A FORMER high-profile agripolitical leader is urging farmers to get back to dirt.
Brendan Stewart, who chaired the Australian Wheat Board (AWB), is exhibiting a new-found respective for soil as the foundation for both environmental and financial gains in agriculture.
Mr Stewart has taken up a position as executive director of Multikraft Probiotics Australia, a company focused on improving the health of farm soils.
He sees the use of microbes and biological farming as becoming as common a farm tools as fertilisers and irrigators.
"I see a time when soil health will be a fundamental decision-making process for farmers as is how much moisture they've got in the ground and what variety they are going to plant," he said.
Mr Stewart toured Europe investigating the use of microbes on various farms and greenhouses.
One visit that remains etched in his memory is a stop at a poultry farm where the residence was within "a driveway's width" of the main shed holding some 100,000 broilers.
The lack of a smell was the first thing he noticed, followed by the purity of the manure on the shed floor.
The farm uses microbes for sterilisation as well, where they out-compete the regular bacteria responsible for diseases and odours.
There are no antibiotics or pesticides in use yet chickens are reaching their turn-off weight 30 per cent faster.
Of course, the vast differences in farm size and distances make implementing European techniques a challenge for Australian producers.
The former grain grower realises ticking all the environmental boxes doesn't mean much if it's hurting the hip pocket.
"Frankly, margins are so scarce in agriculture, you're just not going to continue to invest if you're not getting real returns and net returns across the whole gambit," he said.
But the shift in thinking may not be as big as some might assume.
"There is no doubt there has been a fundamental change in the attitudes of the vast majority of farmers," Mr Stewart said.
They might be open to change, but putting it into practice will not be an overnight thing.
"We need to have open minds and we need to be prepared to chip away at it over a long period of time," Mr Stewart said.
Some initial Multikraft Probiotics Australia trials in macadamia plantations are showing up to a 70pc reduction in applied fertilisers and increases in productivity of 20-30pc through microbe use.
Australia's position as an island nation with the Great Barrier Reef on its doorstep will always draw the world's attention for its farming practices, according to Mr Stewart.
"I think the more we do at a production level to reduce sedimentary run-off, nutrient run-off and those sorts of things, the better off we are going to be placed," he said.
"If we do things right, we are really well placed to lift Australia to be a leader in re-claiming environmental standards by agriculture."
Mr Stewart sees the use of microbes in a bigger context as well, with whole communities being re-educated to treat green waste as a resource which in turn would reduce commercial pests such as fruit fly.
He said he'd like to see governments in a supportive, not a restrictive role, when it came to improving land health issues.
"All the evidence would suggest that where governments try to come in with a big stick and basically restrict practices to try and achieve an environmental outcome, all you do is get the hackles up of the producers and you end up restricting production," he said.
As Mr Stewart sees it, necessity has forced Australian farmers to become some of the most innovative in the world
It's that willingness to try new things and adapt which could make biological farming practices more reachable.
He said implementing them could become similar to trialling a new variety, herbicide or application rate.
"You can present all the scientific data at the end of the day, but for most farmers, me included, I'm going to want to see what happens at home and if it works in my backyard, then I'm going to try a bit more of it," he said.
The trip to Europe was also a wake-up call on the shifting trend of large retailers opting for more organically-produced foods.
"They are essentially moving down a path that's saying, we don't want our products sprayed with any sort of chemicals which have any sort of toxicity," he said.
"The last thing you want to do as a producer is to wait until someone closes the door then work out how you're going to re-open it."