Embracing change

The self propelled robot navigates its way along a row of fruit trees, constantly checking its location to ensure its wheels are placed to within a few centimetres precision of where it needs to be. It takes many thousands of images and measurements of the tree canopy in a split second, assessing fruit quality, colour, size and ripeness. Based on the information collected, it harvests only fruit that is at perfect colour and ripeness. The fruit that is picked by the robot is then once again photographed several times. Blemished fruit is separated out. A wealth of information is collected by the robot about each individual piece of fruit, down to which individual bud on which branch on which tree it was picked from. This information is compiled and analysed to adjust future management decisions.

Robotic fruit picker

Image of robot used by Salah Sukkarieh, professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the University of Sydney

The supermarket shelves consist of fresh produce of colours, forms, shapes, sizes and tastes like we have never seen before. There is also food that has been produced by 3D printers, made to a precise formula to provide specific nutritional needs and more consistently than ever before possible to meet pre-determined flavour profiles.

Fresh produce is no longer just grown in rural areas. It is also grown in cities, in specially built warehouses, on city walls and rooftops, in closed loop systems that use recycled city water.

Consumers can scan a printed QR code on their fruit or vegetables to get nutritional information, recipe ideas and information on where the produce came from and how it was grown. This is matched against their individual taste preferences, determined by brain scans to provide suggestions on what they should purchase.

Am I talking science fiction, a future that our children may experience many years down the track? Absolutely not! This is picture that is almost a reality now and will more than likely occur within the next ten to twenty years.

Robotic technology is advanced and already exists in many arenas. Scientists tell us that we will quite possibly have commercial robotic apple harvesters within 10 years. Advanced breeding programs mean we are seeing a range of new and exciting fruit and vegetable cultivars coming onto the market at a rate never seen before. 3D printing is a reality and NASA is already creating food for the space program using that technology. Vertical farms and warehouse farms are already a reality.

These changes described alone may sound sterile and surreal, and like any change may invoke feelings of fear and trepidation. But these innovations will not replace our existing food system. Instead, they will add many new layers of complexity, richness and excitement to our food and serve to bring about different ways of producing food. Food will continue to remain at the centre piece of our social fabric and bring great pleasure and enjoyment.

Just as we have been innovating since the beginning of mankind, so we will continue to innovate. Australian agriculture continues to lead the way in innovation, steeped in a history of resourcefulness and incredible adaptability. Our modern farmers have to adapt and change their practices at a very rapid pace to stay competitive. They are constantly seeking to improve their management and find new tools to not only take care of our fragile landscapes, but also improve them, all the while seeking to provide safe and healthy food.

The modern farmer is a far cry from the stereotypical and sometimes patronizing images that often bombard our television screens and magazines. They are, in every sense of the word, professionals, going about doing their jobs to the very best of their ability. It is because of their constant innovation that our farming practices have evolved and that the quality and choice of food available to us today is greater than ever before.

We are spoilt for diversity in choice of how our food has been produced and the types of foods that are available to us. This is only a reality through innovation in all kinds of farming systems. As an industry, we are also fortunate to be able to provide a wide range of opportunities for enthusiastic individuals seeking innovation and diversity.

No matter what our food choices are, we can all be grateful for innovation.

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The humble elite

It was beautiful, clear winter’s day. Deep blue skies and golden rays of sunshine a rare treat for mid-winter in the Adelaide Hills. A perfect day to be outside working in the orchard; getting those much needed winter jobs done before the next rain front moved in.

One could excuse the room full of apple growers for being restless and impatient, for wanting to be outside getting on with their work, for thinking of the countless things that needed doing while the weather was kind. But this was not the case. There was a calm air of expectation. Thirty five of South Australia’s leading growers gathered together to listen and learn.

The presenter was from northern Italy, talking about a new way of mechanised pruning and tree training. A method that would require growers to change and adjust. The audience was captivated, listening carefully to every word, questioning and demanding to know more, analysing how this technique may be applied to their own orchards. They were not fearful of change; rather embracing the opportunity to view their own practices from a different view point. A planned 20 minute presentation turned into a 90 minute conversation and could easily have gone for longer. Probing questions delved deep to the heart of the topic with a clear desire to discover the key learnings.

