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

How those three small steps are changing my purchasing habits for the better

In my blog Three things we can all do to make a difference I challenged myself to make three small changes when I go shopping to try and make a difference to my purchasing habits.

I set myself the task of:

  1. Checking the labels on at least three different items to make sure my choices were locally grown and produced.
  2. Asking a shopkeeper if I couldn’t find a local option or wasn’t sure of the labeling.
  3. Sharing with my friends and social media networks about fabulous local brands

Now into the third week of this challenge, I am really pleased to say that I am gradually changing my habits and I feel great about it.

I am discovering new things about what is and isn’t available and am making conscious decisions about what I am buying. Looking and taking notice is starting to become a habit, rather than a chore.

On the weekend just gone I set about preparing for our Sunday afternoon ritual of enjoying home made wood oven pizzas. I ventured into the local independent supermarket and sourced some wonderful, local ingredients. I found a superb artisan wood smoked prosciutto that was no more expensive than any of the commercial imported brands. This went beautifully with some fresh South Australian La Casa Del Formaggio Bocconcini and Lucia’s Fine Foods olives, and the finely sliced Red Anjou pear from Paracombe was a highlight!

The enjoyment of sharing wonderful, freshly prepared food with family was particularly special because I knew that by and large, everything we were eating was grown, made and produced by an Australian farmer and food company. Even more special was the fact that most of it was produced within a 50 km radius of our home.

However I am also making some discoveries on this journey. I now know that most packaged ham is made from local and imported ingredients (don’t ask me why). I now know that a large percentage of fruit juices are made from 100% imported juice concentrate and diluted with Australian water to show a label of made from imported and local ingredients.

I also have a much greater appreciation of just how confusing our labeling systems are and how many discrepancies there are in the standards. Often labels will not even show if a product is made and/or grown in Australia.

I was in the Adelaide Central Markets on Saturday morning, an icon of Adelaide renowned for its atmosphere and range of produce. I was astounded to see that in a market where many shoppers go specifically to source local produce, there was no enforcement of country of origin labeling. Californian cherries were proudly on display front and centre of one stall with no indication whatsoever that they were imported. The only giveaway to the discerning eye were the few loose, empty boxes that they had arrived in strewn under the stall.

I also know that I need to work on raising my voice further, because instead of questioning the stallholder I walked away under the excuse that I was in a hurry.

So my journey of change continues. As I grow in confidence that what I am doing is making a difference, I am more determined than ever to share my story and encourage everyone to join me. So if you are prepared to join me in this challenge, let’s raise our voices together and help spread the word!

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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.

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?