A Pragmatic Approach to Promoting Ecological Agriculture Australia Association (EAAA) to Mainstream Agriculture

Editor comment: There are two main approaches to agriculture – the conventional industrial approach that depends on chemicals or the organic approach that shuns chemicals. The two methods are like chalk and cheese. There is a third option however called ecological agriculture which leans towards organics but isn’t organics. The emphasis in ecological agriculture (or agroecology) is not so much on the product produced but on the process which produces the product. The process which the ecological approach leans on relates to the role of natural ecology and social ecology in the production of food and fibre. The suggestion is that it is only in the absence of knowledge about these forms of ecology that chemical farming is able to get a foothold.

This raises the interesting question as to whether there are ways that the EAAA can gain traction with practitioners from mainstream agriculture in ways that the organic movement has been unable to do? This is a question that engaged Mudgee based former broad acre farmer Will Sutton. The following is Will Sutton’s letter which you are invited to respond to on Facebook or by sending a response to the editor (kcochrane@ecoag.org.au).

A Pragmatic Approach: I have been involved in broad acre agriculture for a long time and have seen and experienced all the changes, up and downs and challenges we face as farmers. Along with many of my farming colleagues we are constantly challenging the “science” that is put before us to achieve greater profitability and financial sustainability. There are many new farming techniques that have helped us to survive ever changing natural and financial circumstances, but many of us feel we are “chasing our tails” trying to stay ahead of the game. Many would take on more regenerative forms of agriculture but there are constant pressures being put on farmers through poor commodity prices, poor seasonal conditions (climate change) and the general vagrancies of farming. When looking at more regenerative forms of agriculture farmers are looking for proof that alternative ways of farming, for example biological inputs rather than conventional inputs really work. Input costs using more biological forms of fertilizer for example can quite often initially be higher than conventional inputs. Whilst many farmers realize that in the long term the outcomes environmentally, economically and socially could be far more positive, but when they have their bank manager tapping them on the shoulder asking for a positive cash flow budget for the coming financial year, they tend to not want to take to many chances, so keep doing what generally works. In my cropping programme I used chemical inputs but used sound rotations, retained as much crop residue as I could and used animal impact where ever appropriate with the main aim of increasing the carbon levels of the soil which then goes onto providing a suitable environment for soil microbes to flourish. Many farmers take this approach. I had to balance this with soil moisture conservation, hence the use of herbicides and direct drill techniques. If the economics worked I knew by adding a green or even brown manure crop into the rotation would have been extremely beneficial in the long term, but at a broad acre level, on medium rainfall country (600mm/year) with margins very tight the short term cost of doing this just didn’t stack up. (The environment I was farming in is very typical, if not more favorable than most broad acre farming regions in Australia. It is vastly different from farming small holdings in the Gippsland of Victoria or coastal areas of N.S.W.) This is very frustrating as many know long term the benefits would be enormous. The main problem facing Australian farmers is we are not remunerated enough for what we produce. The beef cattle market at the moment is stronger, but only now getting to where it should be after many years of being in the doldrums. Beef farmers are now just trying to catch up, paying off debt, and investing in much needed infrastructure improvements. Cropping returns in real terms continue to decline. Many would say that conventional farmers should look at getting involved in organic production. Again the lead time in becoming certified is far too much of a financial burden to take on as there is an initial loss of production until the land is regenerated. (I started the journey). There are certainly higher returns form organics, but at abroad commercial scale, a very hard course to travel. Some manage to achieve this, but mostly there is something more to the story, for example, the land lends itself more readily to rapid change to organics such as the arid regions, or there is a very large alternative income to subsidize the change. The other question to ponder is that whilst organic food demand is rising, there could be a slowing of demand and a corresponding change in return as more supply became available.

Will Sutton and daughter Emma Sutton

Will Sutton and daughter Emma Sutton on “Yallambee”

I have a very good friend who produces free range eggs on his upper hunter beef cattle property. It is a remarkable enterprise with over 3,000 hens truly roaming free behind his cattle grazing rotation. His chemical inputs are almost next to nothing but he does have a problem with a very nasty weed, tiger pear, so has chosen to use chemicals to control it. It is the only practical effective way. They also use feed pellets to supplement the hens with the most accessible and affordable product being non organic. Whilst this enterprise is not certified organic their attitude and philosophy to farming is second to none.

Another controversial subject is that of genetic modification. When it comes to the question of human food, it is a massive issue, one that I personally have many problems with, although from an agricultural production perspective has many benefits. The cotton industry and the environment at a broad acre production level has benefited greatly from GM, taking insecticide spray applications from up to fifteen per season as was the case pre GM down to zero, one or two with the new GM varieties. Time will tell though how long it takes for our clever little insect friends to adapt to this and whether science can stay in front of them.

GM canola and wheat, human food crops, are another controversial issue.  The chemicals used in selective weed control in non GM canola for instance are far more dangerous environmentally than glyphosate used in GM canola.

You could say that I am being the devils advocate with the arguments I have put forward, but through my experiences, and in conversation with many farmers over the years, these are the arguments and general reasons framers tend not to change although in many cases they would love to. Therefore, in trying to promote the Ecological Agriculture message to the average farmer a balanced pragmatic approach needs to be taken to gain credibility within the agricultural fraternity. With this approach, rather than what could be perceived as unachievable and idealistic to most would gain much more traction.

The world is asking questions as to where our civilization is heading, most of all thoughtful farmers. It is a complex issue, one that Ecological Agriculture Australia Association has much to contribute. It is unfortunately a matter of marketing the organization in an effective way.

Will Sutton