The Fifth Continent is famous across the world for its kangaroos and koalas. Yet, Australia has another substantial asset – its diverse agricultural sector and the quality goods it produces. Despite the serious challenges the country’s agriculture has to face, Australia has good chances of advancing to the top of the global leagues in a variety of premium product segments.
Gently, the rising sun casts its golden glance over a peaceful vineyard in the Barossa Valley, in the southern part of the state of South Australia. Oenophiles across the globe enjoy the flavors of this world-famous wine-growing area, and Stephen Schiller, a grape grower in the fifth generation in Tanunda/Barossa Valley, knows precisely why wines from the region are so delicious: “We get wet winters and nice hot summers. Our grapes perform very well with these temperatures, developing genuinely unique flavors everyone seems to love.” Schiller is one of the descendants of the German settlers who first planted vines in this area in the nineteenth century. He grows 47 hectares of vines consisting of three varieties of grapes which are then processed into three varieties of wine, two reds and one white: Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
“Twenty years ago, it would have been half reds and half whites. At the moment, reds are a lot more profitable for me,” explains Schiller. Australian wine is an extremely successful export, with two-thirds of the country’s production going to the global markets. Chinese customers especially seem to appreciate wine from Down Under, and between 2006 and 2011, the value of wine exports from Australia to China increased eightfold. Nevertheless, Australian wine growers are up against their competitors from across the world, especially from Southern Europe and Chile. Hence, Schiller puts a lot of effort into managing his vineyard in order to keep quality at a high level and strengthen Australia’s reputation as a wine-producing country in the long term: “In spring time, the vines start growing and we launch into our fungicide and weed management program, in which we aim to keep the plants as healthy as possible. The hard work pays off in summer, when the fruit ripens to the best quality for the product we are growing it for.” When purchasing crop protection products, Schiller puts a particularly high degree of trust in well-known companies like Bayer: “The money I spend goes back into research for new products to be developed. Also, Bayer staff is very service-oriented and contactable: Whenever I have any kind of issue with a Bayer product, they can offer additional information if I need it.”
It has been a long time since there has been a famine. People need to remember that and respect where their food comes from.
Wine production 2013
Alongside wine, Australia’s diverse agricultural sector offers a range of other quality products – from the wheat region on the West Coast to the vegetable and legume-producing area in the East. Australia’s greatest advantage is its biosecurity. It is less affected by air pollution and is a geographically isolated island offering a lot of space. “These advantages make Australia one of the best places in the world to grow high quality crops,” explains Tobias Marchand, Head of Bayer Australia. This quality pays off as, currently, Australia exports 63 percent of its agricultural produce. In terms of its agricultural exports, the Fifth Continent benefits particularly from the growing and quality-oriented Asian middle classes, which have a clear preference for healthy foodstuffs: “Australia is able to grow and export grain products which offer the benefits to human health required in these markets. If this trend continues, production and exports of agricultural products are set to double over the next 20 years,” continues Marchand. Another prosperous segment of the Australian agribusiness is cotton: “We have the highest yields and the highest consistent quality of any cotton-growing nation in the world,” says Robert Dugdale, General Manager of Cotton Growers Services, a product stewardship organization that distributes Bayer products.
Australia is the driest continent on Earth, so the amount of water that we have available for irrigation is crucial.
Australia produces yields almost three times the global average and is the third-largest exporter in the world, selling 99 percent of its cotton abroad, with 68 percent alone going to the Chinese market. “There, it is turned into the best quality shirts in the world. A lot of these clothes are then sent back here and over to Europe,” continues Dugdale. One reason for the cotton industry’s success is the vibrant exchange between the growers: “It is very intensive and cohesive. Cotton growers tend to share their knowledge and information through their various regional associations,” explains Dugdale. One of the most discussed subjects is the use of innovations which help cotton growers to analyze their fields, such as a new technology to measure the temperature of plants and schedule irrigation effectively: “Australia is the driest continent on Earth, so the amount of water that we have available for irrigation is crucial,” explains Dugdale.
In fact, 80-90 percent of the cotton crop in Australia is grown by irrigation because rainfall is scarce and irregular, leading to frequent droughts and soil problems. “Volatility in the weather is one of the key issues we have to deal with in Australian business and agriculture. Sometimes it doesn’t rain for two months, and at other times, we get flooding. That puts a lot of stress on farmers because it can cause great financial hardship,” says Marchand and adds: “At Bayer we believe that our technological and commercial expertise provide the opportunity and the duty to work together with growers and partners to develop plant varieties with improved yields, stress tolerance and productivity improvements specifically for Australia’s unique environment.” Yet, Australian farmers are nothing if not resilient and resourceful. Ed Fagan, for example, a vegetable farmer from Cowra in New South Wales, has applied a new growing strategy to use water as efficiently as possible: “We grow as much as we can in the temperate and cool period of the year to use less water.”
Despite the challenges Australian farmers face, some of them note a deficit in public appreciation of their efforts: “At the moment, people tend to forget about the importance of agriculture. It has been a long time since there has been a famine. People need to remember that and respect where their food comes from,” states Fagan.
Committed to Farming
In this context, Andrew Broad, a farmer and also a member of the Australian Parliament, has the impression that the disconnect between food producers and the population has widened: “Our cities demand a lot from our farmers and are putting a lot of cost and expectation into our agricultural sector, for example in terms of environmental impact or with regard to animal welfare. But they are not prepared to pay for it.” Though there are 130,000 farmers in Australia, less than a handful of politicians with a farming background sit in the country’s parliament. Nevertheless, Broad is committed to simplifying farmers’ business life through his political work: “We need to take some of the regulatory burden off of their shoulders. People like to talk about the great opportunities of agriculture, but we haven’t yet channeled that enthusiasm into policies which will make these opportunities happen.”
Top five agricultural commodities in Australia 2013
(in million tons)
The commitment shown by farmers to turn the Fifth Continent’s agribusiness into an export success providing the world with a diverse range of quality products is what makes this sector Australia’s lifeblood. Through exchange and innovative techniques, Australian farmers surmount the daily challenges of their environment instead of resigning themselves to their fate, and this passion is one of the fundamental cornerstones of Australian agriculture. Or, as Tobias Marchand puts it: “For Australian farmers, agriculture has become a 24/7 struggle in order to stay successful in this globalized world. But they are growing with their challenges, reaching new heights of efficiency and remaining willing to adopt the new technologies which will improve their products even further.”
Interview: At the Cutting Edge of Research
Bayer has been in a broad range of scientific partnerships with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) for over a decade. John Manners, Director of CSIRO’s Agriculture Flagship gives insights into research results gained in Australia.
How does the CSIRO assist farmers?
One of our activities is to breed crops. We also undertake pre-breeding, which is the arrangement we have with Bayer. We produce enhanced germ-plasm, which we then hand over to breeding companies before releasing those varieties to farmers.
In our farming system research, we provide advice and decision-support systems to help farmers make the right choices about their crops, their inputs, their harvests and their markets.
What is Australia’s role in feeding the world?
Australian food production feeds about 60 million people. While that is certainly a small part of the world’s overall population, Australian science and technology in agriculture can have a massive impact across the globe in increasing food production.
Could you please give an example of the impact Australian science and technology has?
Some significant achievements have come out of Australia in recent years, such as the production of salt-tolerant wheat. This is an example from our own research here. As long as deforestation continues and the water table rises, salinity levels in the soil system increase, and this is a big problem in Australia. This development requires plants which can withstand at least low levels of salt and still produce grain.