McKell Medal 2009 acceptance speech on 24th April 2010
Bill Crabtree, farmer and consultant
It is a great honour to accept this medal as recognition of the agricultural sustainability work that has been a passion of mine throughout my life. I thank you for the opportunity of a brief acceptance speech.
In the early 1970’s I recall riding in the school bus on the main highway south of Jerramungup and seeing sand drift across the road as a result of ploughing and thinking to myself “there must be a better way to farm than this!” Then, after graduating with an agricultural degree from UWA, I was given the opportunity through the NSCP Project #3 to work alongside keen farmers to help make a change. The rest is history and now the Jerramungup Shire has the highest adoption of no-till possible with wind erosion virtually eliminated. Necessity was the mother of invention!
I would like to thank some of those people involved in helping me to be an agent of change. They include farmers; Ray Harrington, Rex Edmondson, Geoff Bee, Geoffrey Marshall and Ken deGrussa and engineer Kevin Bligh. I also thank others who effectively mentored me, including; my wife Monique, Prof Alan Robson, Prof Bob Gilkes, school teacher Margaret Christie, Departmental staff Ted Rowley and Jeremy Lemon.
The no-tillage journey has been an exciting one. It has lifted whole farm yields, improved time of sowing, reduced evaporation, has stopped soil erosion, lifted soil carbon levels, improved soil biological fertility (by not burning the soil with tillage), reduced farm energy inputs and perhaps most importantly it has turned many of our soils into sponges with good soil structure. Making the soil biologically soft has helped us to maximise water use efficiency where water is scarce, and sometimes intense rainfall occurs, the water has been able to get to depth where it is available for “drought proofing”. These effects have probably helped us grow another 3-5 million tonnes of wheat (and other crops) annually across southern Australia in the last 10 years.
Yet, interestingly there was much resistance to this technology initially despite sound scientific data. It was a brave and an exciting time to go against the convention on an idea that was obviously so right for so many reasons. They say: “change is first denied, then vehemently opposed before being accepted as self evident.” If you want to know more about my no-till journey then I encourage you to seek out my new book called “Search for Sustainability” (see www.no-till.com.au).
As you all know farming has been a struggle in recent years with many droughts Australia-wide. Hopefully the next period of time will be better, but that is not assured. Fortunately farmers have had access to no-tillage which has greatly helped in recent droughts. However, farmers need access to all good safe and proven technology. To this end I would particularly like to thank Terry Redman and Tony Burke for supporting biotechnology. There is a desperate need for crop rotational diversity farmers can not grow our most drought tolerant crop wheat every year on every paddock. This “rotation” of ‘wheat on wheat’ is too predictable and nature will trip us up.
Allow me to share my vision for the future. Biotechnology is one of the few genuine offers of hope that young farmers need to have, to help inspire them to do the long hard dusty, greasy, dry, fly-filled hours year after year in hope of fair reward. For us to have been muzzled for so long and denied safe GM crops while we import them to feed Australians by the ship-loads was just not fair indeed it was not Australian. With 15 successful global GM crop years, and now 8 stacked corn genes soon to be released for the USA farmer it is simply not a level playing field.
This clever country Australia now needs to play catch up to the hundreds of unregulated GM crops being released in Asia currently. The current regulatory process in the western world is so expensive and over the top when you compare it to the unregulated random mutagenic or mutational breeding. Such over-the-top regulation cuts out breeding innovations via our own Universities, CSIRO and local Agricultural Departments. Instead it creates a bias to multinational companies who are the only ones who can afford to bring GM crops to market. This is folly and needs global change and perhaps Australia can lead the way.
Farmers now, more than ever, need inspiring and visionary science-based leadership. Such leadership will help us work through our challenges. A Pingrup farmer Brian Smith once said to me when I was young, “son focus on the big issues and invest your energies into them focus on the issues that really matter.” May I encourage us all to continue with this mind-set as we take agricultural sustainability forward and manage the challenges of the future.
Many thanks and cheers!