The session moved on to a case study of one of the leading growers in the district. His performance in the season just gone was world’s best. He openly shared with the group how he achieved these results and how he still felt he could do better again. He was humble, not boastful. Considered and meticulous in his approach and almost embarrassed of the attention.

As we moved out into the orchard to see his best performing blocks, it became obvious that the other growers were not jealous or resentful of his success. Rather, they were proud of his success and were eager to learn from him. This was no group of slouches either. This was a group of very successful apple growers in their own right, all at the top of their game, but all seeking constant improvement.

I stood back from the group and observed the interactions. The orchard owner demonstrated his pruning techniques and it was masterful to watch. His cuts were fast and precise, with hundreds of considerations made in a split second. The group followed his movements closely, anticipating every cut. Occasionally he would pause to think and the group would provide input, engaging in gentle yet clearly passionate discussion around the subtle nuances of the task at hand.

It was very apparent that I was in the company of a highly professional, skilled group of people. There were no big egos, just an overwhelming passion for what they do and a deep desire to constantly improve and learn; to stay ahead of their game. I was struck by their unassuming manner, with no individual thinking that what he or she was doing was anything special. In their minds, what they do is just what they do and no more.

It was a humbling yet inspiring moment for me. Perhaps it is time we put some of these amazing food producers on a pedestal in the same way that we do with the other great professions. I am certainly grateful for the amazing job they do and feel blessed that I get to work with them every day.IMG_3346

Deciding our food future

Driving around my local district at this time of year, bulldozers, chainsaws and tractors are a common sight, as growers push out under-performing blocks of trees, ready for reworking. I decided to find out more about why there is a constant program of re-planting fruit trees in a district that is renowned for its high quality fruit production. If the fruit trees in this area are so good, why do growers constantly need to change and improve?

It turns out that long gone is the romantic image of expansive orchards of widely spaced, large, gnarled and twisted 100 year old apple trees. They are now just a nostalgic memory evident only in historical archives and shared reminiscences. The modern orchard consists of younger, high performing trees planted closely together with their growth carefully managed for optimum performance. Further,at any one time, up to 10% of an orchard can be out of production being reworked for new varieties.IMG_3317

The performance of every block within a modern orchard is intensely scrutinized every year. Blocks that are not returning a profit are either pushed out or earmarked for future reworking. This can be a difficult, emotional decision for a grower to make, as they have poured their heart and soul into getting each orchard block to perform to its optimum. But the reality is, they have to take a step back and assess their business performance with the same careful scrutiny as any other business manager.

Perhaps the most difficult decision to make, however, is which variety to plant next. This is a big question, as it will take many years for the results of this decision to become apparent. In an apple orchard, it takes about 7 years from planting for a commercial block of trees to yield a return on investment. Establishment costs are significant, with a large up-front cash injection required.

In any successful business, there is a certain element of risk taking. Decisions made now can impact on the success or failure of the business for many years to come. Educated best-guesses made on all the market data available at the time can quickly unravel when market conditions change. This element of risk, however, is no more apparent than in modern perennial horticulture (fruit and nut tree cropping).

As consumers, we are spoiled for choice in a wide range of fresh produce. Tastes and demands are fickle, and there is constant competition for shelf space in supermarkets. What can one day be a much loved variety can soon become a product that sits on the shelf, unwanted. In addition, fresh produce has to fight against a plethora of snack foods that are backed by massive marketing budgets, drawing in shoppers an array of exciting promises.

Our plant scientists are working hard to breed new varieties that stand out from the crowd and provide a new taste sensation or point of difference. There is also a demand for varieties that keep for longer and are more pest and disease tolerant or use less water. This breeding process is achieved through cross pollination of existing varieties. Once the cross pollination process begins, it takes years to gradually select the more promising varieties, followed by several more years of field trials until the cream of the crop rises to the top.

From the start of a breeding program until a new variety is commercialized can take at least ten years. With lots of exciting new varieties coming into the market place, only some are destined for success, while others will invariably fail. The much loved Pink Lady® apple is truly an Australian success story, coming from Western Australia and now in high demand right around the globe.

