Earth, Water, Wind, Fire – Part 2

Water

tap_water-otherAs human beings, our need for water is basic and fundamental. The access to clean drinking water is one of our primary humanitarian needs. However, water is also integrally linked to food and fibre production. Without water, plants would not grow and animals would not survive. We also use water for industry and in our daily lives in many ways. Our entire planetary ecosystem is ultimately dependent on water.

Australia is a land of extremes, with crippling drought and raging floods all too familiar to us all. Water is not something that we take for granted and it never seems to be available in the quantities we need when we really need it. There are also competing needs for water, with difficult struggles to ensure all stakeholders have an equitable share.

Approximately 67% of all water used in Australia goes towards producing food and fibre through irrigation (2004 ABS data). This water generates an annual irrigated farm revenue of $9.6 billion! The remainder of our food and fibre production relies on water from natural rainfall.

However irrigators also share the pain and stress of water shortages. Their whole livelihoods rely on reliable access to water. And it is not only their livelihoods, it is the livelihoods and social well being of whole communities that those farmers support.

The story that I want to share here is one that shows how Australian farmers are among the most efficient users of water in the world. Our innovators and researchers are constantly seeking new ways to grow more food and fibre with less water. Our farmers are embracing world leading water management methods. Internationally, we are leading the way in water management and others are looking to us to learn from our experiences.

I don’t say that flippantly. I have been lucky enough to travel to many of the most significant irrigation areas in the world. From my observations our adoption of technology and careful, judicious use of water is paralleled in very few other regions, and certainly not to the wide extent it is here.

Professor of Water and Environmental policy, Mike Young, from the University of Adelaide recently backed up this assessment when he shared with ABC Rural his view that Australian irrigators are by far the best in the world and that the rest of the world is now looking to us for water management solutions.

This has not happened over night. It has been a huge industry effort, with many great minds working on this challenge for many years; well before the recent droughts and woes of the Murray Darling Basin brought our perilous water situation into sharp focus of the general population.

The Irrigated Crop Management Service was first set up in Loxton South Australia in the 1980’s and introduced for the first time a holistic approach to water management, tailoring the amount of water applied to the varying soil requirements through soil mapping and soil water measurement. This was an introduction to early concepts of Precision Farming well ahead of its time.

At around the same time, soil water measurement and monitoring services were being established in cotton growing regions of NSW, to fine tune the amount of water being applied to match the crop needs.

Thanks to the early innovators driving industry forward, these two regions can be classified as highly efficient irrigators with extremely high adoption rates of new technologies and management techniques.

Private innovative Australian companies such as Sentek Technologies then successfully commercialized new products in the early 1990’s, which enhanced these approaches and introduced the concept of integrated soil water management to the rest of the world. Many other exciting and innovative products and approaches have been developed by Australian companies since. These approaches have been widely recognised and adopted by consultants and irrigators alike.

100_0181Ground breaking research has been conducted in Australia on enhancing quality of fruit crops through regulated deficit irrigation, where water is withheld at critical times of the growing season. The practices are now adopted commonly in the wine grape and stone fruit industries to achieve exceptional quality with reduced amounts of water. Peter Dry’s team at the Waite Institute revealed Partial Rootzone Drying to the world, where the approach of only watering part of the plant’s root zone at any particular time enabled significant water savings in some crops without impacting on yield or quality.

Our plant researchers are also hard at work to develop new plant genotypes that are more drought tolerant and use less water.

Without a doubt, we still need to strive to do more, and produce more with less. We need to work through our policies to ensure our water resources are shared fairly and that we all have access to the water required to meet our basic needs. Once again though, despite all the difficulties and hurdles we are going through at the moment, Australia is leading the way in setting sound policies to secure our future water resources. These are difficult negotiations as they impact on so many people’s livelihoods, but the ground work being laid now will hopefully ensure the long term security of our water resources.

As the driest inhabited continent on earth, Australia can stand up and be proud of our achievements and how far we have come in the last 30 years!

Click here to read Part 1 of the Earth, Water, Wind, Fire series of blogs, which takes you one a journey underneath our feet.

Earth, Water, Wind, Fire!

Earth, water, wind and fire! The four natural elements described across many ancient beliefs and mythologies as the foundations of our world. While modern day science provides a more sophisticated understanding of how our world is composed and connected, the production of our food and fibre can still be integrally linked to those four basic elements.

