ASKED why he’s considered one of Australian agriculture’s leading innovators, Ausplow inventor and owner John Ryan AM shows he’s also a master of understatement.
“Nobody’s ever asked me that question before – but it has all taken off better than I thought it ever would,” the 74-year old said.
With a background in engineering, tool-making and strong family ties to agricultural invention, the Sydney-born businessman is credited with developing air-seeding machines for broadacre cropping systems, out of Western Australia, that help maximise soil nutrient use to improve crop yields, while invoking sustainability benefits.
By steadily exploring and fine-tuning no-till farming methods over the past four decades and challenging the status quo, he’s invented ground-breaking products like the Deep Blade System seeding bar, to revolutionise seed application methods.
Mr Ryan is recognised for his work in deep tillage and deep soil management which has helped to improve soil structures, through increased water infiltration levels, targeted fertiliser application and reduced soil erosion caused by wind blowing.
Mr Ryan moved to WA from NSW in the mid-1980’s and it was a simple question about the farming methods used to grow different horticultural crops that piqued his appetite for discovery, to help overcome tough soils and cropping conditions in WA’s wheat belt.
“In the early days of my work on deep soil tillage I met up with Laurie Sumich of the Sumich (horticultural) Group,” he said.
“The knowledge I gained from working for the Sumich Group as a consultant over that five year period, growing different vegetables in their different veggie gardens, was critical to developing Ausplow and the DBS.
“Working in conjunction with Laurie and Jack Sumich - who was a Rhodes Scholar and the CEO of the Sumich Group - was an invaluable experience because they’re a very forward thinking family group.
“Laurie said to me one day, ‘Why don’t broadacre farmers do what I do in the garden, because they’re still growing a plant and putting a seed in the soil? Why don’t they do it more scientifically and more precisely?’
“I introduced deep tillage for growing their vegetables, got rid of the rotary hoe almost, and improved the soil structure by ripping between the rows, once the crop was in.”
Mr Ryan said to improve soil structure and root depth, Sumich “ripped between the rows” to apply deep tillage methods when planting vegetable crops like carrots, which loosened the soil so the plant’s roots would develop quicker, while adding organic matter.
He said at the time the Sumich Group sold vegetable products into markets in Singapore but had experienced complaints about some of the exported produce turning bad too quickly.
But Mr Ryan said they conducted tissue tests and found the vegetable crops that were “deep ripped” while growing had approximately 25 per cent more mineral content and were “obviously keeping longer”.
“I started to realise the benefits of the roots in the soil and the plant was accessing better nutrition from the soil and so I went on to develop that concept into the DBS and apply deep tillage in broadacre cropping,” he said.
“From there, nutrition became more important and seed placement and depth of seed in the soil and adding fertiliser to the seeding process, all became part of the system.”
Mr Ryan said he was told his innovative methods wouldn’t work but time has proven, “it does work and today Laurie Sumich still uses deep tillage”.
“It was almost impossible to get rid of the rotary hoe off the vegetable garden but once I showed them how to improve their soil health, and save water, and they started to grow better crops, it just made sense,” he said.
“One of the things we don’t do enough of in agricultural production is show people the actual quality of the vegetable.
“We’re doing it with everything else that’s produced on farms now like meats and other food products but we need to start showing people the actual health benefits of growing better plants.
“There are many benefits to showing that the food is actually better for us if it’s more nutritious and the same thing applies to cereals.
“It’s time to start looking at doing analysis of grains so that they can be sold on a quality basis; not just weight basis.”
Mr Ryan’s farming and tool-creation heritage has also aided his journey of scientific discovery, being a nephew of the renowned PA (Percival) Yeomans who developed the first deep cultivating plough in the early 1950s.
After completing high school in Sydney, the Ausplow proprietor worked as an apprentice fitter machinist but felt there’d be better money on offer, in the long run, from tool making.
He finished top of the state in his engineering tool-making course earning a bronze medal that was presented at the Sydney Town Hall.
He also won the Prince Phillip Prize in 1974 for engineering excellence in developing a soil renovating machine called the Shakeaerator.
Mr Ryan designed the first Agrowplow deep tillage machine which between 1977 and 1985 saw 4000 models sold throughout Australia.
His Auseeder no-till seeding bar and DBS seeding modules have been refined over time - but his research methods have paid constant respect to the core principles of enhancing soil vitality while serving to boost farm-gate returns.
