Corbin Schuster: Time for a fundamental shift

03 Nov, 2014 03:00 AM
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Corbin Schuster on the family farm at Freeling, SA.
It’s like we’re racing towards this destination, but our fuel tanks get closer and closer to empty
Corbin Schuster on the family farm at Freeling, SA.

IMPROVING productivity to feed a burgeoning population before the wells literally run dry demands a “fundamental shift” in agricultural management, says Rabobank F20 speaker Corbin Schuster.

Farmers are sustainability advocates by nature, Mr Schuster said, it’s just that many of them don’t know it yet.

“Sustainability is always in the back of their mind, they all want to pass the farm on to the next generation in a more productive condition - it’s just a matter of getting them over that edge.”

Mr Schuster works on the 2000-hectare Freeling family farm, north of Adelaide, South Australia. The operation produces quality hay for the domestic horse market, as well as export hay, straw and grain, and in recent years the Schusters have been investigating more sustainable farming options. They use chicken manure from meat bird sheds in the district to reduce their dependence on granular fertiliser, both prior to seeding and throughout the season, and employ their on-farm piggery to cycle grain through as feed and bedding, and then return the manure to the paddocks.

As well as reducing the business’ exposure to price volatility in the inputs market, using natural nutrient resources was building the property up for the next generation.

“Nine out of 10 farmers want to the pass the land on to their children in a better condition than when they first started farming there,” he said.

“What’s the point of passing on the farm to the next generation if you’ve used up all the inputs?”

The inaugural Rabobank F20 (Food) Summit in Sydney on November 13 aims to “raise awareness of the challenges and opportunities around global food security” ahead of the G20 Leaders Summit in Brisbane, according to organisers.

As the global population rises, people are also living longer lives and depleting resources at a faster pace, exponentially increasing the strain on food production systems and supply chains.

The youngest speaker on the F20 agenda, Mr Schuster won the Australian Fodder Industry Leadership Award and attended the Marcus Oldham Rural Leadership Program in 2011. Already looking outside the square for farming inspiration, he had a “light bulb moment” in 2013, when he represented Australia at the inaugural Global Youth Ag-Summit in Canada.

More than 120 delegates from 30 countries gathered at the Youth Ag-Summit, where feeding and clothing a forecast population of 9 billion people by 2050 was top of the agenda.

Chatting to a Zimbabwean farmer over morning tea about the ever-shrinking African water table, Mr Schuster had a revelation.

“Sooner or later we’re going to get to a point where either the well runs dry or there’s going to be peak phosphorus – there’s going to be an input that we rely on that’s going to run out, right at a crucial time when food production is required to be at its greatest,” he said.

“It’s like we’re racing towards this destination – 9b people in the year 2050 – accelerating faster and faster, but we’re seeing our fuel tank get closer and closer to empty.”

Even basic production inputs need to be recognised as finite resources, Mr Schuster said, and plans need to be made to feed people not just for decades but for centuries.

“It’s going to require a fundamental shift - we need work out an agricultural system that doesn’t drain down either water or fertiliser, because every foot that aquifer drops down is just leading you closer to the day when that well is going to run out.

“If farmers are going to have to improve their food production by an extra 70 per cent to meet the growing demands of a hungry planet, sooner or later we’re really going to run into strife when the well runs dry.”

Mr Schuster said while the problem of depletion was becoming more urgent, forcing farmers to change existing systems would not be effective.

“If someone came onto our place for example and said ‘you can’t use granular fertiliser any more’, you’d arc up, you’d have a crack at them and run them off the property,” he said.

“Regulation is something that farmers don’t like much. For our farm, we just realised it was something we needed to be looking at.

“(Sustainability) needs to be done of each farmer’s own accord. You want to use a carrot, not a stick.”

An attitudinal shift could not only reap long-term rewards, but also lift the farm’s bottom line, Mr Schuster said, using recycled nutrient matter as an example.

“We supply hay to these meat bird farms, and one day they realised that what’s left of the bedding material after it’s had 50,000 chickens on it for eight weeks is a huge source of nutrients - and they saw that not as a waste, but as a saleable product.”

Wineries in the nearby Barossa Valley used to dump their ‘waste’ product, but now sell grape marc and skins to broadacre farmers as a form of compost, providing an extra commodity to the business.

“There are huge numbers of people moving into cities now (resulting in) huge amounts of green waste, which is just discarded,” he said.

“There’s all this food flowing into the cities and there should be all these nutrients flowing out. It becomes almost a closed loop.”

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