Sydney skyline at susnset

Audacious agriculture ideas for Australia

In an address to Congress on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s set a national goal for the 1960s of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. We need such audacious ideas today.

The sustainably FED team all live in New South Wales, the largest of the eight states and territories that make up Australia. 

Agriculture is spread throughout the eastern two-thirds of NSW and covers more than 69 million ha of land or 50,000 km2, more than the land area of France. If you prefer, just under twice the land area of Germany.

Cattle, sheep and pigs are the predominant livestock since their importation during the earliest days of European settlement. About one-third of the country’s sheep, one-fifth of its cattle, and one-third of pigs are produced in NSW. 

The state also produces a large share of Australia’s hay, fruit, legumes, lucerne, maize, nuts, wool, wheat, oats, oilseeds (about 51%), poultry, rice (about 99%), vegetables, fishing, including oyster farming, and forestry including wood chips. 

In 2019-20 the value of agricultural production in NSW approached AUD13 billion. 

This would put NSW 40th on the FAO country list for the value of agricultural production, with a higher value of agricultural commodities than 117 countries.

At this macro level, it all looks very promising. 

NSW has a diverse system of production growing large volumes of food, more than enough to feed the local population with the excess sold to eager buyers overseas.

It looks less rosy for the farmer.

Drought, low soil fertility, pests, floods and wildfire are ongoing challenges to this food production that are risks to individual landholders.

Add to this the financial stress from uncertain production, distance to local and international markets, high cost of inputs, shortages of seasonal labour and being a farmer in NSW is a tough gig.

Many farmers have exhausted most farm-scale options to adapt to these challenges. They often struggle to service high debt, have lowered their equity stake in the land, and are ageing rapidly with problems of farm succession everywhere.

The solutions might be bigger, audacious ideas to tackle the production problems.

Here are three suggestions…


Resting the Western Division

Resting the Western Division of the state, 33 million ha of semi-arid land where sheep and goats scratch a life from degraded native vegetation. Stocking rates are incredibly low due to erratic rainfall, high temperatures in summer, and two centuries of grazing pressure from livestock and rabbits. 

Any agricultural practice is a challenge in this region. So many sheep have grown on these rangelands that the soils are depleted from what was already a low nutrient base. The region needs a rest from livestock activity. Only the people cannot just walk away and leave the land for the weeds and feral animals. 

There must be active management but resting the land for a decade would make a dramatic improvement to future productivity. 


A hundred for a hundred

Another audacious goal is for all agricultural properties in New South Wales to go for 100% ground cover 100% of the time. 

Ground cover is critical to production systems anywhere in the world, but particularly in semi-arid areas or where there are periods of drought when the soil can be exposed, dry out and end up somewhere else due to wind erosion. Only for the rains to return as runoff, causing floods rather than seep into the ground. 

During prolonged drought, a hundred is impossible, so it is a stretch target, something to reach for rather than achieve all the time. The benefits of aiming for such a stretch will placate any disappointment in not reaching it.


High-speed transport

One of the challenges farmers worldwide face is access to markets. Crops and livestock products easily spoil if they are not stored, transported and processed in a timely fashion. Indeed, the prevalence of grain crops is as much to do with the robustness of the grain moving through the food supply chain as it is to the ease of production. 

More than 85 per cent of Australians live within 50 kilometres of the coast.  And it’s not just surfing. A sea breeze on a summer afternoon is a godsend. Domestic markets for agricultural products are concentrated in a few big cities and towns, making it hard to deliver perishable commodities from distant semi-circles around them.

If there were rapid transport systems such as high-speed rail from rural hubs into the cities, it would be possible to grow fruit and vegetables at a distance.


What sustainably FED suggests

Audacious ideas are crazy; out there with the pixies.

The chance of them ever getting through the vetting process of politics or the famous pub test—the test of Australian public opinion—are slim.

This is as it should be. Just because an idea is audacious does not make it a good idea. Even the good ones may stumble over feasibility, practicality or financial constraints.

The point is that we need to air them.

Audacious ideas can inspire imagination and spark realistic solutions to feed everyone well.

Let us know if you have an audacious idea for your region.


Hero image from photo by Gilly Tanabose on Unsplash

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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