GrainGrowers develops sustainability plan

GrainGrowers chief executive Dave McKeon (left), WA regional co-ordinator Alan Meldrum and board director Rhys Turton inspect one of Mr Turton's crops at York.
GrainGrowers chief executive Dave McKeon (left), WA regional co-ordinator Alan Meldrum and board director Rhys Turton inspect one of Mr Turton's crops at York.

GENETIC gain and improvements in farming systems, as well as soil improvements over the past 10 years has meant Western Australian farmers have still been able to get their crops up, even in a below-average rainfall season.

According to GrainGrowers chief executive Dave McKeon, that was the general feeling on the ground when he visited a few key grain growers for a recent harvest catch-up in the north eastern Wheatbelt,

"The main comment was that with this amount of rainfall (about 100 millimetres through the growing season) and the way farming worked 10 years ago, they wouldn't have been able to get the 1-1.5 tonne per hectare cereal crops they've been getting," Mr McKeon said.

With soil amelioration programs paying off for growers over the past few years, he said farmers in lower rainfall areas seemed pretty optimistic considering the season.

This optimism also extended to external industry stakeholders, with a recent GrainGrowers Sustainability Survey showing that the broader community continues to have a high level of trust in the Australian grains industry.

"There may be some minority groups with some strong views which don't align with most of our modern farming practices, but the reality is, these surveys are showing that the community does continue to have a strong level of trust in the industry and our farmers are still held in high regard," Mr McKeon said.

Whether it be certain chemicals, glyphosate, or the use of biotechnology plant breeding causing a focal point in the media, he said it sometimes felt like the agricultural industry was under attack and that was partly the reason why GrainGrowers had been developing a Grains Sustainability Framework.

Due to be released in early 2020, it will respond to sustainability themes uncovered in their recent survey, including how the industry can continue to work to reduce its environmental impact.

"We need to, as an industry, consider how we handle some of these issues so that we take the right approach," Mr McKeon said.

The framework will be used to build some base lines and monitor its changes over time against agreed industry goals.

"For example, we know the production of carbon emissions is causing a lot of discussion internationally and the grains industry needs to carefully consider the role it plays in both mitigating against and adapting to a changing climate," Mr McKeon said.

One of the growers he visited was GrainGrowers director and mixed cropping and sheep farmer Rhys Turton, York.

Mr Turton said the grains industry had already been working towards reducing its environmental impact for decades.

"I guess one of the biggest changes has been the move into no-till farming systems, which was an effort to keep moisture stored in the soil rather than watching it evaporate through cultivation, as well as lessening land degradation due to wind erosion," Mr Turton said.

"I think the advent of chemicals into farming systems has allowed that to happen very successfully."

With a more aware and better connected community, Mr Turton said people could very easily ask questions of an industry in the public domain, so the grains industry needed to continue to act as responsibly as it could, while making sure those actions are sustainable.

"Within any group, you're going to get some radical opinions at one end of the scale and it's as much about bringing an education process to consumers and the community as it is about defending your position and what it is you're doing," he said.

With changing requirements from international markets for some of the commonly-used chemicals in Australia's grains industry, the responsible use of farm inputs will also be addressed in the Grains Sustainability Framework.

Some clear examples of these changes include the review of maximum residue limits (MRL) in Korea and Japan for imidazolinone-based chemistry, the European Union looking at changes to MRLs in haloxyfop in canola, as well as recent decisions in Thailand and Vietnam about the acceptance of glyphosate.

Mr McKeon said the Australian grains industry needed to understand the changing preferences of its markets and adapt its farming systems to continue to have a market driven approach on how grain is produced in Australia.

Looking at government regulatory decisions in Australia and overseas, the Sustainability Framework is expected to ensure the considerations of sustainability are driven by the industry itself rather than dictated to by others.

"We can drive how we'd like to be perceived through the decisions we make," Mr McKeon said.

"The reality is our farming systems have changed dramatically over the past 20, 10 and five years, and what we have is a modern farming system that's designed to the Australian landscape.

"The yields across Australia this year in such low rainfall events, whether it's in the north eastern Wheatbelt of WA or Murray Mallee in South Australia, show that our farming systems are working well within our environment.

"From water use efficiency to erosion reduction, we are managing the landscape in a really productive, positive way.

"We are in a strong position but we want to make sure that we continue that strong position well into the future."