Conservation agriculture in 2030: Are farmers up for the challenge?

Published 20200618

By Teresa Fox and Richard Heath 

Conservation agriculture will be fundamentally different in 2030 compared to the present day. Farmers must continue to innovate, potentially at higher rates than previously seen, to overcome emerging risks and threats. Are they up for this challenge and will they be operating in a policy environment which supports this?
Farmer participation has been a crucial component of the wide-scale adoption of conservation agriculture techniques, and this involvement in cooperative innovation has evolved over the past several decades.
As noted by Bellotti and Rochecouste in 2014, early awareness and proof of concept of conservation agriculture began in the 1960-70s through the establishment of agricultural bureaus such as the Crop Services Society in South Australia. These groups fostered channels of communication between farmers and consultants and provided opportunity to improve awareness of conservation management practices. 
Increased adoption continued into the 1980s, aided by the establishment of the Rural Research and Development Corporations (RDCs) as mechanisms for funding agricultural research. Farmer perspectives continue to guide operational decisions and strategic policies through appointments on executive boards and regional committees. The establishment of Landcare also contributed to increased participation in conservation practices within the farming sector.
Farmer groups such as Birchip and Kondinin were established in the 1990s to provide increased concentration on locally relevant research. Associations such as the Western Australian No-tillage Farmers Association and Victorian No-Till Farmers Association led research efforts, often funded by the RDCs, specifically on local adaptation of conservation agriculture practices. 
Farmers have become increasingly involved in innovation through participation in on-farm trials of new technologies and practices. For example, grain and livestock farmer Tony Single is currently part of a project on his property near Coonamble NSW to develop a drone-based weed mapping system to manage herbicide resistance. 
Due to the high levels of farmer involvement in the innovation and R&D of conservation agriculture practices, developments have been able to not only demonstrate positive environmental benefits but also meet farmers’ needs of maintaining productivity and profitability.
This creation of environmental, economic and production co-benefits has justified the investment for farmers, resulting in more ‘stickiness’ in practice change. For example, the practice of no-till has been sustained across cropping regions of Australia with few farmers reverting back to previous practices after trialling no-till due to its ability to maintain (and even improve) cropping outcomes while also improving soil condition.

However, conservation agriculture faces serious impending challenges, such as regulatory impacts on glyphosate use and increasing weed resistance. These challenges will require farm innovation above and beyond what we have seen across the past six decades. Anticipating emerging risks and potential impacts is vital if conservation agriculture is to continue delivering transformative outcomes. 

The scientific community is actively engaged in this discussion and is working to provide Australian farmers with new facts and practices to ensure that Australian agricultural continues to thrive. The most recent Farm Policy Journal includes an article by Richard Dickmann from Bayer Australia which not only outlines the plant science industry’s involvement in the development of conservation agriculture practices, but also emphasises clear intention to partner in the next phases of cropping evolution.

However, are these solutions practical for everyday farmers? Do they maximise the creation of co-benefits seen over the past decades? If not, will they lead to the same levels of successful wide-scale adoption previously witnessed?

Discussions on conservation agriculture’s future must consider how policy can foster increased farmer innovation. Any barriers which currently impede on-farm innovation need to be identified and removed to ensure farmers can rise to the emerging challenges. 

To progress these discussions, the Australian Farm Institute (AFI) and Sydney Institute of Agriculture (SIA) are hosting a webinar on this topic on Monday 22nd June 2020 from 10am – 3pm. The webinar will address the current state of conservation agriculture and emerging threats to best practice, the evolution of new practices and systems, and the policies and strategies needed to ensure that Australian farmers can continue to farm in a profitable, productive and sustainable fashion. AFI & SIA members receive free access to the live webinar and recording, and non-members can access this opportunity for $40.

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