Northern Regional Panel
GRDC Northern Region Panel
Northern Region Characteristics
- - tropical and subtropical climate;
- - high inherent soil fertility;
- - yield depends upon conservation of soil moisture from subtropical rainfall;
- - substantial enterprise size;
- - diversity in crop choice, need for new crops, e.g. pulses;
- - premium on high-protein wheats for export and domestic markets;
- - high-potential yields; and
- - competition with cotton.
James Clark - Northern Panel Chair
Working out the ‘real’ question growers want answered by research is one of the priorities for James Clark, chairman of the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) northern panel.
“It’s all very well for people to say ‘crown rot’ is an issue, or ‘nematodes’ – but we need to narrow that down into exactly what needs to be fixed,” Mr Clark said.
“Is it a genetic solution; developing new management practices; or better communication so more growers know what is already commonly being done?”
Mr Clark, a former North Star, NSW grain grower and north-east NSW Regional Advisory Committee (RAC) member, says he’s keen for the newly appointed northern panel to continue the good work that’s been done over recent years.
“Our role is to gather grower priorities, break them down into the different elements, and take them back to the GRDC with recommendations on what proportion of funding should be spent on each one.
“For the northern region, soils and their interaction with farming systems are gaining in importance and so is precision agriculture.
“We also have new weeds investments underway, looking at genetic variation in different weed populations and understanding how their ecology might lead to variations in chemical use or new modes of action.
“The newly released Grains Industry National Research, Development and Extension (RD&E) Strategy provides a unique opportunity for the industry as well.
“We’re looking forward to working with organisations such as state governments and universities to deliver on their commitments to the strategy,” Mr Clark said.
He has served on the northern panel since July 2005 and as northern panel chair since 2008.
“The panel system is vital to the GRDC’s success and the organisation relies on panellists to contribute robust opinions based on professional and practical grains industry experience,” Mr Clark said.
Mr Clark lives in the Hunter Valley of NSW and brings his extensive experience in both yland and irrigated farming, and also his skills in business development, investment and irrigation design, to the panel.
“We often sit on the outside of the GRDC and ask: why isn’t this being done differently? That’s how I ended up in this role,” he said.
“You have to have a passion for the industry to do this role but it’s one of the few ways that you can actually influence the future direction of the grains industry.”
Mr Clark says understanding the diversity of opinions, different rates of technology uptake and individuals’ aims within the grains industry has been a learning experience.
“I think I’ve gained personally a far greater understanding about how the research community operates and the types of returns on investment which can be expected from R&D; I certainly have a greater understanding of how growers are not all the same,” he said.
“Coming off our own farm we tend to believe all growers are at the same level or adopting technology at the same speed or even want the same things – that’s very wrong as there is a very diverse range of opinions and needs among growers.”
He says being a panel member brings plenty of advantages as well as some responsibility.
“You meet many interesting and diverse people; not only fellow panellists but people from other GRDC regional panels, leading researchers and companies.
“It’s a great stretch and it’s a great place to grow your understanding of both research and business and just how people operate in general,” Mr Clark said.
James Clark Q&A - Click here
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Genetic gains in wheat breeding continue to fascinate wheat breeder John Sheppard – just as they did when he was a Darling Downs farmer.
Mr Sheppard is based at the Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation (DEEDI) Leslie Research Centre, Toowoomba but his influence on the grains industry is international.
“I was always fascinated by the gains made by breeding when I was farming and having the ability to change a crop is one of the best things I think anybody could do, and that led to my passion – seed collecting,” he said.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to go on trips to collect species that may otherwise have been lost forever but are now being safeguarded.”
The seed collection and conservation trips have included places like Tajikistan but principally in the area of the Fertile Crescent involving Syria, Turkey, Georgia and Armenia.
Mr Sheppard’s work in safeguarding the ancient seeds and in so doing helping to protect the future of global food supply was documented in Sally Ingleton’s celebrated documentary, Seed Hunter, which featured the work of Australian scientist, Ken Street.
“The process included local experts asking the local people where the progenitors of our modern day wheat are, making those collections, making sure they are stored safely and distributed across the world and used in breeding programs,” Mr Sheppard said.
Closer to home Mr Sheppard has been influential in the development and release of genetically superior wheat varieties including Lang which has good crown rot resistance and disease resistance and whose growers were offered a premium from the then Australian Wheat Board (AWB).
“Wheat breeding is not a solo occupation; it involves a team and I’ve been very fortunate to work in a really good team at the Leslie Research Centre,” he said.
“Making gains also involves the growers and without their involvement we would never have released a variety and to see those varieties growing in the paddock is the best thing any breeder could hope for.”
