SOUTH AUSTRALIAN AGRICULTURE CONTINUES TO LEAD AUSTRALIA IN RESEARCH. That research reflects the colony/state's reality of always being under siege due to drought and limited natural resources.
Discussing South Australian agriculture is always underpinned, but often forgotten, by knowing that its first phase was developed by Aboriginals learning to live from the land by learning its limits and developing a complex eco system that was wiped out by colonisation.
The European colonists learnt the harsh lessons of living within limits and working out their own systems. But they battled on. Grain growers, for prime example, stoically kept producing, despite facing drought, poor soil, disease and weeds. They’ve adapted to economic depression, war and varying global supply and demand.
Australia benefited from South Australia’s struggle to overcome deficiencies through the research and mechanical inventions such as the world-first Bull/Ridley stripper.
South Australia also offered Spanish merino sheep a place that suited them. The merinos bred here produced wool that snatched world leadership for Australia in the fibre trade.
Starting with Roseworthy College of Agriculture in 1882, South Australia built powerhouses in research such as the University of Adelaide's Waite Institute, the state government’s Primary Industries and Research SA (PIRSA), its research and development institute (SARDI) and the Australian Wine Research Institute.
Agriculture’s present record of generating about $20 billion in revenue, employing one in five working South Australians and earning nearly 50% of the state’s merchandise exports, is a tribute to that ongoing research.
19th CENTURY PASTORAL GENTRY EMERGES
AFTER PROMISING START TO SOUTH AUSTRALIAN AGRICULTURE IN 19th CENTURY
The 1850s saw good seasons with most wheat from the fertile fields around Adelaide. Although South Australia delivered much of Australia’s wheat crop, its quality and yields dropped, even in the fertile southern areas. Farmers started to realise that this loss of fertility was beyond rainfall. A disastrous attack of red rust in 1867-68 led to a government enquiry that found that almost all farmers were sowing wheat without allowing for fallow years. This exposed a lack of agricultural education.
MERINOS GIVE SOUTH AUSTRALIA ITS SHEEP ASCENDANCY
Collinsville merino sheep stud in South Australia’s mid north, since 1961, has set record price levels – with a world record $450,000 in 1988 – for its rams. Founder John Collins' sixth son Art took over the stud in 1918 and became the 20th Century's outstanding merino breeder. His animals influenced the national flock more than any other bloodline. From the 1920s, Art Collins achieved the unequalled feat of both grand champion ewe and ram at every Australian capital city show.
Jack Becker made another big South Australian agricultural entrepreneurial leap in 1955 with his Smithfield Pastoral Company moving into breeding of high-quality Dorset horn and merino sheep and Hereford cattle. Becker made another fortune from a large land holding in the Ninety-Mile Desert transformed into the productive Coonalpyn Downs framing area by Becker’s support of CSIR scientist David Riceman’s trials with trace elements in soil. His next venture was breeding thoroughbred horses 1948-55, before buying 480 hectares at Smithfield in a switch to sheep and cattle. Becker visited North Bungaree Merino Stud at Andrews, South Australia, to begin stud merino breeding, using his radical ideas in animal nutrition and fertility. Becker surprised North Bungaree manager G. P. Auld by personally selecting the three top rams he wanted. Auld joined Becker as manager and stud master in ventures such as buying the famous Brewarrana property at Narrandera, NSW, in 1962 with its top poll Hereford stud. In 1963, at Sydney Royal Show, Becker picked a bull – Castle Bend Apex – from the 150 displayed. Next day, it became the show reserve champion and later bought at auction to Becker for the then-record 8,000 guineas. The bull went on to sire progeny that sold for more than $300,000. On Auld’s advice, Becker bought 504ha at Angle Vale, near Smithfield, for the merino stud, and a Hereford cattle stud. Besides becoming one of Australia’s top stud breeders, Becker was an innovator with his stud sheep in paddocks having free access to feeders with oats, lucerne or other quality hay, plus calcium.