Even before the grower has begun to push out a block of trees, they have to have made the decision two years earlier what variety they wish to plant. They put the order in with a nursery for how many trees that want of what variety grafted onto what rootstock.

When making this critical decision a grower is faced with a range of choices. A tough decision to make 2 years prior to planting and a further 7 years after that until the trees are in full production!

Do they stick with an existing, well known variety that, while is a known quantity now, may be out of favour in a volatile market place in 9 years time? Do do they opt for a newer variety that may either be a total success or a complete failure? Does the variety have sufficient volume of plantings to have critical mass in the market place? Is it well supported by a strong marketing and promotions package and how much will it cost to buy-in to that scheme?

No matter how much homework they do, at some point, a grower has to take a deep breath and muster up all the courage of their convictions to commit to a decision. Once the trees are ordered from the nursery, cultivated and planted into the ground, they will again pour their hearts and souls for the next five to seven years into doing the best they possibly can to get the trees to grow and yield quality fruit.

It is only once the trees are producing commercial quantities of fruit that are being packed, stored and sold that they will be able to take stock on that vital decision made many years earlier. It is inevitable that sometimes that decision will prove to have been the wrong one and growers will have to write off all that hard work and start again. But more often than not, through years of experience and careful consideration, the decision will be a good one. This is one of the most rewarding moments in a grower’s life, when years of preparation and toil result in the production of a high quality, profitable crop that consumers enjoy! The culmination of nearly 20 years of development.

The next time I bite into a fresh piece of fruit, I will be giving considerably more thought to the many years of its evolution and perhaps not taking it quite so much for granted.

From palynology to farming

Today I visited an inspiring family in the small region of Cudlee Creek, nestled within the heart of the Adelaide Hills.

It was a stunning winter’s day, with crisp, clear blue skies highlighting the last of the yellow leaves hanging onto the fruit trees, contrasting with the deep green grass on the steep hills surrounding the fertile valleys of their orchard. As I drove along a muddy track past the stone walls and cold stores to the old farm house, I felt an immediate sense of history. Which is really no surprise, as the Hannafords are fifth generation apple growers, who first settled in South Australia in the 1830’s.

I met with Carey, who together with her husband Matt and two young boys, despite the long family history of farming, only took up farming seven years ago. I wanted to hear Carey’s story of how she has embraced the farming lifestyle and how she and Matt are now now passionate about growing high quality, premium apples.

We settled into our comfortable lounge chairs looking out over the orchard and cradling a warming cup of tea, with the children happily playing in the background, Carey shared with me their story.

Matt’s father had retired from the farm some years ago and after it being leased out for several years, it had gradually declined. Matt was a qualified mechanic working long hours for little pay and Carey was a successful geologist/palynologist, working in a highly specialised field in the oil and gas industry, using fossils, pollen and microplankton to age rocks and map  oil fields. They decided that it was time for them to make a life change and take on the farm.

Carey said “we both felt we’re coming back no matter what; we couldn’t bear to see it sold after all these generations, so decided to keep it going. But the great thing was, we came onto the farm by choice.”

The farm itself consists of 11 hectares of intensive apple orchard and approximately 100 hectares of grazing land and forest. It is one of the last surviving orchards within the Cudlee Creek area, which was once a thriving orchard district.

Like many apple growing families, Carey and Matt still draw in an off-farm income, with Carey working part time as a palynologist. This has enabled them to invest heavily in the much-needed upgrading of the orchard and still have a steady income to pay the household bills.

I am instantly struck by their passionate desire to make improvements. Between them when they took on the farm they set down a five year plan to turn things around. Carey said “we thought when we came back into the farm we would be happy if we could earn one wage from the farm to begin with. What we found that if we had to live off that wage we couldn’t re-invest in the business. Things have changed so much in the last 15 years that we had to make a huge investment in new trellising systems and so on. We wanted to be able to invest up front and get as much upgraded as we could in one go. We wanted to make a real go of it. There was a lot of things that needed changing. The cold rooms needed upgrading. Some of the older trees were nearly 100 years old. So that was why I kept working off-farm.”