Mr Sheppard is into his second term on the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) Northern Panel and says the advisory panel system is a great strength of the organisation and an excellent platform for growers and professionals wanting to shape the future of their industry.
He says the leadership and strategic thinking, combined with integrated and effective research and extension, provide real benefits from being on the Panel.
“I like to think what I’ve brought to the Panel is that I’m a practicing research scientist but I also have practical skills in farming because I was a full time farmer,” he said.
“The skills include not only an appreciation of what’s required in the paddock but a passion for genetic resources and their use to improve varieties for growers in the northern grains region.
“We must remember GRDC’s investment includes grower funds and I believe those funds are being put to very good use – not only in developing best management practices but in varieties and new products.”
“Being on a panel allows you to have input and to gain a better perspective, and at the end of the period you can have a great satisfaction that you have in fact done something for your industry.”
He says the current Northern Panel under the leadership of chairman James Clark has had a paradigm shift over the past three years as far as research is concerned, particularly in the areas of crown rot and nematode resistance and tolerance within varieties. There are several new projects underway.
The Panel has been very proactive in setting strategies and that goes across all portfolios so instead of considering projects on a one-by-one basis it looks at projects and how they fit into the strategy, he said.
“Professionally I’ve gained a much better insight into the workings of GRDC – from putting projects up to actually evaluating them – and seeing how they fit into the overall strategy,” he said.
“As a Panel member it really gives you the opportunity to increase your network and therefore personally to gain skills that otherwise you wouldn’t have gained.
“I feel very privileged to have been given this unique opportunity.”
John Sheppard Q&A - Click here
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Queensland grain grower Rob Taylor, Curraweena, Macalister, is one of many local growers wondering if a strategic tillage will provide the answer to a build up of stubble-borne pathogens.
As a member of the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) northern panel he has an inside run on any research that might provide an answer.
“We have a full control traffic zero till system, and a reliance on sorghum as a summer crop has seen a carry-over of pathogens such as fusarium and charcoal rot,” Mr Taylor said.
“There are a lot of other zero and minimum till growers around here, and we’re all asking questions about the benefits of whether a strategic tillage will working, and the timing that would suit best.”
Mr Taylor farms 2300 hectares including leased farming country on the Jimbour Plain and grows maize as well as sorghum in summer, plus winter rotation crops of wheat, barley and chickpeas. This year he’s also trialling faba beans.
One of the other issues he’s concerned about is herbicide resistance, which stems from farming on a floodplain.
“Our farm goes under water frequently and one of my greatest fears is glyphosate-resistant summer grasses,” My Taylor said.
“We do get a lot of grass through a lot of our country and if glyphosate-resistance becomes part of the area that would knock us around a lot.
“Our main strategy here is to come back with a double knock of paraquat following our initial glyphosate spray and we’re playing around using different residual herbicides.”
He says being on the GRDC panel is a rewarding experience which allows him to take home valuable knowledge and information.
“Getting away from your own district is extremely important – to see different things. You mightn’t pick up much but every bit of knowledge helps.
“It has been extremely interesting and beneficial to our operation having contact with the researchers and understanding what’s coming via research, what’s not happening and how that comes back to what’s happening in this district.”
Mr Taylor says GRDC panellists must be able to handle constructive criticism from industry but as long as it is fair and well thought out feedback is always welcome.
“Being a panel member you are a conduit, taking information and feedback from growers and researchers back to the GRDC with the main aim to make sure research is targeted,” he said.
“I believe my input into the GRDC northern panel has been through the farming systems work we’ve done here with the different researchers over the years and where I want to try and take my operation to.
“Not all the answers to our disease and pest problems will be controlled by chemicals and also genetic solutions take considerable time so how we implement a sustainable farming system becomes paramount.”
Mr Taylor says one of the key strengths of the panel system is that it attracts and utilises industry identities with a variety of skills, knowledge and qualifications.
“On the panel we have a diverse range of people from wheat breeders to scientists to growers who come from geographically different areas,” he said.
“I believe that it’s important to have industry specialists and a range of people on the panel – because when it comes to genetics I’m lost!
“I think this time spent on the panel has been extremely interesting because the whole of industry including research and farming is going through massive changes so it’s really good to be in there, trying to do something and then gaining benefits for my operation.”
Rob Taylor Q&A - Click Here
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As the sole representative from North Queensland, Aaron Sanderson has brought a unique perspective to the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) advisory panels.
Unlike most growers who sit on the GRDC’s regional panels, Mr Sanderson does not grow wheat at his property at Ayr.
