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Conference Summary

John Passioura

CSIRO Plant Industry, Canberra

This is the second Agronomy Society meeting I have been to in the last 3 months. The first was the ASA meeting in Minneapolis in November. I am struck by some differences. Apart from sheer size –10 times larger – the ASA meeting had a much greater emphasis on simulation modeling than did this meeting, and of those papers on modelling, many fewer dealt overtly with the interests of farmers. Of the many papers I heard there, only three addressed on-farm application, and, of those, two were by Australians: one by Bob McCown, who spoke on a similar theme to that he followed here; and the other by John Donnelly, whose talk was similar to that of his colleague Richard Simpson’s at this meeting. Most of the other papers had the flavour of an internal theological discussion by a priesthood; the audience was each other. By contrast, most of the modelling papers at this meeting, and indeed a large proportion of the papers generally, had the farming community as their focus.

This impression of mine was reinforced by a discussion I had this morning with Jerry Hatfield, who remarked that he was struck by the wide range of background of the participants here – scientists, engineers, farmers, economists, sociologists, farm advisers, agricultural business people – and by his unsureness, when anyone stood up to speak from the floor, what their background was. There was generally a common language in use.

Farming Systems

The commonality of the language was put a little at risk by yesterday’s wide-ranging discussion on Farming Systems. Several speakers used the same words as each other, but with different meanings. And some speakers used words that few in the audience had ever heard before.

Discussion of “systems” is bedevilled by this problem, because the word and the words that typically accompany it have so many different meanings in different contexts. But the essence of “system”, at least from the point of view of the founders of “systems theory”, is that a system is a whole (often deemed to have some purpose) that is comprised of interacting parts, that the behaviour of the parts is constrained by their belonging to the whole, and that it is the concerted action of the parts that leads to the viability of the whole.

Biological systems that we deal with are characterised by being nested, that is, any biological system is both a whole (for example, a plant) and part of a larger whole (for example, a crop). Every layer in this nested hierarchy is thus important, and being chauvinistic about the special importance of one’s own system of interest is misguided.

It is important to work hard at seeing the context in which one’s own system of interest operates, to see it as a part of a larger system and to understand the constraints that it is under. The most effective way of doing that is by dialogue, and if I dare try to summarise Bob McCown's erudite talk in a single phrase, it is that dialogue across levels of organisation is essential.

This dual nature of a system, of being both a part and a whole, makes many of the dichotomies that we use unhelpful: science-push versus industry-pull; scientist-driven versus farmer-driven; reductionism versus holism. It is just as true to say that “invention is the mother of necessity” as it is to say that “necessity is the mother of invention”. “Invention” typically represents a part, and “necessity” a whole. Progress comes from the interaction, the mutual stimulation, of these apparent opposites, and I believe that it is this mutual stimulation that distinguishes the more successful from the less successful of the many GRDC-funded farming-systems projects that Belinda Eastough described.

Getting Better

The relentless pressure from chronically declining terms of trade coupled with the advent of the triple-bottom-line – economic, environmental, and social – means that farmers have to run even to stay still. Richard Clark argued that success in such circumstances means improving faster than one’s competitors. Simon Cook outlined the Taguchi principle that helped the rise of industrial Japan, namely, that success comes from reducing variation in one’s production.

In agriculture we have plenty of variation. We have long been aware of seasonal variation. The use of geo-referenced yield monitors has shown us that spatial variation within a paddock is much greater than we had imagined, and at least as great as the seasonal. This spatial variation offers us the chance to make substantial gains in both productivity and environmental management. Simon and his colleagues have shown that many paddocks have areas of such low productivity that farmers lose money by farming them. The gross margins of some such areas flip-flop between negative and positive from season to season, but other areas give persistently negative gross margins, and could with profit be removed from production. The benefits would be not only economic, but also environmental and social, for returning such areas to perennial vegetation would eliminate offsite effects due to hydrologic imbalance and transport of agrichemicals, and make for a more aesthetically pleasing landscape, as both Tony Fischer and Andrew Campbell argued we must strive for.

Further, the techniques of precision agriculture will enable us to perform quantifiable on-farm trials using operations with farm-scale equipment, for example by varying fertiliser application in strips across a paddock. Simon Cook and colleagues have produced a manual for doing such trials, and developments in spatial statistics give hope that such trials could detect significant treatment effects as small as 5%. We will soon be able to fulfil Peter Carberry’s goal of doing research that is both rigorous and relevant.