In my blog Raising our voices in tune, not discord, I touched on how agriculture is underpinned by fascinating and complex science. In this series of blogs I will introduce you to some of those stories and take you on a fascinating journey of discovery, where we find out why those four elements are so important in feeding the world.

Part 1. Earth

The story begins with the amazing, living world that exists beneath our feet. This world is a dark and often mysterious place, where sunlight rarely ventures, but it is very much alive and ever changing. This is the world that is commonly known as soil.

When we skim across the soil surface we often just see dry dust, dirt or mud, but if we zoom in and look more closely we can usually see a multitude of small holes. Let’s take a deep breath, shrink in, get brave, turn on the spotlight and climb into one of these holes. As we slide down the uneven pathway we enter into a chaotic underworld city. There are building blocks of rock, gravel, sand, clay and silt particles of all different shapes and sizes. Some of those buildings look tough and strong. Bullet proof. Others are weak and incredibly fragile, looking as if they will crumble at the slightest of sneezes. The architecture is crazy and varied, but there is also a similarity in some of the patterns and consistency in the structures. A strange kind of order exists amongst it all.

Living within this city is a hugely diverse community of living things; millions of different species of arthropods, earthworms, nematodes, protozoa, fungi and bacteria. There is so much mystery about this incredibly ecosystem, so much that we don’t know. But what we do know is that these societies are vital to our survival. They help to break down organic matter and turn it into vital plant food. Without them, we wouldn’t exist.

Between the building blocks are incredibly complex networks of interconnected roadways and waterways, through which the living creatures live and travel. They also act as essential supply channels for air, nutrients and water. And within and between the buildings are stores for food and water, supplying the living soil community. It is a hive of activity, an ever changing world.

Now down into this incredible city also come the roots from plants. The strong, structural roots make their way along the bigger pathways; the major highways. They lodge themselves between the building blocks and with incredible strength, form the foundation for the plants above. Imagine the structural strength required to keep one of these trees upright!

IMG_0904Plants then sends out finer roots in search of water, nutrients and oxygen and take up the vital supplies into the plant. This is a constant ebb and flow. Stores are depleted by the plants. Water enters the system after rainfall or irrigation.  Root systems adapt accordingly. Leaf litter falls onto the ground surface and plant roots slough off old cells and grow new roots. Soil organisms break down this organic matter to release more food for the plant. Organisms dig through to make new pathways and the city evolves in a never ending cycle.

Amongst all the chaos and complexity is a beautiful yet incredibly fragile balance of life. Many of these soil cities are vibrant and healthy and support productive and sustainable agricultural systems. Others, unfortunately, are not.

Our modern Australian farmers know how important it is to preserve and protect our vibrant soil cities because they are the foundation of life on this planet. So the next time you eat a meal or get dressed, take time to say thanks for that wonderful world beneath our feet that helps to put food on our table and supply our natural fibres. And take time to say thanks to our  farmers for taking care of our future!

Reflections of an apple orchard in Autumn

One thing that farmers are often overlooked for is their deep affinity for the land. A farmer has an intrinsic sense of appreciation for the physical landscapes around them and never takes them for granted.

I am fortunate to live on an apple orchard and every single day I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am. No matter how stressed or unhappy I may be after a particularly difficult day, a walk around the property has an incredibly calming effect. It never ceases to amaze me how often my breath is taken away by the beauty of my surroundings.

cropped-img_0838.jpgAutumn in the heart of apple growing country is in particular a very special time of year. It is the time when the long toils of the year come to fruition, when the fruit ripens and is harvested. It is a hive of activity!

The sounds of autumn here are listening to the low rumble of tractors shifting bins of apples, the clank of ladders and the gentle chatter of pickers in the orchard. It is the growl of trucks carrying bins of fruit to be packed or stored, with a steady line of trucks heading to the cool stores well into the evening. It also means very long working days as growers start at first light, pick all day, then work to get bins out for the next day and put fruit away late into the night,

IMG_3050Autumn is also when the night temperatures drop, with cold, crisp mornings followed by clear, sunny days. The cool nights and warm sunshine combine to bring out the best possible colours and flavours in the fruit. The cold morning air and hint of frost or dew on the ground takes your breath away when you take the first few steps outside, then invigorates your body. Before long, the sun creeps up over the horizon and gradually warms you through. Then as the sun plummets over the horizon again at the end of the day, so does the temperature, ready to begin the cycle again.