Instead his focus is a mixture of crops suited to the tropical climate, with his rotation built around corn through the y winter and soy beans in the wet summer.
“There are certainly unique challenges in farming in wetter environments,” Mr Sanderson said.
“We see more of the minor crops – it’s not straight wheat and sorghum, which are more predominant in Queensland’s cropping areas.
“Some of the minor crops and minor breeding programs, like soy beans and mung beans and corn, probably haven’t had enough attention in the past.
“It’s something that I’ve got a bit of background in and hopefully I can add some meaningful discussion about these things.”
After lobbying for a greater research focus on northern and coastal grains crops, Mr Sanderson was asked in 2008 to sit on GRDC’s northern panel, which he says has been a rewarding experience.
“Participating on the panels has been really good for me here in North Queensland because I’m not doing the same thing as all my neighbours are doing, so it was hard to look over the fence to see what’s going on,” he said.
“By being on the panel it gets you out and about, and you continue to have that industry involvement.
“Northern Australia and the coast are quite an emerging area for the grains industry I think. It’s amazing what’s already ticking along quietly in these areas that probably haven’t been serviced very well in the past.”
Mr Sanderson moved to Ayr from a broadacre yland operation at Clermont in Central Queensland six years ago, and was attracted by the freedom to explore new types of farming practices.
During this time he has experimented by growing everything from cotton, to sugar cane, to hybrid seed crops of sorghum, sunflowers and corn. He has also grown soy, navy and mung beans, as well as chickpeas.
But his farming plan has now settled to a regular rotation built around no-till corn and soy beans on 190 hectares of pivot and lateral irrigated country, and a further 80ha of cane on flood and channel irrigated land.
As a panel member he has taken the opportunity to travel throughout North Queensland, as well as the wider GRDC northern region, observing how other farmers do business and delivering their input back to the GRDC team.
“You try and think of the bigger picture and you’ve always got to have that in the back of your mind,” Mr Sanderson said.
“But there’s a lot of grain grown on the Atherton Tablelands for instance and those guys felt a bit neglected, so we have tried to listen to their issues.
“And the sugar industry here has realised that you can’t continue on with a monoculture forever and there’s some inherent benefits of getting some legumes into the farming system.
“Mung beans fit into the cane rotation pretty nicely, and soy is not too bad, and if you can harvest some grain off those crops and get some cash, it’s even better.
“Industry pays a fair bit of money out in levies to the GRDC and the whole guts of it is to make sure that money goes to relevant research.
“There’s no point standing on the outside squawking about what’s going on if you’re not prepared to contribute back to the industry. By being involved you can make sure investments go to areas important to growers.”
Mr Sanderson said one of the strengths of the panel system was the diversity of views and backgrounds represented, which ensures a thorough exploration of issues in the decision making process.
“On the northern panel, there are growers, research scientists and agronomists/ industry representatives, so you’ve got quite a diverse spread when it comes to skills and points of view,” he said.
“I like to think I’m fairly grounded about what’s important and what’s not at farm level and I have enough background skills to look objectively at different research.”
While participating in the GRDC panels does mean time away from home, Mr Sanderson said the effort was worth it.
“It’s very rewarding and I find it very interesting, but I have a particular interest in looking at farm research and finding better ways of doing things, so it’s right up my alley,” he said.
“If you’re not interested in that sort of thing, you might find it a bit tedious.
“And it probably helps if you like aeroplanes. You’ve got to want to get out and have a look around.”
Aaron Sanderson Q&A - Click here
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Jodi McLean’s grandfather was a wheat quality judge in northern New South Wales for many years, and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) northern panellist is following in the family footsteps in her passion for grain quality.
A cereal chemist by profession, including Technical Research Manager at GrainCorp, Jodi is in her second term on the GRDC’s northern panel and has found the time invaluable to her professional development.
“I applied for a position on the northern panel in 2008 because I wanted to contribute my expertise in the grain industry from both commercial and research perspectives.
“As a member of the panel, I help set priorities and strategies for R&D by talking to growers, but also getting out and interacting with all levels of the industry – from bulk handlers to manufacturers and end users of the product – and this is where my commercial background is very helpful.
“It’s important that there’s a balance of skills on the panel. We have to have the ability to explain what a project is about and determine if a proposal is relevant, novel and new and will translate into real outcomes for the whole industry.
“Ultimately we are working toward producing a final, quality product and so all levels of the industry must be engaged in the research and development process.”
As a cereal chemist, Jodi has unique and valuable skills that are rapidly disappearing in the Australian grains research scene.
“My passion and area of expertise is research in grain quality, and this is something I contribute to the panel.