With a factory base in WA, Ausplow is sold via a nationwide network of more than 30 farm machinery dealers and also internationally in countries like South Africa and has been growing stronger for over three decades.
During his early days in the West, Mr Ryan worked with farmers like Peter Nixon around Kalannie and Graham Shields at Wongan Hills to develop deep tillage methods.
He said the key to the DBS hydraulic seeding system was creating a fertile seed bed by cultivating the soils below the seed, using a hydraulic knife blade and closing tool that controlled seed depth and accuracy.
“The farmers could see the results very quickly of a green crop growing, which showed there was more money to be made out of improved production,” he said.
“Some of the best results came in ripping, some weeks after the crop was out of the ground and the root was in the soil starting to grow.
“I’d say it helped increase cereal crop yields by roughly 30 per cent in WA.”
Mr Ryan said all of his company’s manufacturing was based in Perth and the machines, sold to dealers throughout Australian states, were now 40, 50 and 60 foot long.
“The business is very strong and getting stronger ever year,” he said.
“Farmers say they couldn’t farm without them.
“One of my aims is to try and make the machine farmer proof so that it doesn’t break.
“Once the machine is set up, you can put any driver on it and it goes all day and night without any need for adjustment and it puts the seed and the fertiliser exactly where you want it.
“It’s easy to use and it keeps going and the economic and agronomic advantages are there.”
Mr Ryan said progress of his DBS invention was met with some resistance in the early days due to the fact it was a new and unproven product while the purchase price was also a consideration.
But he said, “I just got out there and made it work”.
“The good farmers that I worked with were impressed with how it worked,” he said.
“It was a strong, heavy-going digging machine and it was something new.
“Farmers don’t like to be the ones out in front experimenting – but the actual results proved what was best.
“We proved there were reduced chemical costs - the machine placed the fertilisers exactly where you wanted it to go so you used less fertiliser and it was used more effectively, with precision.”
Mr Ryan was acknowledged for his life-time of farm innovation in 2004 with an Order of Australia award.
Asked if there was ever a time he felt unsure about the merits of his technological pursuits or a voice inside his head had planted a seed of doubt, he replied, “no”.
“I knew it was right but I was very cautious that it would be successful, from a commercial point of view, because that’s always an issue when you come up with new ideas and patents that threaten established farming practices,” he said.
“You always worry about the ongoing costs of running a business and whether what you’re doing is right and I was pouring a lot of money into it.
“But working closely with farmers, personally, and seeing the results, and staying in constant touch with them and listening to them and working with them, gives you a lot more confidence.”
Mr Ryan said grain farmer Rob Ladyman had a DBS machine that he used on his farm at Katanning in WA and he thinks it’s the best thing he’s ever had.
“He told me the reason why he bought the machine was because his bank manager told him to buy it,” he said.
“He saw the results other people were getting on their bottom line and that’s the thing that’s always counted; the proven financial returns.
“I suppose indirectly, the technology has been supported by bankers and farm consultants because they see the numbers too.
“It’s very hard to get financial facts off farmers because they’re very conservative and private but over the past couple of years sales have increased - the last two years have been the two biggest we’ve ever had - so the product’s now well-established and we have a strong dealer network.
“The average farmer says it works for them and they pay for it in one year; the first year.
“They can set it up and leave it, put anyone to work on it like a backpacker and it runs without any trouble.
“And you know when you’ve set the seed depth it’ll remain constant and it doesn’t break.
“The important thing is the machine works and when the farmer goes to bed and wants to sleep, they don’t want to be woken up in the middle of the night to have to go out and fix the machine.”
Mr Ryan said the technology’s success had also bolstered the general performance and appearance of farmers’ properties, over time.
“In the early days I’d notice you’d go out to these farms and the gates were broken and the place was in a state of general disrepair,” he said.
“But now the farmers are making more money and their gates are fixed, the house looks fresher and the farm looks more profitable and that gives great confidence and well-being to people.”
At age 74, Mr Ryan’s inquisitive appetite for farming technology and innovation remains as strong as ever.
In January he spent time at Glen Innes in the New England region of NSW conducting field trials with some of his best researchers hoping to make their next break-through.
He said the trials were looking at “vigorous” germination of pasture whilst using liquid organic compost fertiliser with finely ground dolomite.
“This is adding carbon in roots in the soil and assisting the colonisation of bacteria along with capturing water and storing it below the surface - this is very exciting and rewarding project for the farmer,” he said.