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CONFERENCE REPORT AUGUST 2004 BROADACRE LANDSCAPES 23 One of the founders of Australia's most successful farming group, the Birchip Cropping Group in north-east Victoria, has challenged the need for farms to get bigger, and cause wheatbelt communities to shrink. Mr Ian McClelland, who helped launch the Birchip group in 1993, said one of the group's founding objectives was to return to a culture in which success, and failure, was shared by the whole community. "We started the group, not to help some farms double in size, but because we wanted a community. We wanted schools and hospitals, and we wanted to ensure we were all living somewhere nice," he told the Future Broadacre Agriculture Landscapes Conference. "The way to achieve this was to make farming in the Mallee and Wimmera more profitable. "This meant giving everyone the opportunity to be influenced by research and to become a great farmer." Mr McClelland said there were some interesting early lessons: "When we first started, farmers and researchers didn't talk to each other. So you had farmers who didn't know what researchers did, and researchers who didn't recognise what farmers could offer, while also being desperate for places to do their research. "When, through the group, farmers and researchers started recognising each other as equals, we all started making progress." Since it began, the Birchip Cropping Group has achieved an international reputation for its success in developing high- value crops, improved cropping systems, for successful moves into the value chain and, above all, for giving farmers the confidence to 'have a go'. Mr McClelland said that while the demands of governments and funding bodies could make some people try to monopolise the credit that flows from successful projects, the Birchip group made a point of spreading credit over all participants. However, that also applies to failures: "The most informative exercise there is, is to have a look at each other's stuff-ups." Another valuable lesson that researchers working with the group have found is not to hold onto research until every detail is clear, but to involve farmers from day one. "We growers are keen to contribute, and this will lead to a much more enthusiastic adoption," said Mr McClelland. "We also make research, and grower involvement fun, because we are competing against football and other attractions for people's time." On the subject of too few people shouldering all the work and suffering burn- out, Mr McClelland said the group had a firm policy of making sure each year started with new goals. "When we have established something, we pass it over to others ... which is why we now have a staff of 15. This leaves us to begin each year with fresh ideas and objectives." The Birchip Cropping Group now has an annual budget of $1.3 million, employs two professional consultants in addition to its staff, has seven research sites spread over 100 square kilometres and has 500 grower members. It also has a commercial arm engaged in crop variety testing, consultancies and other related activities. Mr McClelland stressed the need for entrepreneurs in farming communities: "Not a Murdoch or a Packer, but someone who already lives there. They are usually the tall poppies that people like to cut down, but they need to be nurtured." In emphasising the group's holistic approach to farm and community profitability, Mr McClelland also suggested a fresh way to consider the role of conservation in wheatbelt landscapes. "To us, conservation is about having a place where you want to live. It's about asking would others like to live there too; and in particular, if your son or daughter and their partners would like to live there." For more information: 03 5077 2215, http://www.bcg.org.au/ Farming for a profitable community The wellbeing of rural communities became a central theme at the Future Broadacre Agricultural Landscapes Conference, with social and environmental science given equal billing with agricultural science. Several speakers, including growers, worried about the future of their rural communities if predictions of fewer farms, and farmers commuting, come to fruition over the next 30 years. Sustainable and profitable farming was tied firmly to sustainable and profitable townships and districts. Research into ways of remedying social issues in grain growing communities, such as dwindling community services, a dearth of young women, a shortage of skilled workers overall, and a growing sense of isolation, was raised at the conference as areas of priority. Dr Fiona McKenzie from Curtin University of Technology said the social signposts were already readable when people started asking, 'who's doing the annual burn', 'where's the footy team', and 'who's got a partner for the ball'? She said the economic signpost was called 'regional development' ... in which case how many districts even have a signpost? Dr McKenzie suggested one answer for some communities might be in finding a way to reduce the "food miles". She said consumers were becoming aware of the consequences of long distances between paddock and plate -- the longer the distance, the greater the need for chemical preservatives. Consequently, food that can be processed or manufactured closer to its source might be in much greater demand in the years ahead. Dr Peter Newman from Murdoch University suggested tourism and local brand identification were still an untapped resource in Australian grainbelt communities. He said there was a need and opportunity to rediscover identity and sense of place, and for districts to trade on their uniqueness. Chair of the Wheatbelt Development Commission in WA, Wendy Newman, said that because of limited time and resources it was crucial that communities identified areas that offered the greatest strategic benefit. To do this, she emphasised the need for access to the best possible information, and for community leadership to embrace everyone, particularly a district's youth, and women. Ms Newman recognised that 'can do' communities often came up against 'can't do' bureaucracies, but she suggested a number of strategies: n treat capacity building as life-long learning; n try to put an end to short-term, walk-in/ walk-out research in your area; n strive for quality planning through good information; n talk-up your people and your community; n emphasise that you are a part of the nation's brainbelt, because the grainbelt is world class; n demand volunteerism be measured as part of the nation's GDP ... "what a difference that would make to the perception of rural Australia"; and n make sure R&D is accessible to all. The conference, with its emphasis on sustainable landscapes, also featured a rare appearance in an agricultural forum, by an Aboriginal leader. Neville Collard, a former policeman, now a Justice of the Peace and Nyungar elder, said landscape restoration was an ideal opportunity for indigenous knowledge to play a part in grain growing communities. He said increased indigenous participation could help farming communities identify plants that not only have environmental benefits, but could also be the basis of new native foods industries. At a time when more research funds were needed for addressing rural landscape and skills issues, he asked why the grains industry or wheatbelt communities had not thought to apply for Aboriginal funds. He said it only needed a little lateral thinking to bring together existing employment and training schemes in rural areas, and upgrade or change them to meet the skills deficit being talked about by graingrowers. Mr Collard argued that there were opportunities and resources in wheatbelt communities that simply were not being fully utilised: "There's a TAFE in every town and they're crying out for people. It's time to get serious; to bring everyone together to discuss needs and opportunities, to replace the negatives with positives, and to become lobbyists to change policies that are deficient." Social health tied to farming's fortunes Co-founder Ian McClelland: "We started the group, not to help some farms double in size, but because we wanted a community." Wendy Newman: "Emphasise that you are part of the nation's brainbelt"
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