“With deregulation, there has been a renewed focus on Australian grain quality, and I think there will be an emerging demand for research and expertise in this area.
“There aren’t many cereal chemists with skills in grain quality in Australia and I have been working for many years with the Royal Australian Chemistry Institute Cereal Chemistry Division, participating in and facilitating activities and training to keep these skills in the country.
“My commercial background is primarily in industry from a bulk handler point of view, where I was the Technical Research Manager for GrainCorp Operations Ltd.
“This background gives me a commercial outlook when assessing research projects – I look at research proposal and ask is that going to be realistic and commercially viable for the industry?
“From the point of view of a researcher, being a member of the GRDC panel has allowed me to keep in touch with all areas of new research and meet some extraordinary people in many different fields.
“Every panel member has unique skills and being a member has broadened my knowledge base professionally by being exposed to research in all aspects of the grain industry.
“Being a panellist is a unique opportunity to make a contribution to the direction of research and development, but is also invaluable professionally.
“I have had a chance to visit universities and research institutions and as a researcher it’s useful to see how the GRDC processes work and how a research proposal is considered for funding.
“My background in facilitating and training also gives me an ability to extract the research needs from my conversations with growers and industry players. I was involved with training at GrainCorp, and I also teach chemistry and laboratory skills part time at TAFE.
“Growers might say ‘fix crown rot’, but this needs to be translated into practical research questions and priorities to deliver outcomes.”
Jodi runs an agricultural consultancy business, specialising in advice on grain quality, testing methods and instrumentation, auditing, facilitation and agricultural R&D. Her work takes her around the country as well as commitments to ongoing training and professional development.
“You have to be very organised to be a member of the GRDC panel and work full time, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to others,” she said.
Jodi McLean Q&A - Click here
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Keith Harris has brought more than 30 years’ experience in key corporate farming management and farmer organisations to his first term on the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) northern panel.
Recently retired as the full-time property manager of Romani Pastoral Company’s Windy Station, Mr Harris has stayed on with Romani in northwest New South Wales as its agricultural consultant to help make key decisions about their Liverpool Plains properties which regularly crop around 10,000 hectares and run more than 11,000 cattle.
Mr Harris believes the next 20 years in agriculture is going to be “more exciting than anything we’ve seen before” but sees farmers as being under more pressure than ever to make sound choices based on solid research and extension from organisations like the GRDC to help them chart their course.
“Developments in precision agriculture such as the use of variable rate applications of seed and fertiliser within paddocks have the potential to increase productivity whilst at the same time reduce input costs and will become very valuable tools for farmers,” Mr Harris said.
Among other issues which Mr Harris said warrant further research and development is the need to look at ways of minimising risk.
“For example in 2010, many wheat and cereal crops looked very good approaching harvest but heavy rain caused many crops to lodge badly, resulting in loss of grain, downgrading of grain quality and an increase in harvesting costs.
“More attention needs to be directed to developing or identifying tougher varieties which can handle adverse weather conditions.
Mr Harris believes canopy management to potentially reduce the height of our crops and to improve straw strength also needs to be researched with the aim of reducing lodging and says Australian growers may well benefit from adopting practices used by some northern hemisphere farmers such as using various growth regulants and harvest aids such as the recently introduced canola spray ‘Pod stik’, currently being used to reduce seed pod shattering before harvest.
Having spent the past 20 years farming on the Liverpool Plains where mining has already impacted on agriculture, Mr Harris believes issues like greenhouse gas emissions, competition for labour and transport and the strong Australian dollar have the potential to heavily impact on the farmers’ bottom lines as much as seasonal conditions and crop selection.
“There have been some massive improvements in farming in recent years, particularly with no-till farming systems, and there are more to come but we need to help farmers deal with what’s happening beyond the farm gate too to keep them viable.”
Mr Harris was a director of AgVance Farming, a group established to provide agronomy, research and extension services to summer and winter croppers on the Liverpool Plains, for more than five years and through his GRDC role is looking forward to being involved in a similar consultative level but across a much larger area.
“I’ve always been interested in R&D and therefore this role with the GRDC panel is an opportunity for me to put something back into agriculture.”
Mr Harris began his corporate farming career in the Lachlan Valley on Jemalong Station before transferring to become property manager of Gundaline Station at Carrathool in 1981 and then to Cowl Cowl Station at Hillston before moving to Milchengowrie at Boggabri in 1991.
Always keen to try something new if its merits stacked up, Mr Harris was instrumental in helping to establish permanent bed farming in the Riverina.
When Mr Harris’ interest was sparked in introducing cotton to Milchengowrie, he joined the Upper Namoi Cotton Growers Association and ended up as its chairman for more than six years, in which time the large-scale mixed farming property became a highly successful cotton grower.