CEREAL GROWERS' LONG CHALLENGE IN ADAPTING TO SOUTH AUSTRALIAN CONDITIONS AND SOIL
South Australian cereal growers, through their wheat and woolgrowers’ association, bought change to the way grain was transported and shipped from 1954. From the colony’s earliest days, moving grain from farm to the customer had been time consuming and expensive. Grain was collected in jute bags from the header and loaded onto a horse and cart, or train, to travel to one of South Australia’s 40 ports to be exported. A lot of grain was lost through spills, lack of hygiene and pest control. The South Australian Wheat and Woolgrowers’ Association lobbied hard for a bulk handling system and presented a proposal and draft bill to the state government in 1954. That year, the association formed South Australian Co-Operative Bulk Handling Limited (SACBH). The company bought its first silo in Ardrossan in 1955 and built the first country silo at Paskeville, on Yorke Peninsula, the next year. By the 1980s, SACBH’s storage capacity was more than four million tonnes. In the late 1990s, the Australian Wheat Board and the Australian Barley Board were privatised. South Australian growers approved a changed SACBH corporate structure in 2000 and it was demutualised as AusBulk and United Grower Holdings. Four years later, they merged with ABB Grain Ltd to form one of Australia’s largest barley marketers. In 2009, most shareholders voted to sell ABB Grain Ltd to Canadian global agribusiness Viterra who took over most South Australia’s silos and gave its grain exposure to different world markets. In 2012, Viterra was bought by Glencore Agriculture, a global leader in agricultural commodities.
AUSTRALIA'S FIRST AGRICULTURAL COLLEGE AT ROSEWORTHY FROM 1883
TIGHT BIOSECURITY BECOME HALLMARK OF STATE'S AGRICULTURE
An Italian bee has benefited froma world first in agricultural protection by South Australia. The Ligurian bees on Kangaroo Island, 120km south of Adelaide, are believed to be the last remaining pure stock of this bee, protected by the island as the oldest bee sanctuary in the world. The bees were imported from Bologna by the South Australian Chamber of Manufacturers in 1884. The island was declared a bee sanctuary the next year. An early German settler August Fiebig has been credited for his role in breeding and bringing the bees to the island. Beekeepers all over South Australia rallied to get legal protection for the bees. This reflects influence in a small (in population) colony/state, but also the demand for agricultural adaptability (another South Australian characteristic) in its harsh climatic challenges. Also in a small-colony scenario, James Boucaut, a supreme court judge and former premier, brought the first Ligurians to the island on his yacht in 1884. The state government established a Ligurian queen breeding station at Flinders Chase on the island in 1944. The Ligurian bee produces a superb range of honeys from flora including sugar gum, pink gum, white mallee and other Australian and introduced flora. Ligurian has built sizeable export markets, particularly in Japan. It is the first Australian product recognised by the Slow Food Movement's Arc of Taste awards for products in danger and needing protection. In 2015, the state government and Adelaide University started studying the potential of Australia’s native bees to resist the varroa mites that have hit bee populations globally.
Farmers gained a more formal link to government when the Central Agriculture Bureau was set up in 1888 on a idea by English-born printer named Albert Molineux. The Central Agricultural Bureau was the precursor to the advisory board of agriculture, the present-day governing body of the Agricultural Bureau of South Australia. The bureau remains a not-for-profit organisation run by farmers for farmers. It helps link scientists and farmers to work on issues of common interest.
South Australian food and wine exports reached a record $5.2 billion in 2014-15. This was 46% of the state’s merchandise exports. The value of food exports to the United States doubled, compared to the previous year, while food exports to Indonesia rose 15 per cent. South Australia produces 20% (average: seven million tonnes) of Australia’s grain per year, with 80% exported to China, Asia and the Middle East. Almonds were a strong performer in the horticulture industry.
