I RECENTLY travelled for three weeks throughout Western Europe along with about 20 other Australian farmers, learning about the region’s agriculture and associated challenges.
As we all know Australian farmers battle droughts, frost and weeds.
But what we learned from our travels is that the battles our European farming cousins face are just as significant as ours.
Farmers in Western Europe face issues like excessive taxes (along with distorted subsidies); significant weed challenges; over-regulation; small scale and fragmented farms; a loss of herbicide tools; and excessive tillage which leads to constant soil loss.
The strongest impression that struck me during this farming tour was the volume of weeds in every field.
In many crops farmers have resorted to hand weeding and we saw few crops that had low weed burdens.
It made me reflect on what a speaker said at the International Herbicide resistance conference in Fremantle in January 2014, where he talked of the increasing prevalence of herbicide resistance in Europe.
Combine this with their banning of six major herbicides that we use in Australia, and their significant weed seed bank, I can foresee huge challenges for weed control in Europe.
This could well be reflected in lower yields in the future unless they change.
The farmers our tour group spent time with realise that they are on a downward productivity and efficiency slide.
This is reflected in the farmer tractor protest held in Paris while we were there.
One of the farmers we visited was involved in the protest and married a Bendigo girl.
They both explained their challenges, in detail.
Indeed the corn crop yields in France have flat-lined for the last 16 years while their global competitors have seen strong annual increases.
Ironically, we discovered, through visiting two of Europe’s big agrochemical companies - Bayer and Syngenta - that they have discovered chemicals that could potentially act as new knock-down herbicides.
However, they did not envisage these herbicides would be brought to market because of the increasingly strict, and I would argue, over-regulations that have engulfed Europe in the last 20 years.
This makes me wonder if the Grains Research and Development Corporation funded project looking at molecules with Bayer, for Australian agriculture, could lead to a significant breakthrough for us, in potentially accessing some novel products.
Since we don’t have subsidies, I would think this might be a fair futuristic reward.
But, our commercial Australian farming community needs to actively protect and argue for common sense with retaining sensible pesticide access.
There are global market bloggers who profiteer from encouraging consumers to preference products from unsustainable farming systems.
The farmers we spent time with from UK, France, Spain, Switzerland and Italy were generally quite pessimistic about their future in agriculture.
The small farms of 100-250 hectares in size just can’t produce enough to be economically viable, even with subsidies and wheat yielding 6-11t/ha.
Most farmers had a second job off-farm.
In Spain, where the lowest yields occur (down to 1 t/ha), some farmers were diversifying from wheat, corn and canola into almonds, onions and other intensive crops.
In France farmers were also swinging over to sugar beet, potatoes and onions.
The no-till farmers were being challenged by increased mice activity and fox hunters that remove their mice predators.
We were told by a Spanish agronomist that the solar panels that frequented the Spanish landscape and espoused as a great success for sustainable energy were kaput.
Some 50 per cent have been turned off three years ago as the Spanish government could not afford to subsidise them anymore.
We learnt from a wind turbine expert that each turbine costs $A3 million and has a lifespan of 15 years and can supply enough power, when the wind blows, to power 20,000 houses.
We saw many turbines doing nothing on many days.
The local communities subsidise these turbines which they found annoying.
We visited a biogas plant in Italy where 30pc of the cost is subsidised.
This plant takes corn and manure and drives a V12 engine to pump electricity into the grid.
On a positive note we met with Tony Reynolds who farms two hours north of London and he has been no-tilling successfully for 10 years.
Tony has had an excellent year with one wheat field yielding 11.3 t/ha, his soil structure has improved greatly with good water infiltration improvements and an abundance of earthworms.
Tony’s neighbour and good friend Tony Gent has designed a unique disc opener (pictured below) which I think is very original with some very nice features – it is great for clay soils.
It has a lifting action where the disc does not compact the seed zone, avoids hair-pinning and can cut through massive amounts of residue.
The opener also has a unique swivel action.
I believe it has good potential for Australian farming conditions.
The opener is being commercialised by Weaving Seeders.
We had many vibrant discussions while on the bus and the group became good friends and like all our trips will likely stay in touch with each other for life.