GrainGrowers’ National Policy Group (NPG) comprises of 15 growers from across Australia and has been actively reviewing #Grainstorming – the GRDC report intended to drive discussion with industry about the trends and priorities that will be shaping its future.
The trends identified by the GRDC in the #Grainstorming document align with key issues identified by both the NPG and grower comments in the GrainGrowers Annual Policy Survey. Input costs (e.g machinery, energy, chemicals, fertilisers), markets, labour and market access and understanding markets, development of varieties that were better suited to end uses and technical support for the use of Australian grain came up on several occasions and align with many of the twelve trends covered in #Grainstorming.
More mouths, wealth & health
There are links between this trend a range of other trends in #Grainstorming that are all driven by markets and changes in markets. The grains industry has been reliant on a set of existing markets. There’s opportunity to increase investment in looking for these as well as the infrastructure and technical support to help access them.
There were concerns that we have run down our national capability in this area and have not focussed on maintaining and developing new capability. Specific challenges and opportunities include:
- Plant breeding that focuses on traits required by markets or the development of new markets (e.g., sorghum), which was seen as opportunity
- Navigating the (too) numerous grades and cliff face pricing is a challenge for growers and improved market information may assist in making better choices.
- The lack of market connection between growers and consumers limits feedback and is a missed opportunity for farmers when choosing crops and delivering the best quality grain for a market.
The next agricultural revolution
Investing in innovative research is a challenge. On one hand, innovative work can drive the biggest gains, but it also leads to dead ends and criticism around wasted funding.
As growers there were several areas of innovation that NPG members saw as opportunities:
- The use of biotechnology (including GMOs and new breeding techniques) is still in its infancy and the recent approval of HB4 wheat in Argentina will raise international debate about the opportunity for GM grains. Nutritional traits, drought tolerance and functional food traits have been discussed, but N fixing and other innovations to reduce reliance on inputs and improve environmental outcomes would be valuable. Industry needs to learn the lessons from the introduction of other GM crops and facilitate the introduction of this technology as appropriate.
- Managing soil microorganisms to improve carbon sequestration, managing soil borne disease and plant nutrition are opportunities.
- Exploring the opportunities offered by different farming systems and strategies (such as companion planting, organic practises, regenerative farming) and the benefits and value they might bring to traditional farming systems may point to new areas of innovation.
- New and innovative ways of reducing farm inputs and minimising costs, including on farm energy use, nitrogen fertiliser substitutes are opportunities.
Yield gains are getting harder to find
Whilst yield gains are getting harder to find, industry is familiar and comfortable with the incremental gains that can be made from ‘ongoing progress’, such as the development of disease resistance and improved performance of crop varieties. These incremental gains add up, yet many farmers have not been able to fully realise them. Supporting systems thinking that can help farmers identify where gains could be made from a range of innovations across different aspects of farm operations and supports farmers to implement them would be useful.
- There are still opportunities to be gained from work that provided greater flexibility to farming systems, including the opportunities to access different/diverse markets, address chemical resistance in farming systems, alternative break crops and develop better suited legumes in rotations. These do not necessarily deliver productivity gains, but by allowing farm business to diversify, reduce input costs and reliance on inputs there are benefits that accrue for farmers. Farms are systems, and it is through successful management of the different aspects of the system that farms are profitable and sustainable. Facilitating this ‘systems thinking’ would help drive improvements.
- Concerns were raised that the end point royalty system may not be the best suited model for supporting private breeding efforts, and options for alternative business models should be investigated – such as collecting royalties on delivery. The concern is that without appropriate reward, private breeding efforts will not be able to re-invest in breeding efforts appropriately – leading to diminished gains.
More cost, same profit
Whilst the price of inputs is a threat and requires good management, there is a role for research in looking for alternative sources and new or improved management approaches to maximise the value returned from inputs. Looking beyond the farm gate to understand strategies for obtaining inputs would be useful, as well as understanding the reasons for these costs and addressing price and supply volatility.
- The cliff face pricing around falling numbers remains a significant risk for farmers and can severely restrict income. Implementing real-time testing on harvesters to understand and segregate impacted harvest ‘on the go’ would help to maximise return from impacted crops but inform better decisions about where to deliver grain and appropriate grades that it could be delivered to. A broader push on technology to replace falling numbers tests to improve confidence at receival sites would be useful, as well as test set-ups that could be used on farm.