It is becoming evident that much spatial variation in a paddock is due to variation in soil type, especially as it affects the ability of agricultural plants to get their roots into the subsoil. The discovery of boron toxicity twenty years ago has helped focus our attention on difficult subsoils, and many of the papers at this meeting dealt with this problem. Learning how to manage the subsoil will have huge benefits. Learning how to manage soil biology, which we barely understand and which greatly affects the performance of agricultural plants, will also have huge benefits, as several of the papers we heard intimated.

The Landscape

Landscape has many functions, as Ted Lefroy, Andrew Campbell, Anna Ridley, and Tony Fischer reminded us. “Rural landscapes are sites of consumption as well as of production”, said Andrew, and produce not only food and fibre, but also water and, if managed appropriately, delight. There are many trade-offs to be made – for example, Dutch dairy farmers can reduce leaching of nitrate into groundwater by keeping their cows permanently in barns, but the populace likes seeing cows grazing and exerts pressure both to keep cows in the fields and to reduce leaching of nitrates. A mosaic landscape pleases more eyes than one farmed rigidly to straight fencelines and is likely to be more profitable and more environmentally sound. But ours is predominantly a cadastral society, and it may be a long time before most of our farmers feel comfortable about managing to soil type rather than to surveyed fence line.


Where has extension gone? The word was barely mentioned in yesterday’s symposium on Farming Systems, and seems to have been subsumed under the closer contact between scientist and farmer that “Farming Systems Research”, as currently understood, predicates. But FSR deals only with the top decile of farmers, and typically deals with but a few aspects of farming; advisers like Jim Wright and Tim Paramore have had and will continue to have huge impacts on their constituencies. What happens with the other deciles? If we are interested in managing rural landscapes for the populace as a whole, who is to help change the practices of the long tail of struggling farmers? Neil Barr in his work for the Murray Darling Basin Commission has shown that in many of the poorer farming areas the average age of farmers exceeds 50 and is rising by half a year every year, that the children are moving to cities and do not wish to farm, and that therefore the farmers have little incentive to change. As agronomists become more attuned to environmental matters this is something that this Society must continue to address.

The future?

Demands for improved productivity and environmental management will intensify. Fortunately there are many circumstances in which both can be improved. I mentioned some earlier: managing to soil type, with possible retirement of unproductive pockets of land in the interests of both profitability and biodiversity; more complete use by crops of water and nutrients in the subsoil; better management of fertilisers and other agrichemicals by using quantifiable on-farm strip trials. A prerequisite for some of these is much better record keeping, such as the use of GIS databases for storing and analysing on-farm experience over many years. Controlled traffic, as discussed by Jeff Tullberg, will surely become the norm, not only because it minimises soil compaction, but also because it enables much more precise application of agrichemicals; further, the cost of very precise (2-3 cm) guidance systems is falling remarkably rapidly.

And GM food crops? It may be a long time, perhaps decades, before they become accepted by the community. Not so, for other crops. Tony Fist’s fascinating talk on the Tasmanian poppy industry revealed the extraordinary opportunity Tasmania has, through its technical and organisational expertise, for expanding that industry to include the production of other pharmaceuticals, possibly through genetic transformation. Further, it became evident in informal discussion stimulated by Allan Green’s talk on GM oilseeds and their prospects for producing industrial grade oils, that Tasmania has the opportunity to specialise in such crops, to forgo any production of food oilseeds, thereby eliminating any danger of cross-contamination between food and industrial types that would alarm the general community.

If what I have just described is indeed the future, then our job is to get there (to recall Richard Clark’s comments) faster than anybody else. Fine-tuning the present, though necessary, will not be enough.

The Agronomy Society and its People

The Agronomy Society is remarkably diverse, with active participation not only from agronomists in the narrow sense, but also from farmers, advisers, soil scientists, crop physiologists, agribusiness, economists and, at this meeting, agricultural engineers – who, I was shocked to find, were entirely absent from our previous meeting, in 1998. It is pleasing to see their active participation at this meeting – after all, machinery accounts for 25% of a farmer’s input costs and how best to manage it is crucial to his performance. The agricultural economists also left the fold for a while, as Lisa Brennan recounted in her perceptive historical talk, largely owing to the failure of “farm management research”, which promised too much, became too theoretical, and lost touch with its constituency.

But more impressive than this interactive diversity is the quality and number of the young members of the Society, many of whom gave superb presentations. I commend the organisers for giving them the chance to contribute so widely in this way. It made some of the programs very crowded, but it was certainly worth it.

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