MILLENNIALS may enjoy cheaper smashed avocado in future, but not if they are locally grown and commercial secrecy instead of co-operation is controlling development of autonomous farm equipment.
Those were study snapshots presented in person by two of the five 2018 WA Nuffield farming scholars at the annual Nuffield WA sponsors’ luncheon on Friday, attended by about 80 people, mostly past scholars, their partners and representatives of sponsor organisations which make the study tours possible.
Bunbury-based Dudley Mitchell spoke about his tour.
His company manages a 50 hectare avocado orchard producing 800 tonnes of fruit a year with plans for expansion and a pack shed which handles about 1700t.
Sponsored by Woolworths, he visited avocado industries in Chile, North America, Israel and New Zealand to discover that Australia faces a potential flood of cheap imported fruit.
“Millennials might find their smashed avos are cheaper for a while, but they will be imported, not local,” Mr Mitchell said.
“Australia is a high cost producer and avocados really are a global commodity.”
While the cost of an avocado “tray” in Australia was $30-$34, the industry needed to prepare for competition coming in at $18 a tray.
“We (growers) have to be more realistic with our expectations,” he said.
Mr Mitchell said moves to smaller trees and mechanical harvesting were driving “intensification” of plantings overseas.
He said WA has Australia’s most dense avocados plantings at 246 trees per hectare.
This compared with about 1200 trees/ha in South Africa and 1250 trees/ha in California – which has similar growing conditions to WA, Mr Mitchell pointed out – but even these paled in significance to 1600 trees/ha in Chile.
As well, there were 10,000ha of new plantings in Mexico.
“With an average annual consumption of 3.5 kilograms of avocados per person, Australia already produces more than it eats,” he said.
The future for Australia’s avocado industry lay in high quality export – some WA avocados are exported to Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Japan – but the industry was “a long way behind” competitors in preparing to export into China, he said.
In Mr Mitchell’s opinion, the only advantage Australia can exploit is its geographical proximity to China by air freighting high quality produce there, while its competitors relied on shipping which takes 21 days.
Boyd Carter, Wubin, who co-manages a 12,000ha grain and sheep enterprise, presented a snapshot of a global move towards autonomous farm machinery.
Sponsored by the Grains Research and Development Corporation, he went to Canada, the United States, China, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands to see homemade driverless tractors, visit machinery companies and investigate environmental and social impacts of robotic technology.
Mr Carter admitted commercial secrecy around development and trialling of autonomous farm machinery made achieving his objective extremely difficult.
“There is a lot of secrecy, information is difficult to obtain,” Mr Carter said.
“Developers are not working together, they are not collaborating, each one is doing their own thing which is slowing the progress and general adoption of autonomous farm machinery.”
He thought the level of technology used in WA agriculture, particularly drones, compared favourably with what he saw overseas
Mr Carter said he had watched five robotic machines on a farm in Canada but his personal preference would be for autonomous machines that used existing implements already owned by farmers, rather than application-specific robots.
While any potential on-farm problems with autonomous machines would be rectified at the trial stage, he said, a potential problem facing WA farmers and legislators was moving robotic machines between farms.
While robotic control had potential to reduce wear and tear on machinery and improve productivity, the social issue of it taking farm jobs out of regional areas was the “big issue” he found on his study tour.
“For WA, it could mean productivity gains from autonomous farm machinery are a trade off with employment,” he said.
Luncheon guests also heard by video link from Dylan Hirsch, Latham, studying financial risk management, Andrew Slade, West Kendenup, studying digital integration of common farm information platforms and Luke McKay, Kununurra, studying tropical cotton growing.
They are still overseas or were unable to attend.
The five WA 2018 Nuffield scholars are due to present detailed reports of their study tours in September.
WA’s sole 2019 Nuffield scholar Johanna Tomlinson, Albany, was also introduced.
With her husband Wayne, Ms Tomlinson runs a third-generation family business producing prime lambs, wool, beef and crops such as barley, wheat, lupins and canola on 4000ha at Kalgan and Gairdner.
Supported by CBH Group, Ms Tomlinson will investigate global soil and production management strategies with a focus on soil acidity, in North and South America and Europe.
Prior to the luncheon Nuffield WA held its annual general meeting with its three office bearers re-elected.
Bencubbin cropping and sheep farmer and 2014 scholar Nick Gillett is chairman, Stirling cropping and sheep farmer and 2015 scholar Reece Curwen is vice-chairman and Esperance cropping and sheep farmer and 2013 scholar Matthew Hill is secretary and treasurer.