- Looking at alternative energy sources and fuel supply for farms to manage fuel prices, including bioethanol and bio-diesel would be an opportunity.
Seasonal variability and production risks
Better understanding options in a changing climate is an important area of research, and the development of tools to work through different management strategies when weather conditions present difficulties is important and may require new thinking by farmers. A whole range of aspects of a farming system may need to be rethought in different regions to understand things like the best balance of enterprises (cropping versus livestock mix) to manage risks and how to implement practises such as summer cropping when moisture is available. This may require a greater emphasis on extension and sharing information about how to manage farm risk between regions as conditions change. Changing biosecurity threats are a significant risk.
- There is a challenge in supporting and improving expertise on potential plant pests. Not all potential pests for the grains industry will be recognised as serious pests until they enter and start to establish in Australia. It is important that there is flexibility to support the assessment on potential new pest species and preparing for a response when incursions of potential biosecurity threats occur.
Price and market volatility
There is the feeling that these are exciting times for the industry with many market opportunities, but this was balanced by concerns that there was over-reliance on a limited set of markets which has left Australian farmers exposed, and that there has been an underinvestment in this area. The loss of the Chinese barley market, our reliance on the EU for canola and China for sorghum are examples of this. There is a policy component of this work to better understand how constraints can be managed, but there is also a strong component of improving grower awareness and understanding of the market trends and implications of changes in international markets.
- There are opportunities to improve education and understanding of growers around markets so they can better understand how to respond and develop improved marketing strategies.
- Examples of policy work that would benefit from improved understanding of price and market volatility include the rules and regulation around forward selling grain and the implications for growers.
The decisions about how to structure a farm enterprise is a question for every farm manager and is driven by economics. This can cause issues in communities, as well as issues around access to labour and skills. The issues around labour, social policy, farm succession and paths to farm ownership are policy questions that could be better informed through research. There is an opportunity to assist industry to understand the nature of these issues so that industry members can look at ways to resolve them. This remains a significant gap in research and understanding of the grains industry.
Australia’s growing appetite for grain
There are multiple markets for grain, and for farmers it can be difficult to understand which is the most profitable, what markets might have longevity and where markets are at risk. Tools to understand how to maximise profitability and the value returned to Australia through use by livestock or processing would help to generate the greatest returns for the Australian industry. Understanding this issue has policy implications for how to facilitate industry development.
Energy, feed, or food
There are a range of global trends that are likely to have an impact on Australian farmers, and there will be changes to global grain markets with the transition towards electric vehicle use and the implications for U.S. maize production for ethanol and canola production for biodiesel in Europe. This will impact on the profitability and competitiveness of Australian production, and alternative markets and crops will be needed to fill these gaps. Information about these market trends will be important to assist industry to understand and respond as they evolve.
Action on climate
Managing carbon on farms and understanding the opportunities and risks is a new element to farm businesses and integrating it within our farming systems requires a new way of thinking to understand the opportunities and trade-offs. It is currently a very confusing area, and there is a role for an honest broker to provide information about how it impacts farm enterprises. There was a sense that the science has progressed ahead of the farmers and there is a need to greater engage industry to understand the implications for farms and farm businesses.
Sustainable and ethical production
It is important that there is a comprehensive portfolio of research related to sustainability and environmental performance that can underpin and drive improvements to the sustainability and environmental performance of the industry and deliver against a range of sustainability outcomes that link to market and consumer expectations. To support this there needs to be awareness raising and extension programs to improve the understanding of growers about key drivers of sustainability and encourages the adoption of sustainability research.
Competition for the talent to innovate
The NPG had previously discussed the need for a greater pool of experts around agronomy and biosecurity, and the perception that there are very few spokespeople on these issues. The NPG understands that there is limited capacity within the grains industry in understanding and supporting technical requirements of markets, which is also a key risk. There is the potential need for a stocktake of skills and capabilities across a range of different technical areas, and without an understanding of these skills and capability gaps an effort to attract new researchers that will stay with the sector may not be useful.
As growers, what are your thoughts on these issues? We'd love to hear your views!