“Every year we marked aside big things to invest in. Some of those investments have paid off within the first year but other upgrades were a big expense, such as the cold rooms and replanting orchard. So now we have a new five year plan, and have made a few more changes as well.”

When Carey is not peering down microscopes or looking after her young children, she is out helping Matt in the orchard. Carey said “there are jobs that often require two people, where I try and help out. We are trying to minimise the amount of paid labour to keep costs down. I have still got to learn how to do a lot of things. During picking season I was able to drive the forklift. One of the big things was that I could do was dip the fruit and keep an eye on the kids at the same time, and next year once they are both at school I will be able to help out shifting bins around, although I need a bit more practice with the back forks!”

Carey is obviously excited about her life on the orchard. She shared “I enjoy the lifestyle on the orchard – I just can’t imagine going back to living in the city and working 9 to 5 now.”

“We have changed so much to the orchard. We have invested so much money and time into the orchard. It has been an exciting challenge converting to the new ways of growing and try and improve yields and get the size and quality right. It is a great challenge to try and see if we can make it work.”

“Trying to juggle all the issues such as minimising labour costs and maximising output with the land and water we have available is a rewarding challenge. Seeing if we can use advances in technology and better knowledge of growing techniques to see if we can be competitive. It is interesting puzzling over those things, and despite the tough times you do get the rewards as well.”

We take a pause as the children come in to share their excitement over a great story they had invented, I reflected that I was in the presence of an extremely intelligent woman who is highly skilled in her off-farm work, but who also pours her heart and soul into the farm. The children wander off again to their magical world of imagination and Carey continues.

“The other big positive is the lifestyle for the kids growing up here. Out here there are so many fun things and really, really good learnings – I love the way they can just go outside and play in so much room, and the way they have learned so much about the environment and farming, just from being with us.”

“Also working for yourself. It would be really hard to go back to working a 9-5 job. Having the freedom to control what you want to do. That is one thing that Matt is really enjoying too. Coming back here, he is just loving it, because he is in control of what he wants to do. He has ideas of how he wants to change things and he can try it.”

As we wander outside to enjoy some rare winter sunshine in this beautiful part of the world, Carey shares with me “I’m excited to see where the Australian apple industry will go in the future. There have been massive changes in the last 10 years. I would like to think that we can be leaders in a high quality, “greener” product, trustworthy for quality. I think we can really do that well. There is a demand for fruit that is safe and healthy and there is opportunity to capture that market. Apples aren’t going to go away, there will just be different challenges and because of the different wage situations and living costs here, the main way we can succeed is through the better use of technology. Like how Germany has managed to thrive. I think we will still be here in twenty years!”.

As I load my children back into the car and negotiate my way back up the muddy track, taking in the beautiful surroundings, I can’t help but think that with families like the Hannafords, our food future is indeed in safe hands!

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The real cost of perfect food

According to the recently released National Food Plan, it is estimated that a whopping 30 to 50 per cent of all food produced on the planet is not eaten. In Australia, on average each person generates roughly 360 kilograms of food waste every year.

These figures are staggering. In order to feed an ever growing population, we cannot just continue to strive for greater production efficiencies without ignoring the issue of food waste.

There are various reasons for food wastage that occur. For many of us, food that goes off in our refrigerator before we get to eat it or left-overs from restaurants that get discarded are the obvious ones.

However a significant degree of waste is also occurring as a by-product of our seemingly insatiable demand for fresh produce that looks perfect, has consistent eating quality and is of perfect size and colour. Much of this waste is not even taken into account in the quoted figures above!

Fresh produce that does not meet a required specification is often discarded before it even leaves the field. Perfectly good food is rejected for a minor blemish or for being the wrong colour, size or shape.

Further, growers are having to go to extraordinary lengths to produce this “perfect” produce; investing heavily in complex growing systems and fighting a battle they can never win completely to iron out the “imperfections” of nature. It takes a lot of effort and costs a lot of money to grow the perfect piece of fruit and vegetable. It takes even more effort to grow an entire field of exactly the same perfect fruit or vegetables.

I would like to share the story of how Australia’s apple growers are tackling this challenge.