Autumn in an orchard is also a brilliant display of colour, with leaves changing to a kaleidoscope of yellows after the fruit has been harvested. By late afternoon, the dusty air filters the sunshine to a golden yellow, reflecting off the white trunks of the eucalyptus trees and the dry grassy paddocks nearby, contrasting with the deep greens of the orchard grass and the brilliant pinks and reds of the fruit still ripening on the trees.

100_2457In an apple orchard, Autumn is also characterized by the sweet smell of ripe fruit on the trees and in the cool rooms, and discarded fruit fermenting on the orchard floor. The smells of autumn in an apple orchard are divine!

But the greatest joy of all is biting into a crisp, sweet, juicy apple that has been freshly picked from the tree. Savouring the loud crunch resonating through your ears, the intense flavours and magnificent juiciness.

As harvest draws to a close and winter approaches, now is the time where apple growers take stock, review their activities for the year and consider the commercial gains or losses of their enterprise. However it is also a time to pause and be grateful for having the privilege to be caretakers of this amazing corner of the world and to provide fresh, healthy food to our communities.

Three things we can all do to make a difference

The feedback has been overwhelming. Many people want to buy local. Many people want to support local farmers. They just don’t always know how and the choices aren’t always easy for them. Wearing my consumer hat, I am one of those people.

Recently I discovered a documentary today called “Broken Limbs”, highlighting the plight of apple growers in Washington State and how a change in thinking and farming styles provided a glimmer of hope. During the making of this film, the filmmakers Guy Evans and Jamie Howell  discovered that their own purchasing and eating habits were transformed. They discovered that shopping habits formed over a lifetime are not changed overnight, but one small purchase, one meal at a time.

They put out a challenge……….. this challenge was that “During the course of your normal shopping in the next week, try to buy three products of local or regional origin.”

So I am going to take up that challenge, and taking their advice, turn it into three simple tasks when I go shopping.

1. Buy at least three local items each time I go shopping.

I will check the labels on at least three products each time I go shopping and make sure they are Australian Made from Australian produce and if possible something local.IMG_2966

Sometimes the labels aren’t as obvious as this pear etched with the South Australian map! Understanding labels is a challenge. So I am going to make the effort to really look hard on 3 items each shop. If I can’t be sure, I will pick another product.

I will make the effort that each time I shop I pick three different items to check out. If I do this every time I shop, it won’t be long before my complete shopping selection will be effortlessly filled with local produce.

2. If I can’t find a local choice or am not sure about something, I will ask for it.

A produce manager or shop keeper will listen to what the consumers want, but they need to know what we are thinking. If enough of us ask the same question, change will happen.

3. Support, share and remember the local labels I get to know and love.

When I find a local product that I enjoy, I will make sure I remember the brand and look for it the next time I shop. Once I have made that first choice, the next time should be easy. But more than that, I will spread the word about that brand. I will let them know what it is about their product that I enjoy, I will share my experience with my friends and networks and help others make that choice.

That is my challenge that I am taking up and I will share my ride with you as I go.

Only 3 simple tasks! I’d love it if you would join me.

A beautiful celebration of family and food

Today was a great day for me. I was woken early by my two young boys (4 and 6), bursting with excitement and eager to wish me a happy mother’s day and share with me their special presents they had put so much effort into making. I was up with a rush of energy, ready to tackle the kitchen and prepare a feast to share with my beautiful mum.

In fact, the feast preparation had begun yesterday, when I had decided that mother’s day this year was going to be a celebration of family and food, two of the fundamental pillars of life. The slow cooked pork belly sourced from the local butcher (from local pork) was braised for most of yesterday afternoon in preparation.

The plan was for hand made pork belly ravioli. Like all good plans, they usually go astray somewhere along the line. So when I went to make the pasta this morning I realised I didn’t have the two ingredients; eggs or flour! Should have planned that one better! Eggs should be easy – my mother in law next door has chooks. Only, when I went to get some more, I find out the chooks have stopped laying. So I quickly drive to the nearest shops (10 minutes away; we are lucky on the farming scale) to stock up on supplies.

Eggs in the supermarket, I am faced with 15 choices. Caged, cage free, free-range, home brand, other brands ….. what to choose? Then flour. Another 15 choices. Keen to make sure I am buying Australian flour from an Australian company, but in a hurry, I scour the labels. Confused and no idea from the label on what I am really buying other than it is something marked “Premium Flour – Australian Produce”, I load the packet into my basket then move on to grab some other last minute supplies.

