Buying a Farm, Generation to Generation

My great grandfather was the first person in my family to start farming when he settled on a soldier block near Griffith after the First World War. His son, my grandfather bought his farm after the Second World War. He was able to buy his farm after working as a truck driver and farm labourer while his son, while my father bought his first block in the late 1980’s when he was in his late 20’s.

My father was able to buy a 500 acre rice farm near Griffith while working as a journalist and newspaper editor on a $20,000 a year salary for around $500,000, a sum which was 25 times his yearly wage. On top of that he needed to purchase machinery and the other essentials such as the seed and chemicals that are necessary to get that first crop in ground.  In comparison I know from browsing real estate windows (a habit I have inherited from my father) that I would probably need to spend around $1.5 million on a property depending on the land and the type of operation I intend to run. On top of that I would need to spend another $200,000-300,000 on livestock or machinery. As a first year out of university a person can probably expect to have a take home pay of around $50,000 to $60,000 depending on their package and what other factors are at play. Taking the average of $55,000 the cost of a property equates to around 27 times the annual wage. While this is slightly higher it is comparing the salary of a person straight out of university with someone who was established in their career.

The real trouble with buying a farm is building up the capital required to make the deposit, as unlike urban real estate which can require as little as a 5% deposit an agricultural loan normally requires a deposit of at least a 40%. A figure which is large but hasn’t changed much since my father bought his first block. This means that in order to buy the above mentioned farm I would need to pay $600,000 up front just to purchase the land. Whereas my father would of needed to pay around $200,000 as a deposit, which is still proportional to his salary at the time.

He did have some extra advantages that I don’t have today such as zero debt from university as it was still mostly free when he attended and the “cost price squeeze” wasn’t as tight then as it is today. However at the same time interest rates are much lower today than they were when my father purchased his first block. As back then interest rates were over 10% while today they are closer to 5.5-6% giving the producer a significant saving.

To be honest I wasn’t sure where I was going with post when I started writing it and I’m still not sure where its taken me other than these two conclusions that I can draw from it. The first one being that it was very hard to get into farming then and it’s still very hard to get into farming now but it is possible. My second conclusion is that it is possible to buy a farm and get into farming if the person is driven, creative and smart. They need to be able to follow their head over their heart, find opportunities where other people see liabilities work hard and save. As it is only through hard work and solid determination that dreams can come true, so now my only question is am I that sort of person?

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Rise of the Robots

With the announcement of Case’s autonomous tractor this week it is clear that a future of driver-less machines are on their way. This isn’t really a total surprise as we have had GPS controlled tractors since the early 2000’s and it was only a matter of time before the driver was completely replaced and while this isn’t the first driver-less tractor concept to be announced it is the first time that a major tractor manufacturer has announced their own design. This is an area that has a growing interest with robots and drones making a strong appearance at the recent Cotton Conference and Ag-Quip. But while it seems clear that that in the future we will be using robotic tractors but the question is will be using large robotic tractors such as Case’s or many swarm bots like those from SwarmFarm and QUT’s Agbot?

The idea behind swarm bots is that their are many smaller robots working on the same farm or even the same paddock, they share information on the task and work to complete it in the most efficient way they can. The other great thing about the concept of swarm farming is that because the machinery is so small it causes very little compaction doing minimal damage to the soil. Compaction is already an issue facing many farmers and the issue is growing with the ever increasing size of the machinery. Compaction is a problem because the weight of the machines squash the soil making it hard and impenetrable for the roots of plants limiting their ability to access water and nutrients, the poor structure can also affect drainage leaving the soil susceptible to water logging. Currently compaction is being managed through the use of GPS controlled machines that travel along “tram tracks”. These “tram tracks” are the wheel tracks that are left by machine as it travels up and down the field limiting the compaction to that particular area of the field. However as this is a completely new technology it will require any producers that adopt the technology to change over all their equipment to these new machines. The other issue that may occur with using swarm bots is that as their is more machinery their is likely to be more maintenance.

Case’s new autonomous tractor and the autonomous tractors from other companies have the advantage of being able to use the farms already existing  machinery but do not address the compaction issue. Both the swarm bots and the autonomous tractors have the advantage of removing the need for a operator which will be a great advantage in a environment where it is constantly becoming more difficult to find operators. However what will happen when something goes wrong? How will it know when a bolt breaks? These machines will need to be covered in senors monitoring it for any sign of failure and will most likely need to be constantly monitored by someone.

