acidification.” Agriculture accelerates the acidification process and results in productivity decline.
  • About "879,000 hectares of land in the State has a very low topsoil pH" - these soils are naturally acidic. Lime is introduced to raise the pH. 
  • There is currently 729,000 hectares of saline land in the State and "without intervention, by 2050 the area of saline land could exceed an estimated 900,000 ha".
  • “The area of land directly affected by water-table induced secondary salinity in the agricultural and remnant native vegetation areas of the state is estimated to be around 398,000 ha. This is predicted to increase to about 593,000 ha in the next 20-50 years, with most of the increase on the coastal plain of the Mid and Upper South East.” 
  • “Almost 1.7 million hectares...have soils with physical properties that make them inherently susceptible to soil surface structure breakdown.” 
  • “The majority of South Australian soils have very low natural phosphorus levels, and often have trace element deficiencies. Without very large inputs of key nutrients, agricultural productivity would be very low.” 
  • “There are about 2.48 million hectares ... that are moderately to severely affected by water repellence.” 
  • During the assessment period of the Report, the rate of revegetation of native species for non-commercial purposes was about 4,000 ha annually, and for native non-indigenous species was 400 - 1,000 ha annually. Blue gum plantations in the South-East and other small-scale agroforestry plantations (mainly in Mt Lofty Ranges) increased the annual revegetation rate. 
  • "It will take many decades of revegetation at this rate to have a significant impact on major NRM issues like dryland salinity, soil erosion or native habitat restoration.” The desirable native revegetation rate was 20,000 - 50,000 ha/year.

The results for the report are now more than 11 years old, so what is needed now is updated information. The above report was titled “Report No.1” but there has not been a “Report No. 2”, although it was ‘promised’.

Every effort needs to be made to arrest and reverse the continual decline of natural resources and halt accelerating degradation. Farming system instability is discussed here

Every landowner should develop greater understanding of system instability. Change has to happen, and sooner rather than later.

Ideas about the “Future Farm” Research, Education, and Implementation Centre

  • Taking a cue from the Future Farm Industries Cooperative Research Centre (FFI CRC) in WA, a focus would be on the dryland cropping areas of the Mid North and Yorke regions (the historic wheat-belt frontier of the 1860’s onwards). For illustration, I have an issue of the latest FFI CRC magazine that I will make available. This idea could be seen to be the responsibility of the N&Y NRM Board or PIRSA or Department of Environment, Water, & Natural Resources, or other government entity, but the problem is that too often people wait for governments to take action. Landscape-scale change is not happening in this state, and so the idea is to facilitate on-ground action in a large way. Here’s how ... 

  • The Centre could assess at the regional scale what has not been done (to the author’s knowledge) by PIRSA, N&Y NRM Board, and other organisations. For example, collection and assessment of climate data from a network of regional weather stations (that would need to be installed), including a network of pan evaporimeters to record evaporation (evaporation is a critical issue that is little understood at the local and regional scales). Engage schools throughout the region to assist with this work. 

  • Extension services have also been in decline for decades in SA (and nationally) and perhaps a re-think is needed about how to engage the farming sector in new opportunities. One very viable opportunity is carbon farming, and this could also partially solve the acute problems of biodiversity in the state. 

  • Analysis of farm input-output, and the apparent little understood aspect of risk; determine where the “stressed” farms are and why they are in that condition. Provide moral support wherever possible. Does RDA (MN&Y) have information?

  • Investigate new crops and implement on-farm establishment and monitoring of many pilot sites across the region. For example, a mallee industry (similar to FFI CRC project in WA) and other crops that CSIRO and PIRSA have investigated in the past such as Guayule (see this brief article http://www.pir.sa.gov.au/aghistory/minor_crops/guayule). Source and catalogue as much information as possible, start a conversation with farmers about diversifying into other crops. Become the hub for research of new regional crops. 

  • Form a co-operative arrangement with FFI CRC to investigate and implement a mallee oil and bio-char industry.

  • Educate farmers about new possibilities of farm and resources sustainability, enlist small groups in local areas to come together and co-operate on new possibilities. Empower.

  • Use “the property” as a hub for farmers (large and small) to come together in think-tank or mastermind groups to discuss and learn about current and predicted problems and solutions. It could become a place of respite for farmers with common concerns.

  • In support of (or in spite of, depending on one’s point of view) rural research in Australia as presented in this article, build the capacity to provide extension services to farms. Become a bridge between producer and researcher.

  • As defined in the Adaptation Framework, seek to be a key centre for community engagement on matters not able to be executed by N&Y NRM Board (see Chapter 3 of the Framework). Become the centre for a Regional Steering Committee; be involved in the Regional Integrated Vulnerability Assessment.

  • Become a hub for the investigation and preparation of responses (submissions) to national and state inquiries on resources, planning, and environmental matters. For example, the Adaptation Framework, and the recent parliamentary inquiry on “Sustainable Farming” (for interest, here’s my response, and note particularly the part on Farming System Instability).

  • Potential funding - seek contributions from agronomic/agricultural businesses, agricultural machinery businesses, farmer organisations, local government. Use these funds to leverage state/federal government funding if it exists. 

The reader may think that the above ideas will be difficult to achieve, or may be unrealistic. 

Where are the skilled people and other required resources going to come from? Who is going to manage all this? How is it all going to operate? 

It should never be said - it can’t be done! In times of war, in times of natural disasters, people mobilise ... for a cause. 

The somewhat bleak future outlook for South Australia could be likened to a war in terms of people needing to mobilise and to work together. It can be done - if there’s the will.

The Next Idea … Native Vegetation Nursery, Seed Bank, and Carbon Farming

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