I am thrilled that my toilet paper is 100% made in Australia from an Australian company. I have no idea where the wood chips that made the paper came from. By the time I got to the shaving cream and deodorant for my husband I grabbed the brands that I knew without any clue where they come from, threw a bottle of Tweedvale Milk in my basket (real, local milk) and rushed home.

Well, the ravioli was superb, and went down an absolute treat with the pear, rocket and walnut salad, topped with olive oil and lemons (all either home grown or sourced locally). And of course, our family favourite, apple pie made with freshly picked Pink Lady apples.

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Most important of all was the special family time, but food was the fundamental core, and if we view all great cultures and celebrations, this is true across all.

So as I sit down on reflection at the end of the day, enjoying a glass of our home-grown and home-made wine, what I begin to question is my own values as a consumer and what I experienced today. How often as an ardent Aussie farmer supporter do I really make the effort to scour usually confusing labels and do my homework to make sure I am making sound purchasing choices. How often do I just quickly grab what I know, or what looks good, because the kids are playing up or I am in a hurry?

So, if, as someone who should know better, still makes impulsive shopping purchases, how can we expect anyone else to do any different?

Labeling laws are part of the battle, but not all. If I am shopping in a hurry, I don’t have time to stop and read the labels. I will grab what I know. The brand I recognise and have had a positive experience with previously.

So is the big question, how do we brand our produce to make it stand out? How do we tell the consumer what the “brand values” of our produce are?

Raising our voices in tune, not discord

Last night #Agtalks hosted a discussion titled “Food is trendy, so why doesn’t anyone want to grow it?”. It got me thinking about my journey into agriculture and why there is still a big divide between the realities of farming and public perception.

Both of my parents grew up on farms in Victoria. Long held, family farms – one in dairy and the other a mixed sheep & grains farm. They were the younger children in their respective families, with older siblings taking over the running of the farm and so they both moved to the city in search of other opportunities. Consequently I grew up on a large semi-suburban block in the Adelaide Hills; a far cry from any kind of farming lifestyle. I have many happy memories of family holidays visiting my uncles and cousins on the farm, but it never even entered my mind that I could possibly have a career related to farming. It just seemed like a completely inaccessible world. Unless you were born into a farm, how could you possibly become a farmer?

It was only when I was feeling lost at school in Year 12, with no real idea of what I wanted to do with my life, that a very smart career adviser suggested that I might consider Agricultural Science as a career option. My initial reaction was one of incredulation. I never even knew that there was such a course you could study! But once I started looking into it and could see the diverse range of opportunities available I was instantly taken with the idea. This was the career for me! A mixture of indoors and outdoors, helping farmers to grow food and fibre more efficiently, fascinating and complex science and the chance to help feed the world!

In the 20 something years since that moment, my experiences in agriculture have led me on an amazing journey that I could never have fully predicted and that have far surpassed my initial hopes. I have conducted research trials in Victoria working on postharvest packing lines, I have been in and out of countless soil pits anywhere from Margaret River to Mannum, I have travelled the globe from Sri Lanka to Spain helping irrigators manage their water more efficiently, I have learned about many different aspects of business and most importantly, I have met and worked with an amazing diversity of people and cultures.

My love affair with agriculture was further cemented fairly early during that journey when I met and married an apple grower. I have truly become a part of the rural community and I feel eternally grateful to be involved in such as special industry as agriculture. I also feel truly blessed to be able to raise my children in an area where they can grow up with a sense of freedom and awareness in their environment.  I wonder where I would have ended up if it wasn’t for that very wise career adviser. Clearly even in the 1980’s there was a huge disconnect between farming and the broader community and if someone hadn’t steered my in the right direction, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wonder how many bright and clever school children there are today who would thrive in the agricultural environment but are as equally unaware of the opportunities as I was. I wonder how many career advisers today are also unaware of the possibilities and are not encouraging children to consider agriculture as a career.

So with agriculture providing so many fantastic opportunities, why are enrollments in university courses for agricultural science and agribusiness at an all time low? I am sure there is no simple answer to this question, but I am firm believer that this disconnect is largely due to the way our industry portrays ourselves.