The Centre of Excellence for the Australian Almond Industry – the nation’s most valuable single horticultural crop – has opened in the redeveloped Loxton Research Centre in the Riverland. Almonds are Australia’s largest and fastest growing horticultural crop with a record gross production value in 2015 of $960 million. The global success of Renmark-based Almondco Australia, operating since 1944, was honored at the 2015 South Australian Food Industry Program Awards.
Greenwheat Freekeh at Dublin on the Adelaide Plains is set to secure South Australia’s position as the leading global supplier of “superfood” freekeh. With $900,000 state government help, Greenwheat is making a $4.4 million expansion of its plant. This will boost production of green grain freekeh – a dried cereal-based food from Northern Africa, Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Freekeh growth in Australia alone has exceeded 220% per annum in recent years.
Adelaide is now a hub of agricultural research, with the grains and fish research and development corporations increasing their presence in South Australia by opening a joint office at the National Wine Centre. The Grains Research and Development Corporation, with Canberra head offices, is a world leader and the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation is the national fisheries and aquaculture research funding body. Adelaide's office will make it easier to access the national research bodies.
A large seaweed processing industry in South Australia is being pursued by researchers at Flinders University. Despite community opposition, Chinese-owned Australian Kelp Products, based at Millicent, is expanding its seaweed harvest along the Limestone Coast. Flinders University’s centre for marine bioproducts development new technologies is working with Australian Kelp Products to increase production of agrichemicals for the domestic and export markets.
21st CENTURY CHANGES AND CHALLENGES FOR STATE'S AGRICULTURE
P’Petual Holdings, based at Buckland Park, 35km north of Adelaide, started a $60 million three-stage expansion from eight to 28 hectares in 2017, creating the second largest high-technology glasshouse horticulture project in South Australia. The glasshouses growth was backed by $2 million from a state government future jobs fund and overseas investors. Started in 1997, P’Petual Holdings, trading under the brand Ausfresh, operates high-tech greenhouses to grow niche tomatoes, eggplants and mini cucumber. The state-of-the-art greenhouses use a climate control computer to monitor environmental factors, such as temperature, fog, irrigation and shade. Protected year-round cropping under glasshouses is becoming a grown at the northern Adelaide horticultural area. Produce grown at the glasshouses is sorted and packaged onsite and sold to major supermarket chains, independent supermarkets and grocers all around Australia. The expansion opens opportunities to access overseas markets, especially south-east Asia. The first stage of the expanded glasshouse would boost the annual yield of fresh produce to about 7,800 tonnes – up from about 2,850 tonnes previously. The P’Petual Holdings project came from a combined effort with the Stretton Centre, City of Playford, SA Water, state department of environment, water and natural resources; state planning, transport and infrastructure department, Environmental Protection Authority South Australia, the office of the agent-general and the Investment Attraction South Australia.
A change to the South Australian Mining Act, to remove farmers’ right of refusal for mining companies to use their land, has been put on hold after it was deferred in 2018 by four state Liberal government rural backbench MPs voting against it with the opposition Labor party. The impasse continued into 2019 when the state energy and mining department overruled its minister Dan van Holst Pellekaan’s compromise to win over the group of rebel backbenchers. The proposed Mining Act changes mirror those proposed by the former state Labor government. It was heavily criticised for being “rushed” through by the former government without holding a proper consultation with South Australian farmers. Yorke Peninsula MP Fraser Ellis, one of the rebel MPs, said the Liberal government would only “further alienate the party’s ordinary members” if it pushed through the mining legislation as it was. A meeting of the Liberal Party’s rural and regional council had also decided the government should drop the section of the bill giving mining companies power to appeal in court to access land used for cultivation. Primary Producers SA and commodity group members, Grain Producers SA and Livestock SA, couldn’t support the Mining Bill in its current format and had provided a big list of changes. They called for an independent review into South Australia’s mining laws that would examine best-practice land access in other states. South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy chief executive Rebecca Knol said the mining industry “categorically opposes” farmers being given a right to veto mining access.