Robotic tractors will soon be amongst us and I suspect that we will be seeing them in our fields before we see driver-less cars on the roads. My only questions is which way the industry go?

 

 

“Jimmy’s GM Food Fight”

Anyone who is interested in the GM debate or would like more information I suggest watching “Jimmy’s GM Food Fight”. It takes a non bias scientific look at the Genetic Modification of crops, their use and societies view on them.

http://www.documentarytube.com/videos/jimmys-gm-food-fight

Weed Resistance

Weed Resistance 

I recently watched the Vice report “Saviour Seeds” on GMO cropping (On HBO Season 3 Episode 9), during the program they talked to some farmers from Paraguay on their experiences with growing Roundup Ready soy beans. Their main issue with the product was the issue of weeds resistance that they stated was caused by the excessive use of  glyphosate (The herbicide commonly referred to as Roundup). Personally I thought that the story was servilely one sided and heavily bias but even so weed resistance is unfortunately a real everyday issue for many farmers around the world including Australian farmers.

But are GMO crops to blame?.

In short the answer is NO, while in some countries it could be argued that the misuse of glyphosate in Roundup Ready crops has helped to increase the prevalence of weed resistance it is unfortunately a problem that affects many areas in Australia and around world including those that have never been touched by GM cropping. So what causes herbicide resistance?

Herbicide resistance occurs when a plant a natural mutation in the plant allows it to become immune to the mode of action (the bit that kills the weed) in a herbicide. If the the same herbicide is applied in further sprays this plant may then survive allowing it to set seed, leaving viable seed in the soil for up to 10 years. Resistant plants then germinate from the seeds and if a chemical with the same mode of action is used these plants will set seed and possibly spread. The situation can then be made worst if the producer changes to chemical with another mode of action using it religiously until the weed becomes resistant to it as well. The situation is now that bad in some parts of Western Australia that weeds are resistant to several modes of action almost eliminating chemical options.

In order to combat this issue the producers have had to adopt Integrated Weed Management (IWM) strategies in order to help manage and reduce the problem. Common features in many IWM strategies include rotating modes of action, the double knock strategy and non chemical control methods.

Rotating modes of action involves using different types of chemicals that will still kill the weeds but will use a different method in order to prevent a resistance occurring to one type of mode of action. The different mode of actions can be determined by checking the label to see its group.

The double knock strategy is similar to rotating modes of action and involves making at least two passes over a field. The first pass is down with a chemical using one mode of action before a second pass is done with another chemical that uses a different mode of action in order to knock out any weeds that may of been left by the first pass. This method is becoming increasingly popular when used in conjunction with WeedSeeker technology that identifies weeds in a paddock and only sprays them instead of doing a blanket spray over the entire paddock. This has caused a massive reduction in the amount of chemical used on farm and the operating cost allowing many more expensive chemicals from different groups to be a cost effective option.

Finally the last control method is the non-chemical mechanical control which can take many forms from the simple to the more elaborate. Strategic ploughing is one of mechanical options available as it is able to physically destroy the plant in the fallowed paddock working under the simple idea that no weed can develop resistance to steel. Other methods include trying to control the seed bank though using machinery like seed crushers that a pulled behind the harvester to windrowing stubble in a way that allows it to be burned destroying any seeds.

Overall weed resistance is a problem that effects the entire cropping industry and not some accidental by-product of a RoundUp ready cropping system, it is also a problem that can be managed, prevented and avoided through care full management. I’d like to finish this discussion on Weed Resistance by asking two questions on the Vice program.

1. VICE News​ claims that farmers could use a range of herbicides before the introduction of RoundUp Ready (RR) soy beans in order to prevent and control resistance. But before RR soy beans you couldn’t spray any herbicide in crop and could therefore only spray during fallow. So why aren’t they still rotating their herbicides during fallow to control and prevent resistant weeds along with weeds in general while using glyphosate to control weeds in crop as recomended?

2. If the Paraguay’s farmers are so unhappy with the product why do they still use it and not revert back to conventional seed? The program stated that the majority of Paraguay’s farmers used RR soy beans but not all farmers do meaning there are still conventional seeds on the market, so why not switch back?

On a side note…….

