Peter's Blog

Farmers continue on a quest for sustainability

Farmers, by definition, are in sync with the landscape, climate and resultant weather patterns, as well as our farming systems.

I am very proud of the fact that I grew up on a farm on Eyre Peninsula, and actively farmed for 31 years before entering State Parliament. My wife and I still live on our farm at Edillilie – and we’re still involved with the business (although I’m no longer making the day to day decisions).

After recently receiving an email from a constituent questioning the use of chemicals on the land, I felt compelled to put pen to paper on the topic which I feel very passionate about.

Our farming systems have changed much from the days of early settlement, when land was tilled and sown with horses – and a strong back.

Significant changes such as the development of the Stripper (1840s), the ‘Stump Jump’ plough (1870s), using fallow to conserve moisture for the following crop (late 1800s), the introduction of Superphosphate to supplement deficient soils (early 1900s), the arrival of the tractor and other powered machinery (20s/30s), ‘Ley farming’ (50s/60s), the breeding of higher yielding crop types and varieties (commonly referred to as the ‘Green Revolution’ in the 60s/70s), the development of agricultural chemicals (70s/80s), the introduction of ‘high analysis fertilisers’ (including Urea as a form of Nitrogen 80s/90s), Genetically Engineered varieties (90s) and Precision farming (2000s).

These have all provided monumental leaps in the productivity of our land.

Other relatively simple advances in technology and practice such as; hydraulics, bulk handling of grain, tractors with cabins, increasing size of equipment and machinery, GPS guidance, soil modification and a myriad of other incremental changes have provided monumental leaps in the productivity of our labour unit.

And all of this in the last 150 years! Certainly, I have been witness to many changes in what we do and how we do it over the 40 years of my farming experience – and I’m expecting to see many, many more over the next 40.

What I’m attempting to demonstrate is that our farming systems are ever-changing, ever-evolving – primarily due to the inexorable march of technology.

We are all on a quest for sustainability – whatever that might mean (and it means different things to different people). We certainly haven’t reached true environmental sustainability as yet – after all, we’re still reliant upon fossil fuels for our production systems – but we’re much closer than we were.

And importantly, our farming systems will continue to evolve. No system is perfect – and new challenges will emerge. And I do believe that we will see more non-chemical strategies introduced in the not too distant future.

My personal opinion (and others will disagree no doubt) is that it would be nigh on impossible for a broad-acre organic producer to remain profitable under the harsh realities of the Australian natural environment. We will need to rely on inputs brought onto the farm. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be possible on small acreages to committed producers – but in the end, we all need to stay in business.

The challenge (and obligation) we need to meet, is that of feeding the world’s growing population – and we’re doing it relatively easily. The world’s farmers are producing more food than we ever have.  I understand there are people on this planet that will go to bed hungry tonight, but sadly that is because they are poor – not because there isn’t enough food.

My opinion is that to remain on the road to sustainability, both environmentally and financially, we will need to stay abreast of technology – we need to stay flexible and adaptive with our systems – and we need to always question the validity and source of information we’re getting (and this cuts both ways).