Mr Harris has also been heavily involved in various Namoi Valley water committees representing farmers for more than ten years, and was a trustee of the Helix Fighting Group, which won a landmark legal action against ICI concerning the huge impact its chemical, Helix, had on beef industry.
“I’ve never been frightened to stand up for what I believe in in terms of what needs to be said about agriculture and I believe farmers overall need to be prepared to work with the wider community to take farming in whatever direction it needs to go.”
Whilst managing Milchengowrie Mr Harris also worked with Cotton Australia and the Gunnedah Shire Council to develop community chemical spray guidelines and he was heavily involved in the introduction of the initial Cotton Industry Best Management Practices Manual.
In 2004 Mr Harris moved to Windy Station at Quirindi.
Keith Harris Q&A - Click here
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With 12 years as district agronomist in north-west New South Wales behind her, Loretta Serafin has seen most things a season can throw at a farmer and has a passion for helping growers improve their farm efficiency in the face of an “erratic and variable climate”.
As a new member of the Grains Research and Development Corporation’s (GRDC) northern panel, Ms Serafin has brought with her the contacts and understanding built over her time with the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) in Gunnedah, Moree and now Tamworth, where she is based as the department’s acting technical specialist for northern farming systems as well as the Tamworth district agronomist.
Ms Serafin said she believed broadacre farming in north-west NSW was comprised of “opportunities and challenges” due to the mix of summer and winter crops, which are unique to the region. Her research and extension focus is targeted at helping growers identify a reliable and profitable summer crop to put into their rotation.
“In the winter rotation crops such as chickpeas have been pretty rapidly adopted whereas reliable summer-crop options have been more limited but also have a great potential to improve farm efficiency,” she said.
In 2006 Loretta was awarded a Churchill fellowship which took her to Europe and the United States to look into summer oilseeds suited to crop rotations in the GRDC’s northern region, and her trials and extension work have already brought some of the ideas from that trip to the paddocks of northwest NSW.
“I am keen to continue working with growers and advisors to try to get some of these summer crops like sunflower and sorghum adopted more widely so that people have reliable and profitable rotation options and better rewards in terms of natural resource outcomes.”
In her roles with the NSW DPI, Ms Serafin’s job is to provide support to growers, industry and agronomists about “the whole realm of our complex system” including areas like selection of varieties for specific conditions, rotational development and understanding nutrient uptake in different seasons and soil types.
“I’ve spent a lot of time working in the north-west trying to make a contribution and assist in improving the way our farming systems work in areas like improved water use and nitrogen efficiency.
“Sunflower research and extension has been one of the higher profile areas I have worked in, but more recently I have tended to specialise in summer cropping in general, an area which I love. Overall, however I spend more time with many of the mainstream crops such as durum wheat, barley and sorghum which hold the larger cropping acreages.
“My idea in joining the GRDC panel is to put to further use beyond north-west NSW the experience I’ve gained working with growers and advisors and gain further knowledge which I can pass on.
“Being on the panel will hopefully offer more perspective to the outlooks of all members and make us appreciate the challenges growers in other areas face so we can work towards ways of using our resources with the best gain overall.
Ms Serafin said she believes GRDC has great value as an overarching independent body, partly because of the diversity in background of its panel members awn together because of their interest in broadening growers’ options and improving their financial returns.
Having run trials on summer and winter crops on the northwest slopes and plains as far out as Mungindi and Walgett, Ms Serafin has developed a healthy respect for the fact that different regions often face their own set of problems or come with their own advantages and extension isn’t just about telling farmers what they should be doing.
“Extension in my mind is a two way street; often I learn a lot more by listening to a grower than I pass on to them. We have a lot of great farmers out there who look outside the square and are asking us ‘what’s the next step?’
“It’s people like that who have interesting ideas and are prepared to put them into practice that help to inspire us as agronomists to look for ways of giving farmers better rewards from their natural resource base.”
Ms Serafin did not grow up in the northern grains region but fell in love with agriculture when she was in high school and early experiences in north-west NSW ew her back to the region after completing her tertiary studies.
She completed a degree in Agricultural Science degree at the University of Western Sydney – Hawkesbury campus and was awn to broadacre grain production.
Ms Serafin said she sees a further challenge for broadacre farming in a looming shortage of not just labour but also agricultural science graduates coming into the extension and research fields with a non-partisan view to information sharing.
Ms Serafin and her husband live on their property Mandalay at Duri, outside Tamworth, where they have a small farming and beef cattle operation.