The show also commented on how the how the UN has recently found glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic” which in all fairness they have. But in this day and age everything seems to cause cancer so I thought I’d research things that are proven to cause cancer and are not just “probably carcinogenic”. According the American Cancer Institute there are many many things that can and will cause cancer however I have chosen to just list a few everyday materials that are Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans such as:

  • Alcohol (I know, I was disappointed as well)
  • Coal
  • Tar
  • Engine exhaust
  • Leather Dust
  • Mineral oils
  • Salted fish
  • The Sun (Solar/UV Radiation)
  • Soot
  • Wood Dust
  • Tobacco/Tobacco Smoke

 

Just to lighten things up here’s a song that a South Australian agronomist and farmer wrote about weed resistance and is called the Wild Radish Song.

Rise of City Farm?

I was recently at the National Youth Conference in Canberra on the agricultural work group, our role was to discuss and develop agricultural policy from the preceptive of Australia’s youth. The work group brought together individuals from a range of backgrounds who all a passion for agriculture and wanted to help feed the world into the future. Amongst the many topics that were discussed at the conference one of the ideas that came out of the conference was the concept of the city farm. This is not my idea and its not even a new idea but I believe it is a good one that hasn’t been looked at strongly enough and will have a great potential in feeding the looming world population of nine billion by 2050.

Firstly though I would like to clear up want my definition of a “city farm” is as the definition of what a city farm is was something that we had some trouble with. By my definition a city farm is commercial scale operation in an urban area that produces food hydroponics and aquaculture or a combination of the two. This differs from other definition that many other assumed, that definition being a network of community and roof top gardens. While I have no problem with these smaller community projects they are not a realistic method of feeding the world’s rapidly rising population.

The need for new and innovate ways to produce more food for the world using less land and inputs is becoming more apparent as issues like climate variability, mining and urban encroachment take their toll. We will need to produce more food with less land and less water in order feed the world, I also believe that we will need to be closer to our markets in the future as fuel prices continue to rise making cost effective transport more difficult. In order to achieve this I believe that we will need city farms that can produce large scale commercial crops.

Closed hydroponics have been shown to recycle over 95% of the water in the system (Practical Hydroponics and Greenhouses) as there is no evaporation and no leaching so the only water that is lost is the water used by the plants. It also uses 30-40% less fertiliser than regular cropping (Woolworths Article) as the nutrients are in a contained system and like the water only nutrients used by the plants are removed from the system. These systems would be much efficient in terms of water and nutrients allowing much more food to be produced from the same inputs.

I believe that aquaculture also has a role to play in the future of city farming as fish can be grown indoors in large tanks. While there is currently some concern about the sustainability of fish farming due the fish-meal comprising of mainly wild caught fish I believe that they could be fed on grubs and larvae that are cultured in waste products. The two systems may even be linked together into a system called “aquaponics”

Aquaponics is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics where the waste water from the fish tanks is filtered though the hydroponic system allowing the plants to feed on the waste from the fish. This closed system again works to save water and nutrients through limiting loss to the outside environment so all that is lost is what the plants and fish use.

I understand that in order to build and run one of these city farms the costs will be huge and there will be a massive need for labour. But there is already commercial  aquaculture and hydroponic farms so I know its possible and while I am unaware of any in Australia there is already farms overseas using aquaponic technology.

Will it be for me?

Probably not, I much prefer the open spaces of the country to the crowded concrete jungle and view from the tractor cab to the bumper to bumper grid lock. I believe that there will still be a place for conventional farming in the future but I also believe this is something that has the potential to feed the worlds ever growing population.

 

To read an article in “The Land” on city farms click here

And to read about the worlds largest vertical farm click here

Are these the farms of tomorrow?

 

A New Year

2014 has drawn to an end and 2015 has started, I rang in the New Year the only way I know how, starting siphons to irrigate cotton a tradition I have kept up for the last six years. So what will the New Year hold for Agriculture?

First up I think we are hoping for rain, with a large portion of the country being drought declared and a rural debt crisis looming widespread, continued rain is needed desperately. While a subsidy free industry is important for an efficient and financially sustainable farming sector a drought like the one that we are currently experiencing can send many viable farms under and foreclosure isn’t a good option for anyone including the banks. As a sudden infux of farms on the market would drop land values impacting on surviving farms as well. Aside from rain the only way that I can see out of this situation is through low interest loans from the government. So my first hope for the New Year is widespread rain or failing that the continuation of low interest loans.