Right now as we move into winter, apple growers around the country are beginning a year-long challenge of fruit production. They are taking care of post-harvest nutrition to ensure that the trees have plenty of reserves as they go into dormancy. They are also beginning the process of winter pruning, which goes on for many months. Every single tree in an orchard is pruned by hand. Pruning is a complex science and also an art form that sets down the shape of the tree for the coming year, its vigour and how many pieces of fruit will be carried by each tree. Every tree may be pruned several times over to achieve the desired result. It is one of the most fundamental processes in a commercial apple orchard, but also one of the most labour intensive. 20120724_162910Modern orchards are planted at very high tree densities and dwarfing rootstocks to enable greater control over tree vigour and allow for pruning trees to a shape that allows for even light distribution throughout the canopy. This is critical in achieving even colour distribution and fruit ripening.

The amount of fruit that each tree carries directly affects the size of the fruit. So this is a key consideration in all orchard activities. For example, growers strive to grow a Pink Lady apple of a 75 mm diameter, because this has been shown to be the size of apple that consumers are looking for. Apples significantly bigger or smaller than this just won’t sell as well.

As we head into spring and the first blossoms appear, some growers may also consider a process of root pruning, where the tree roots are gently ripped to reduce tree vigour and improve consistency of yields from one year to the next. Bee hives are introduced into orchards to assist with pollination. Good pollination is critical in achieving target yields and the target number of fruit per tree.20121001_102029

Then growers assess the numbers of flowers and viable fruit buds. On many trees, various methods of fruit thinning are then required to reduce the crop load. This is usually achieved through a mixture of chemical applications of plant hormones to induce some shedding, followed up by hand thinning. This is another manual process that occurs during spring, where excess fruit is individually picked off each tree and thrown onto the ground.20121025_165448Through the season, growers then continually monitor and assess the growth of their trees as well as the size of the fruit. Often, growers will go through and do a summer prune to remove excess canopy that is shading the fruit – another manual process.

Growers also closely monitor pests and diseases and use integrated pest management techniques to minimise any damage to fruit. In the heat of summer, sunscreen may even be applied in periods of extreme heat to minimise the effects of fruit sunburn (a special food-safe fruit sunscreen)! Often extremely expensive netting structures are used to avoid damage from birds.

Closer to harvest, if fruit size is a problem growers will adjust their water and nutrient management accordingly, and also may consider a second hand-thinning. Many growers also roll out a reflective matting onto the ground surface that helps reflect light into the lower canopy and improve evenness of fruit colour.IMG_3027

At harvest, all picking is done by hand, to ensure fruit is not bruised or damaged. At this point, any obviously blemished, pale, misshapen or poorly sized fruit is discarded straight onto the ground. Fruit is picked at the correct ripeness for its storage needs, then immediately cooled as quickly as possible to ensure it is maintained at optimum freshness. IMG_3057IMG_3044 Fruit that is identified to be at risk of not storing well will be sold straight away. Fruit that is to be stored for longer will be kept in high tech cool rooms where gas levels and moisture levels are controlled to ensure maximum fruit quality after storage.

At the point of packing, growers have to aim for at least a 90% pack out rate. This means that at least 90% of the fruit they supply to the pack house will be sold as first grade fruit. As much as possible of this fruit needs to be of the optimum size range to get the best returns. Any lower pack out rate, or if they get the sizing wrong, they will be losing money. The returns on second grade fruit going to juice or processing just aren’t enough to tip this balance.20130130_092730All their activities throughout the year are targeted towards providing a product that is deemed in demand by the general consumer. What is referred to in industry as the “mars bar fruit” – something that looks and eats exactly the same every time, no matter what part of the tree or orchard it comes from.

This story is not unique to the apple industry. It is across all fresh fruit and vegetable production.

So the question becomes is all this effort and in-field wastage really necessary? Further more, by the very essence of demanding consistency of product, are we as a result creating a more mediocre eating experience? Are we providing a consistently good product, but missing out on the surprise experiences that occur through natural variability and complexity.

Are we jeopardizing the very variability that is essential to natural order and life? Are we missing the chance natural genetic mutations that may provide new opportunities for further exciting eating experiences?

What are your thoughts? What do you look for when you go to buy your fruit and vegetables?

 

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.

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?