Loretta Serafin Q&A - Click here
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‘Selling’ agriculture as an exciting prospect to the next round of high school graduates is a priority for Professor Mark Sutherland - not just because agriculture needs more scientists.
Professor Sutherland believes a commitment to agricultural research is critical to avoiding future global food shortages, and it’s something he’ll be working towards in his new role as northern panel member for the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).
“Agricultural research has a perception problem in that it is viewed as pretty ‘ho hum’ by high school graduates, and while we get lots of human biology and environment students, there’s a fairly weak representation in rural sciences,” Professor Sutherland said.
“The real challenge is to sell agricultural research as modern, innovative and exciting, because it is incredibly important in shaping the future for food production globally.”
He speaks from first hand experience, as a lecturer and researcher who came to Toowoomba’s University of Southern Queensland (USQ) 21 years ago, when it was first designated a university.
He came with plenty of experience, with a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture majoring in Agricultural Chemistry at the University of Sydney followed by a PhD at Macquarie University and postdoctoral fellowships in biochemistry in New York and Philadelphia.
On his return from the US, Professor Sutherland worked on cereal quality at what was then CSIRO’s Wheat Research Unit at North Ryde, and then on cereal diseases at the University of Sydney, positions that fuelled his passion to focus on research that has global potential to assist developing countries.
“The productivity of Australian agriculture allows us to not only provide international markets with food exports but our expertise in agricultural sciences gives us the opportunity to assist developing nations to grow their own food more sustainably,” Professor Sutherland said.
And there’s another, more important spin-off: food security empowers political and global security.
His research work for the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and AusAid includes programs to improve product quality in noodle wheats and assist with breeding stripe rust resistance in China, and improving maize farming systems in Indonesian West Timor.
Professor Sutherland recently helped organise the joint meeting of the Asian Congress of Plant Pathology and the Australasian Plant Pathology Society in Darwin, which attracted 400 delegates.
He was inspired by the input from 50 agricultural research students from 36 countries in Australia and Asia, all working on a variety of crops.
“The students were highly motivated as a result of the research and collaboration between countries,” Professor Sutherland said.
“These young scientists are incredibly important in shaping the future for food production.”
Also critical to the future of agriculture in Australia is linking research students more closely with farmers, especially in regional universities like USQ.
Professor Sutherland says that’ll be one priority he’ll be bringing to his panel discussions within the GRDC.
“There is a tremendous opportunity for the GRDC to bring together university students and rural producers in closer collaboration, so that student researchers experience what effect their work has at the coal face and learn about the issues which most concern grain growers,” he said.
And he believes the GRDC would benefit from involving postgraduate students more in public events such as field days and regional updates.
“Many of these students don’t come from rural backgrounds and I think they would benefit tremendously from rubbing shoulders with grain producers, while farmers would enjoy meeting the students engaged in the research work they fund,” Professor Sutherland said.
He was attracted to work at USQ because of the enormous opportunities available in a region so focused on agriculture, and says being local is the key.
“The regional universities have a lot to offer the GRDC and agriculture in terms of contributing to policy, planning and research outputs, because they have on-ground engagement in the region and a wealth of relevant expertise,” Professor Sutherland said.
He says he won’t be bringing ‘a wheelbarrow of preconceived research priorities’ to his job as panel member, but is really looking forward to learning a lot more about industry needs in a diverse range of grain cropping enterprises.
He’s also pleased to be able to put something extra back into the grains industry, which has funded much of his research for the past 15 years.
Professor Sutherland’s most significant recent work has been in developing the use of molecular markers in plant breeding, and in improving the understanding of intractable diseases of wheat and barley, especially crown rot.
Prof Mark Sutherland Q&A - Click here
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Experience in Western Australia and Queensland as a government and commercial agronomist, Landcare facilitator and farmer has given Vicki Green an understanding of some very different environments and work places.
And Mrs Green is optimistic that her dual role as scientist and farmer will prove valuable in her new position as northern panel member of the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).
“Hopefully I’ll be able to provide some grass roots input to the GRDC panel as a grain grower and also be able to talk to scientists at their level, and have some influence in deciding what’s best for industry,” Mrs Green said.
She describes herself as a ‘passionate producer’ who has been ‘challenged, excited, disappointed and inspired’ by the grains industry for 20 years.
Mrs Green, her husband Anew and their three young sons got a taste of the challenging and disappointing side of growing grain during the Queensland floods in January this year.
They had recently expanded their 210 hectare cropping and beef cattle farm Nyoka at Felton, south of Toowoomba, with the purchase of 140 hectares on the Condamine River. A record flood followed, washing away topsoil and fences and leaving debris strewn across the cultivation.
