Farmer organisation key to sustainable ag in the Mallee

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By Christine Webster

Mallee Sustainable Farming (MSF) is helping farmers in South Australia’s Mallee remain optimistic as they anxiously wait for a break in the drought.

The not-for-profit organisation services an area of more than four million hectares in SA, Victoria and NSW, stretching from Balranald in NSW to Murray Bridge in SA.

Allen Buckley from Waikerie in SA’s Riverland is one of the founders of the MSF, which began nearly 22 years ago.

He was one of the first Mallee grain growers to use no-till techniques, which reduced soil erosion and significantly increased yields of crops such as wheat and barley.

No-till means crops are placed in the ground without turning over the soil and keeping the previous crop stubble standing.

The word spread about Allen’s success and other farmers in the Mallee region in SA, Victoria and NSW were eager to follow suit.

Waikerie farmer Allen Buckley was one of the founders of MSF and one of first grain growers to use no-till techniques.

Farmers in the Mallee realised they needed to be represented by a permanent organisation to help them become more sustainable.

Their determination attracted funding from the Grains Research and Development Corporation and support from the CSIRO to establish MSF in 1997 and it became an incorporated body in 1998. This collaboration is still strong in 2019.

The first core sites to demonstrate no-till farming practices were established on three properties, at Waikerie on Allen’s farm and at Gol Gol and Balranald in NSW.

More than two decades later, the Mallee cropping region once seen as a dust bowl has been transformed into a lucrative grain and legume producing area.

But Allen says one thing MSF can’t control is the weather.

The 67-year-old says last year was the second driest season he knows of around the Waikerie area since the 1982 drought when SA recorded its lowest rainfall on record.

“On our property we received only 88mm of rain in 1982 and in 2018 we received just 94mm,” he says.

MSF program manager and Jabuk farmer Tanja Morgan says the organisation tries to provide Mallee farmers with the resources they need to manage tough times.

MSF program manager Tanja Morgan who has a farm at Jabuk in the southern Mallee in SA says bringing farmers together is the key to helping them through the tough times.

The organisation’s 2019 research updates, which were held at Waikerie in SA and Murrayville and Manangatang in Victoria last month, were well supported by farmers. They also featured a session on handling stress.

“We try and provide them with the resources they need and we also run a lot of field days, where we get farmers together,” Tanja says.

Growing legumes has also become a way of reducing soil erosion and increasing farmers’ viability.

“Between 2012-2016, the prices for lentils and chickpeas were strong, ” Tanja says.

Participants at a MSF Field Day at Lameroo in SA’s Mallee last year learn about spade and sow soil amelioration treatment to improve production in sandy soils.

Fourth-generation grain grower Wade Nickolls from Pinnaroo says his family has been growing legumes such as lentils since the late 1980s.

However, Wade made most of his profit last season from hay, which he exports to Asia and receives about $300 a tonne. He has also been involved in faba bean trials, which performed well despite the drought and frost.

Australia’s faba beans are presently attracting about $800 a tonne, with strong demand from the Middle East due to a global shortage.

Wade, who is 40, says the future of farming in Pinnaroo looks bright and the MSF has contributed to this.

“In Pinnaroo, the average age of farmers would be 35, which is rare, as in most places it would probably be about 60,” he adds.

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