Let’s think about the kinds of headlines that we see all the time …. “farmers struggling with drought” ….. “high Aussie dollar hurting exports” …….. “lack of opportunities for youth in rural areas”  ……. “bank foreclosing on another farm”  ………… “farmers struggling to survive with high costs and low returns” .

Can we really blame people for not wanting to get involved in agriculture when they are constantly bombarded with this negativity? Sure, there are challenges which should not be underestimated, and those headlines are generally true, but they only paint one side of the picture.

What about the headlines that talk about all the great stuff?

………”Aussie farmers leading the world in efficiency of food production”

………”Australian researchers develop new, drought tolerant wheat varieties”

………”Australian farmers amongst highest adopters of new technology in the country”

………”Australian farmers working hard to preserve our natural environment”

….. and the long list goes on …..

We should be singing these messages from the roof tops and beating our chests with pride. We ARE a great industry and our nation and the world’s population rely on us to meet their needs for food and fibre. If we sing it loud enough and for long enough in unison, maybe, just maybe we might start getting heard.

Just imagine what could happen if this became a reality? Our next generation of clever innovators will want to work in our industry, where there are some of the greatest needs for continued technological advancement. Our consumers will want to support us and purchase our fantastic Australian product, because they are hearing positive messages about it and they believe those messages. Demand for our product will increase, providing more opportunity for investment and growth. Politicians will listen to us because the general public wants them to.

It may seem like an idealistic dream, but surely it is worth a shot! I am going to sing as loudly as I can. Who is going to join me?

… and finally to leave you with a quote from Brenda Schoepp – “My grandfather used to say that once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher, but every day, three times a day, you need a FARMER”

Price is not the only factor

With food prices falling and more fresh imports arriving on our shores, why should Australian consumers care?

It is no secret that food production costs in Australia are amongst the highest in the world. This means that in order to survive and remain competitive our farmers are highly efficient operators. In fact, in many farming sectors Australia leads the way in setting world best. Farmers in other countries view Australian farmers with a mixture of respect and envy.

Sadly, with globalisation and cut-throat pricing strategies, even being the best in world is not enough for many farmers to remain viable today. The major retailers would have us believe that consumers are driven by solely by price and are aggressively sourcing the cheapest available product, supposedly all in the name of the consumer. They are importing more and more produce, often guised as a generic home-brand with unclear labels. Local suppliers are operating at world’s best practice, but still can’t compete.

Is it an insult to assume that consumers only care about price and should our farmers even try to be competing on price alone?

Food is relatively expensive to grow and produce in Australia because our Australian farmers meet the highest of standards and take the greatest of care.

Yes, our labour costs are higher than in almost any other food producing nation in the world, but this is so that every Australian can be assured of receiving a minimum wage that will afford them a decent standard of living. This is intrinsic to our Australian values.

Yes, regulation and red-tape places additional cost and burden on businesses, but this means that every worker in Australia can go to work with the knowledge that safety is paramount in work practices and that they will be provided support if they are injured at work. Every Australian worker has access to one of the best health care systems in the world. Every Australian worker has access to a guaranteed superannuation contribution.

Yes, our energy costs are high, but this means that we are not wasteful of energy and are constantly being driven towards more energy efficient means of production.

Yes, our overall cost of production is higher than many other countries, but this is because our farming systems take care of our environment. We invest heavily in new technology and research to ensure that we continue to lead the world in sustainable agricultural production. Caring for our country is ingrained in our farming culture, as each generation strives to pass the land on to the next generation in better condition than they received it, with more and more attention to detail. Our clean growing environment also means that we are free from many pests and diseases found in other parts of the world.

Yes, there are additional costs all the way through the production chain, from the moment the product leaves the farm gate until it reaches the dinner plate, but this means that our Food Safety Standards are exceptional. Our strict quality procedures mean that food hygiene is paramount and that fresh produce is kept at the correct temperatures throughout the entire supply chain. Our produce is tested regularly to ensure it complies with the strictest of food safety standards. Our consumers can have confidence that food grown and packed in Australia is safe.

Aussie Farmers delivering a proven and trusted product

Where else in the world can you purchase food with such confidence as you can in Australia? When you are buying Australian you are investing in something of enormous value.

Buying Australian means you know what you are eating. Buying Australian means you are supporting our environment. Buying Australian means you are supporting local jobs and employment. And most importantly, buying Australian means you are helping Aussie farmers survive. Without Aussie farmers what choice will you have?