Secondly I would like to see the strengthening of the farm trespass and immediate reporting of video of animal abuse laws. As animal activists have not only continued to illegally break into and survey farms but some have also upped their agenda to sabotage, such as the recent example in Western Australia where anti live export activists burnt out a truck and cut the break lines on two other trucks. While I can’t imagine that tougher laws will deter these people that are acting out of ideology but it they are caught it may keep them off the streets for a while longer. The immediate reporting of genuine animal abuses would not only be a better outcome animals in distress but would stop groups holding onto emotive footage to use at times of political advantage.

My third desire for 2015 would be the increase of Australian Agriculture’s voice, we have a great story to tell and each year we are connecting with Australians but there is still more to be done. We are still being confronted with waves of misinformation that mislead the general public and fail to accurately portray the image of Australian Agriculture. It is up to us as an industry to tell the story of Australian Agriculture, who we are, what we do, why we do it and fight emotion with fact.

I hope we can achieve these things in 2015, telling the story of Australian Agriculture while getting tough on the illegal activities of activists, but most of all I hope that it rains and the drought stricken farmers get the relief that they need.

Happy New Year to all 🙂

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Growing Up On A Farm

I recently drove past the farm that I grew up on near Griffith and it just reminded me of just how lucky my brothers and I were to grow up of farm. We were able to experience a range of things that you just don’t get to experience when you grow up in town or in the city. It also generates a wealth of unique experiences, memories and stories that couldn’t occur elsewhere like when we proudly showed a family friend our poddy calf “Clarabelle” who by that stage resided in the freezer (I’ll get to that later).

The freedom and ability to explore the farm is one of the great things about growing up on one, we were able to wander off (under supervision) and explore, learning about farming, the natural world and how the two interact. We could take the billy cart that dad  built us from a few bits of steel, some wheel barrow wheels, half a plastic drum for a seat and a bit of chord on the front axle to steer with. Then take it out to the gully behind the house, all three of us would jump one (one in the seat steering, one between the seat and frame and one on the back), give it a quick push start and be flying off down the hill only to reach the bottom and pull it back up the gully to start again. We’d catch yabbies in the channels that ran through the farm and around Griffith, have yabby races or cook some for lunch. The ability and freedom to do these things is something my city cousins could never enjoy living in Sydney and were always amazed by what we did when they came out to visit us.

All Three of Us

All Three of Us

We learned firsthand about the beauty and harsh reality of the natural world, from the blight of rabbits and the bitter dry of drought to the joy of rain and green growth it brought we saw it all. We saw and learned firsthand how the introduced rabbit excavated the landscape destroying pasture and how truly devastating it could be when it was coupled with drought. But also saw how quickly the dusty landscape could be transformed to a lush green with rain or how irrigation could bring life to the paddocks in the driest of seasons (when there was a water allocation). But by far the thing I cherish most from the farm was the memories.

Rain

Rain

The unique farm life gave us farm kids of great memories and stories that I have cherished since. Memories of us riding in the tractor with dad as he prepared the fields or how we would sit in the back of the parked ute and watch the Ag Plane sow the rice bays. The day first got on a horse, only to be thrown off over the front straight away and helping dad in the yards with the sheep. Then there was the two hour bus trip to school, we’d get up a six to make lunches before walking down the driveway to the mailbox, getting on the bus at seven and arriving at school in time to start class at nine. Occasionally when we’d get home from school (at 5pm) I would have to get on the motorbike and ride to wherever dad was on the tractor taking him his lunch.

Checking Things With Dad

Checking Things With Dad

But our most famous story would be that of our poddy calf “Clarabelle”. Carrabelle had been given to us by an old drover, bottle raised the young calf and it soon became the family pet. However like with all cattle the time soon came when it was time for the now heifer to go to the slaughter house but us kids bailed up saying it was the family pet and couldn’t go, so Carrabelle was saved for now. Then a few weeks later we returned from a New Years Eve party to find that Carrabelle had somehow let herself into and then back out of the house leaving cow dung in the hallway, urine by the TV and the PLASTIC Christmas Tree half eaten. The next day a meeting was held with a unanimous vote, Clarabelle was going and steak was for dinner, there was no forgiveness any of us kids as Clarabelle had gone too far.

The Infamous Carrabelle

The Infamous Carrabelle

Growing up on the farm is really what made me what I am today and I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I’d grown up as a ‘towny’ or in the dreaded city. Its where my passion for Agriculture, farming and flying came from, the things that have made me who I am.

 

Back Aain

Back Again