Like many, the Greens had battled disease and insect pressure in their chickpeas all season, so decimation by floods was the final blow.
Wet weather and ‘white grain’ disease concerns in Queensland wheat and barley also sparked Mrs Green’s commitment to make better awareness and workability of grain receival standards a research priority for the GRDC.
“It took time for receival points to clearly communicate a plan of action to growers when white grain became a problem and it was a very emotive time, with some farmers considering burning their paddocks,” Mrs Green said.
“In the end the grain was saleable but the situation needed a sane voice.”
Another area of interest is the level of investment that farmers need to make in machinery and capital.
“We recently bought a header, which was hard to justify for the size of our operation. However accessing contractors when and how you want them is becoming more difficult and it comes back to being in control of your own destiny,” Mrs Green said.
“Then if your grain doesn’t quite meet delivery standards, you consider buying more silos to store the grain on farm, and then you have to think about investing in aeration and insect control.”
Then there’s the cost of expanding the farm to increase production.
“How do you afford to buy in at a level that will be viable?” Mrs Green asked.
In the end, she believes that grain growers want research that has real on-farm application and can improve their viability in both the short and long term.
Mrs Green stays in touch with farming and research communities on both sides of the continent. She grew up on her family’s Merino sheep stud and cropping farm at Corrigin, WA, and worked as an extension agronomist in the 1990s with the WA Department of Agriculture at Lake Grace and Moora.
Highlights of her time in the wheatbelt included seeing the first crops of canola grown in the Lakes district, and working as a wheat quality extension officer, showing growers how their farm practices influenced the quality of end products such as Japanese noodles.
On moving to Queensland in 1997 she worked as a commercial agronomist with IAMA and then as a Landcare facilitator on the Darling Downs. Both positions gave her a feeling for how much farmers appreciated having input to locally-based research programs.
“Lately I’m hearing that Queensland producers feel a little threatened as local breeding programs are withawn in favour of a more national focus, and I think it’s vitally important that the GRDC have panel members from regional areas who can act as a conduit for information both ways,” Mrs Green said.
But as a mother and a grain grower, she is most concerned about the future of the family farm as mining encroaches on grain growing areas across the country.
Mrs Green believes mining will take valuable food producing areas out of production and with it some highly skilled, passionate farmers. The lure of the mines to agricultural support staff is also strong.
“There’s a growing feeling that mining is the place to be, and these days we’re flat out finding a diesel mechanic who can pull down a tractor – they’ve gone to the mines,” Mrs Green said.
“I wonder how much reliable agricultural land will be available by the time our boys make up their mind if they want to be farmers?”
The level of debate and learning in her new role is something Mrs Green is looking forward to, although she’s aware there will be times when the combination of farmer, mother and panel member might seem a bit too much.
“I’m sure there’ll be days when I’ll throw up my hands in despair at how I’ll fit it all in, but I have really wanted this level of involvement and there’s no point in sitting back!” Mrs Green said.
Vicki Green Q&A - Click here
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Farmers face an added challenge as Australia prepares to commit to a carbon economy.
Central New South Wales farmer and farm manager, William Martel, believes bodies like the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) are likely to be one of the first places farmers look for guidance as to how to incorporate it into their existing farming systems.
New this year to GRDC’s northern panel, Mr Martel believes farmers will need to consider the amount of carbon their farms release and sequester as an overlay to their farm’s existing operations.
“There are potential problems and opportunities with a carbon economy and, if and when it starts, one of its roles will be to encourage sequestering of carbon,” Mr Martel said.
“While what we and a lot of other farmers are doing is sequestering carbon already, we need to have scientific data to support that and maybe the GRDC can be involved in looking at how practices like mulching, stubble retention and pasture cropping add up in that sense.
Mr Martel looks harder than most at the bottom line of his Wellington property, Muronbung Park, which his business, Swag Ag, runs with leased and managed country to produce winter crops, wool, sheepmeat and beef over 2000 hectares.
Mr Martel graduated from the University of New England in Armidale with a Bachelor of Agricultural Economics, and after a period working for a grain trading company in Quirindi, joined the Brisbane office of Resource Consulting Services (RCS).
“With RCS I spent a number of years benchmarking around 400 growers across Australia on their performance and that certainly made me appreciate the benefits of looking at profitability across the farm rather than at individual gross margins per enterprise,” he said.
“I think the GRDC is important for growers because that is where our voice can be heard in terms of research and development and I’ve joined the panel because I wanted to have an impact on some of those decisions.”
