Looking across the dry, brown Mallee landscape in the pre-seeding autumn, Kate Wilson laughed when she recalled her early farming ambitions: “After Longerenong College I had a stint in the US, which whet my appetite for livestock, so much so I had this vision of becoming the feedlot queen of Australia … but, well, I ended up in the Mallee and without any cattle.”
Kate today crops 7000 hectares near Hopetoun, Victoria, with her husband Grant and also works off-farm as a consulting agronomist. As she wonders whether 2016 will bring an end to the hard run of dry seasons, Kate reflects on her personal journey as a grain grower and agronomy adviser and the changes that have occurred over the past 20 years.
As in many lower-rainfall districts, the advent of minimum tillage, stubble retention, the removal of sheep, and improved crop varieties have been among the principal ‘game-changers’ while in more recent years Kate says the main changes on their property have been crop rotation choices based around an increase in pulse break crops.
“We have never been cereal-on-cereal, even when direct drill first made it possible … for a while. So change, as such, hasn’t been a question of new technology, but more about developing a farming system based on rotations that maintain a healthy soil,” she says.
“If you’ve got healthy soils you’ve got choices … about what to grow, and about what is the best crop mix in any given seasonal circumstance.”
In 2016 this means increasing the acreage devoted to lentils. She says this is a general strategy being adopted across the Mallee because if it is another low-yielding year, break crops such as lentils can still be profitable because of their comparatively high prices. In 2015 lentils reached a record $1400 per tonne, although most growers budget on about $500/t.
Overall, Kate and Grant grow wheat, green and red lentils, and a blue pea for the split pea market.
The other strategy most Mallee growers are putting in place is to try as hard as possible to keep input costs down.
“Phosphorus rates, for example, will probably be halved from 10 to 12 units to 5 to 6. Before seeding I was encouraging clients to reduce up-front nitrogen, and later using in-crop testing with N-rich strips to ascertain the crop’s actual need.
“The key is to use inputs as sparingly as possible without compromising production,” she says.
When Kate was interviewed the Mallee had effectively been in drought since 2012 and most growers in the region entered 2016 with no soil moisture reserves. (Two years later and growers in the region were having to manage frost and rain in the lead up to the 2017 harvest.)
Kate says most are coping, though many are seeing their farm equity falling: “The biggest fear is if interest rates go up … and historically that would seem inevitable.”
Kate grew up in the Mallee, and while she had relatives on-farm, her parents worked in the agricultural service sector.
“So while I didn’t grow up on a farm I spent every holiday on my uncle’s grain farm, so I am sure I was born with agriculture in my blood,” she says.
After returning to the Hopetown-Woomelang district from studies in the US, Kate opted for a career in agronomy, starting out as a store-based sales agronomist at Hopetoun and training up to become an independent consulting agronomist.
Her experience as a partner in a grains enterprise and her agronomy background led her to join the GRDC Southern Panel in 2015; an experience she is relishing.
It has given her some fascinating insights into what seems to define farming success and resilience, along with an enthusiasm for some of the future technologies on the horizon.
She says the common element she notices among the most successful or resilient growers is their critical analysis of their farms as businesses and their understanding of their systems’ capabilities and limits: “They know their production costs and their yield potential, and they not only collect data from technologies such soil moisture probes and precision-agriculture monitors, but also know how to use it.
“As an agronomist I’ve seen a lot of change as the industry has to find ways to stay profitable. That’s why I say the most successful growers are those who have the ability to change – before they are forced to change.”
Based on her observations, Kate feels farm advisory boards are a worthwhile option for more people to explore: “The challenge for everyone is to remain viable and profitable and the right advisers can certainly help you go that extra step.
“Growing food is a perilous business, a fact not well understood in the city, and this is at a time when there are more and more people to feed and less and less arable acres to do this.”
Aside from the already herculean task of managing a drying climate, Kate regards a better understanding of our markets as an area needing more grower attention.
“China, for example, is showing signs of having a near insatiable appetite for oats – for human foods and for animal feed. But it is a sophisticated and demanding market in terms of grain quality, and that’s something we all have to understand.
“I know people get frustrated about things like not being able to use generic herbicides, but if you don’t adhere to the MRL (maximum residue limit) for particular herbicides then you are putting a whole market in jeopardy. If a market has a need, and a requirement, and we don’t fill it, another country will.”
With respect to opportunities, Kate sees a clear role emerging for robotics, be it driverless machinery or crop sensing. The other frontier opening up at an accelerating rate is plant breeding, with technologies such as gene editing and high-throughput genomic analysis, which enables countless DNA samples to be screened rapidly for new marker and gene discoveries.
As she surveys the brown landscape and the cloudless blue sky, Kate muses on the life of a Mallee grain grower and the pleasure of living in that landscape despite its challenges.
Article produced for GRDC’s GroundCover™ magazine
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