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A real world sustainable and profitable farming program Part I

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Professor Graeme Martin, from the University of Western Australia’s Institute of Agriculture, is also leader of an innovative project known as Future Farm 2050 – a project that really is important for our future. By 2050 there will be 50% more people in the world and those people need to be fed without destroying the planet. The Future Farm 2050 project was born out of the idea of such a developing issue. The project team convinced the University of Western Australia in 2008 that the university should own a real farm and establish it as the ideal farm for 2050.

Grasstree Hill Ridgefield: The farm has a large number of magnificant old grass trees that are extremely photogenic and very popular with international visitors.   
The 1600 hectare property is some two hours south-east of Perth near the small town of Pingelly. It is a classic mixed farming enterprise for Western Australian conditions with sheep the main livestock and crops of cereals, canola and lupins. The property, owned by a farming family for five generations, was profitable, easily covering all costs and salaries. 

It is middle-sized for the area and has very little native bush left, the 5-7% left being on granite outcrops. Some time was spent fixing up infrastructure as it was fairly run down. The agricultural enterprises were leased out and gradually taken back, last year being their first full crop. This year’s second crop means that real numbers are coming through as to how the farm is traveling financially. Unfortunately the district has just been hit by frosts so the best season on the farm (and the district) has just fallen apart, a real reality check. This working farm provides a balance between reality check and risk-taking. This allows the project to test scientific ideas and ideals out in the real world. Things that don’t work come back to the team as a future research project, another arm of the overall project. While there is long term risk, in the short term there is a lot to be learnt about agriculture, the environment, industry, business and people.

Baling hay Ridgefield: The landscape within which we find the UWA Future Farm 2050 Project: rolling hills over granitic sands, punctuated by granite outcrops. When pasture production reaches its peak (spring), it gets away from the sheep, so we conserve it for the autumn feed gap
Professor Martin is based in an Institute of Agriculture so is surrounded by agricultural scientists, agricultural economists, specialists in soil science, crop science and livestock science, all of which contribute to the project. 

Interestingly once the project started one of the first people to come on board was an architect, namely Patrick Beale, an ex-dean of architecture at UWA who is passionate about rural buildings. The new farm manager now lives in a truly modern, architect designed solar-powered house. Future Farm 2050 has four pillars of activity. The first two are crops and livestock, important given that 65% of the farm’s profit comes from crops and 35% from livestock depending on the weather, the rainfall and the market. 

ALVA House is the farm manager’s house; work by Patrick Beale, the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts (ALVA): high thermal efficiency, maximum energy efficiency, full solar energy, full rain water. The solar power system includes two 5 Kw panel arrays from different manufacturers and full battery storage (ie grid independent). Performance over several years is being measured by a solar energy engineer in Brazil who receives system data via the internet. 

The third pillar is ecosystem and biodiversity. Farmers across Australia are responsible for as much as 60% of our landscape so they really are responsible for biodiversity and conservation. This is why farming practices need to be considered in plans for ecological management. The fourth pillar of activity is about people. Imagine happy farmers living in vibrant communities with input from architects, health population scientists, sports scientists, business people and small business experts helping the community. 

The isolation of farms has consequences. Future Farm 2050 is a two hour drive to the city. Communication is a problem but Western Australia has a state-wide network of Community Resource Centres (CRC) funded through Royalties for Regions state funding. The Pingelly CRC is set up as a library but it also has a communications centre, a computer training centre and all the networking that the local people need to access the internet. The 90-110 CRCs across the state are also connected by video conference so Future Farm 2050 can communicate with the whole of rural Western Australia on any topic at all. Modern technology is bringing these communities back into the main stream. 

Professor Phil Vercoe and Professor Graeme Martin at the GPS Station: the farm has its own GPS station and the entire property is mapped to 2 cm x 2 cm squares. Everyone knows exactly where everything is!  
The world population is rising rapidly and although it will eventually level off at 12 billion by the end of the century we can’t just simply ramp up food production. We do in fact produce enough food right now for the 50% increase in world population by 2050 but there are management issues.

We waste a lot of food and modern food economies are based to a large degree on the production of human-edible crops that are fed to animals like chickens, pigs and dairy cattle. Future Farm 2050 offers a way of grappling with such agricultural practices.

Professor Graeme Martin was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images from Professor Martin. Summary text by Victor Barry, October 2016.

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Coastcare grants - very environmentally friendly Part II: restoring biodiversity in sustainable farming

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