As a member of the GRDC northern panel, Mr Martel would like to ensure investments by the GRDC fit its mission ‘to invest in R&D for the greatest benefit to its stakeholders – grain growers and the Australian Government’.
Mr Martel believes this means having environmentally sustainable, profitable farms producing healthy food for our nation and the world.
“There is a need to look at how to minimise losses from diseases like rust and provide guidance to farmers in areas including selection of varieties and tillage systems, water use efficiency and a risk/reward assessment of genetically modified crops.
“Rust in particular is a big problem for which we need to find a solution because it’s doing a fair bit of damage to cereal crops and it has the potential to further impact on profitability.
“On a broader scale the GRDC needs to be able to invest in the areas that are going to benefit growers to keep them economically and environmentally sustainable.
“We need to invest in looking at whole farm systems that lead farmers to being profitable and long term sustainable, not just producing good gross margins,” Mr Martel said.
Mr Martel also believes research resources need to be devoted to farm systems which incorporate pasture and grazing rather than just evaluate cash crops and their agronomic benefits.
“Many farmers use livestock in their cropping and pasture rotation around the farm and we need to consider the costs and benefits of the livestock phase as well as the cropping one.
“To keep farmers in front we need to know if livestock is subsidising cropping or vice versa and only by doing that can we find out where improvements can be made in terms of profitability.”
William Martel Q&A - Click here
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The Grains Research and Development Corporation’s (GRDC) regional panels have a key role in ensuring research and development programs deliver results on Australia’s farms, according to southern panellist Stephen Thomas.
Thomas joined the GRDC in early 2009 as its executive manager practices, a role which covers the company’s activities in delivering to growers the benefits of research and development and converting that into increased farm profit. But he says delivering those initiatives to grain growers would not be as effective without the practical advice from farmers and researchers who come together through the regional panel process. “One of the advantages of the panels is that we have specific expertise around different areas – say within agronomy or crop protection or indeed development and extension. I think the panellists provide a lot of input into those areas and a lot of really genuine, good advice on how to structure different programs to get the maximum benefit out of them,” Thomas said.
“The idea behind the practices sector of the GRDC is to have innovations adopted by farmers in a rapid fashion that contribute to profitability, productivity and sustainability. That requires us to interact every day with grass roots growers on the basis of identifying the issues associated with those things. Do we need more research, do we need development or do we need extension? The panels provide a very good overview of advice as to the most appropriate investment strategies to deliver those kinds of outcomes.”
The panels play a crucial advisory role in GRDC investments. The GRDC board makes decisions with the support of the National Panel, informed by the advice of regional panels and program teams. The panels are made up of a mix of growers, researchers and GRDC managers. They also work closely with grower groups and organisations, and have formal interactions with local Research Advisory Committees. “From a background in molecular biology, the panel has really opened my eyes to a whole suite of other issues that aren’t necessarily something that as a molecular biologist you really look at,” Thomas said. “The panels really do get you to focus more at the big picture across an entire farming system which is very complex and highly interactive.”
With agriculture in his blood – he hails from a family where both parents and three of the four chilen work in agriculture – Thomas studied agricultural science at the University of Adelaide’s Waite campus, where he also completed a PhD in molecular biology. That choice has led Thomas around the world and across Australia before joining the GRDC. His roles included a post in Copenhagen for Carlsberg beer, researching the mechanisms for pathogens and resistance to powdery mildew in barley. From there he shifted to Perth before a desire to move away from hands-on research and into strategic research management led him to senior posts at the then NSW Department of Primary Industries at Orange. The challenging positions, which he held for eight years, included the provision of research information for the Government’s policy on genetically modified crops, and managing the molecular marker development program as well as the plant, pasture and animal breeding programs.
In joining the GRDC in 2009 he saw an opportunity to bring together his knowledge of genetics and environmental interaction, with his role covering GRDC’s research, development and extension projects. That incorporates validating GRDC-supported research on farms, testing whether the research findings will be commercially viable, and then communicating with growers on implementing new recommendations into their farming systems. Thomas says the regional panels are vital in developing strategies to meet those goals effectively, especially in light of the changing roles of state government agencies and the increasing participation of the private sector. “The emphasis is on getting things adopted on farm level and then getting issues from farm level back up into influencing the decisions of the GRDC organisation,” he said. “It’s about whether we can get research adopted better by farmers, and can we target our research better to meet farmers’ needs.”
Thomas believes anyone with a passion for grains and R&D should put up their hand. “Give it a go; be in the game. It’s a great opportunity. We’re always looking for people and their ideas and their points of view and the wider we can canvass input the better off we’ll all be,” Thomas said.
Stephen Tomas Q&A - Click here
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