WANTFA's birthday celebrations a hit

31 Mar, 2012 01:00 AM
The four
The four "revolutionaries" who spread the no-till word in an agricultural world of conventional tillage were Ray Harrington (left), Bill Crabtree, David Harrington and the no-till prophet in the Agricultural Department at the time, Kevin Bligh.

THE catalyst for the adoption of no-till farming was probably wind erosion and the efforts of a group of people to develop a new system of growing crops without damaging the soil structure.

A disparate group of 13 farmers and researchers, plus Farm Weekly journalist Ken Wilson, met on April 1, 1992 - April Fool's Day - and decided to form a new organisation.

At the suggestion of David Harrington, the group adopted the name "West Australian No Tillage Farmers Association (WANTFA), a name that continues to be used today.

On March 20, 2012, members and supporters of WANTFA met in Alfred Cove to celebrate the 20th birthday of the organisation that has revolutionised agriculture in Australia.

The gathering also honoured the revolutionaries who were responsible for the formation of WANTFA and the change in agricultural practice, with two of the revolutionaries addressing the gathering, inaugural chairman, Ray Harrington, plus the group's first employee, consultant and farmer Bill Crabtree.

"The golden rule of farming is that there are no rules" was the summary from Ray Harrington when addressing the 20th birthday gathering of the organisation he helped to form, the West Australian No Tillage Farmers Association (WANTFA).

"Every season is different and we have to take it as it comes, although in the early days those seeking change didn't know of the existence of other individuals with similar ideas," he said.

"My brother David and I decided we needed new tillage equipment so we made our own scarifier points, a task that took one man full time to make a set that lasted exactly one day.

"Then one day I saw a photo in the rural press of a young unknown Ag Department researcher, Kevin Bligh, holding a point - exactly the same as the ones we were making.

"Contact was made and we discovered that there were other people with similar tillage ideas to us and Kevin was able to put us in touch with them and he became the glue that held the movement together.

"I might add that he was swimming against the tide in the department at the time, (June 1989) but we all persisted and by 1992 we felt it was time to formalise our group, hence the birth of WANTFA."

After the formation of WANTFA, Kevin Bligh invited 60 interested people to a meeting at the Avondale research station on August 3, 1992, where 30 people attended and elected the inaugural office bearers.

President: Ray Harrington

Vice President: Ian Edwards

Esperance: Ken Degrussa

Wellstead: Darren Baum

McAlinden: Ray Honey

Perenjori: Lindsay Clapper

Sec/Treas: Kevin Bligh

The adoption of no-till farming in WA has been dramatic, with surveys showing the percentage of crop planted using this system.

1991: 1pc

1992: 2pc

1993: 3.8pc (ABS)

1996: 20pc (IAMA)

2000: 70-80pc

Ray believes that 100pc adoption of no-till at present "wouldn't surprise me", while Bill Crabtree puts the figure at 95pc.

Still an agricultural consultant and although once an employee of WANTFA, Bill Crabtree is now a farmer in his own right and still remembers the heady years when the organisation was young.

Bill started his involvement with the no-till movement back in 1985 when he was still working for the Agriculture Department, but missed the formation years as he had gone back to university to do his Masters Degree in 1990-91.

"I became the editor of the WANTFA magazine in 1992 and when a grant was obtained from the GRDC in November 1997, I became the first employee of the group, spending five and a half years in the position," he said.

His memories of the early days include a saying often used by Kevin Bligh during the lonely years, which went; "Change is first denied, then vehemently opposed, before being accepted as self-evident."

He quoted an example of this phenomenon about a senior CSIRO scientist who had spent his time opposing no-till and who received a presentation when he retired recently.

"The award was for, supposedly, promoting no-till!" Bill said.

No-till was described by Bill as "an idea whose time had come", adding that the State's farmers would have suffered far more from seven droughts in 10 years without the advances of no-till.

"I am regularly thankful for the inventive genius of people like Ray Harrington, with his recently developed Seed Destructor being more than a weed control aid, as it will enable us to keep more stubble.

"One of the side benefits of no-till is the microbial driven extraction of nitrogen from the atmosphere, which is often around 40kgN/ha."

Bill also mentioned some of the visitors brought to the State by WANTFA, including Israeli Professor Jonny Gressell who warned against using low rates of glyphosate.

"If we had heard this message 5-10 years later, we could well have found that glyphosate was no longer such a useful herbicide."

GM crops were also mentioned, being described as "an important, safe breeding tool that needs to be better understood", noting that the major cost of the technology was not the royalties, but "over the top regulation by governments in response to the naivety and fear whipped up by its critics".

"This cost means that local crops such as lupins cannot reap the benefit of GM technology as the exorbitant cost makes domestic research non-viable, with a GM lupin estimated to cost $80m to register," Bill said.

But perhaps the biggest benefit of no-till technology has been the ability to protect the soil while making better use of soil moisture, resulting in better yields.

"In the record 15m tonne year that has just gone, it would be likely that around 4m extra tonnes would have been produced by the use of no-till, with most years showing a 2-3mt bonus of extra grain," Bill said.

"Three million tonnes of grain at $250/t means that no-till delivers an annual bonus of around $750m, profit that keeps country towns alive and functioning."



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