The following paper, “Learning the Way” by AF Tideman, outlines the dissemination of research and development in the South Australian Wheat Industry from the initial years of the Colony until the 1980s.
Forced by necessity created by the harsh, and in world terms, remote lands colonized in South Australia wheat growers from the beginning in 1836 in South Australia saw the need for an educational forum or society. That need, combined with a determined self-help spirit gave birth to the Agricultural Bureau of South Australia in 1888.That became a vital vehicle for the wheat growers to learn from one another and to gain information from many sources relevant to the development of their industry.
During the 50 years prior to the formation of the Bureau the growers improved their lot by selecting better varieties from natural variation they observed in their crops and exchanging their home grown experiences. Some societies in regional towns such as Mt Barker came and went and a publication, the Farm and Garden which later became, the Garden and Field, helped, but information transfer was largely hit and miss.
The printer and editor of the Garden and Field, Albert Molineaux, was the first to promote the Agricultural Bureau. He became a driving force for information transfer in the Wheat Industry (and other Primary Industries) over the next 30 years leading to the 20th century. This non-political, non-religious body has now continued for 120 years, with administrative help from the governments of the day, to provide a platform for wheat growers to share knowledge of wheat varietal improvements, fertilizer use, weed and disease control, seeding, harvesting and marketing developments.
During the life of the Bureau nearly 550 Branches have been established with more than 150 active at any one time. At the height of its popularity during the 1960’s one wheat grower in three was an active member of a branch and on average 100 meetings a week were conducted across the wheat belt. Technical inputs to these meetings were given by Department of Agriculture officers, CSIRO, Adelaide University and Roseworthy College staff as well as private enterprises such as fertilizer, machinery and agricultural chemical companies. Growers also had access to the Department’s Journal of Agriculture which, in its monthly issues, provided them with in depth information.
Wheat growers also had access to soil, farm management and marketing schools, took part in field days, organized their own district crop competitions and supported exhibitions at local shows. During the 1930’s there were more than 100 sites under research observations on farms in the wheat-belt. The Agricultural Bureau has therefore been an invaluable conduit for the extension of research and all other developments of the industry.
This access to teaching and the exchange of ideas together with the growers’ in-built resilient spirit of self- help and great fortitude has enabled growers to maintain efficient production and high standards despite the unreliable South Australian environment and fluctuating markets. Their expertise has been sought after in countries with Mediterranean climates around the world.
Other historical highlights in the extension of information to the industry need to be recorded. In October 1926, the staid columns of the South Australian Journal of Agriculture announced that five agricultural instructors had been appointed. At that time wheat cropping dominated the agricultural scene but it was an exploitative industry as far as the soil was concerned; erosion was rife. The average yield was 0.7 tonnes per ha and farmers, well on into the depression, were only recovering about 20% of their minimum returns needed to recover their production costs. Wheat growers needed help.
Those appointments were the beginning of a line of extension officers, later to be called agricultural advisers and then, as the technology revolution hit the industry in the 1960’s, specialized district agronomists were appointed. By the middle of the 1970’s there were 14 working mainly across the wheat belt and they are still appointed but their advice is generally not free and they are dealing more with farming systems (minimum tillage) leaving the agricultural chemical, fertilizer and commercial advice such as marketing to private enterprise.
These services to the wheat industry have been monumental. As the Agronomy Branch Report for the 1975/76 year records, the 14 district agronomists made 2835 farm visits, attended 332 group meetings (mainly at Agricultural Bureau branches), attended 136 field days and received 3700 office visits.
The intensity of this service to wheat growers would not have been possible without the financial assistance provided by the Commonwealth Extension Services Grants. Not only did this fund support special workshops and field demonstrations but it significantly contributed to the post-graduate extension training of the agronomists in Australia and at renowned institutions in New Zealand, England a and the Netherlands.
Extension services to the Wheat Industry (and all other Primary Industries) have always been greatly assisted by the press, radio and since the early 1960’s, television. The Stock Journal and Chronical in particular. They published regular articles on developments in the Industry, advertised recommended wheat varieties for particular districts and helpful production figures. The ABC and local radio stations for more than 80 years now have generously provided on-air time to Wheat Industry topics. The Chief Agronomist was given weekly time slots during the 1970’s and 1980’s to broadcast many issues relevant to the wheat growers.
Finally, a great deal of information transfer has been made directly to wheat growers through the Australian Wheat Industry Research Council and subsequent research Corporations and the South Australian state committee. These statutory authorities have been funded from growers’ production levies, the sum of which is doubled by the governments. Another example of the farmers’ self- help culture. The projects were not supported by these funds unless a strategy was submitted to inform growers of the outcomes of these projects. In the early 1980’s, for example, this funding, coordinated by South Australian scientists, developed an interstate variety field testing scheme. This gave growers earlier access to new varieties designed to prevent rust attacks and improve yields. More recently these funds have ensured the rapid adoption of minimum tillage practices, so important for modern resource management.
These extension services, strongly supported by the South Australian wheat growers, have developed the industry into a very efficient dry land farming enterprise, the envy of other states of the Commonwealth and other Mediterranean countries of the world.