Full steam ahead for KI’s innovative crop farmers

Cropping farmers on Kangaroo Island are very busy, taking advantage of the recent rains to seed their grain, canola and legume crops.

The recent rain has been just what the farmers have needed and there is now sufficient soil moisture to get the crops off to a good start. Another 20mm would be good. 

It’s shaping up to be a good season and coupled with a range of new technology and innovative cropping methods, the latest generation of young KI croppers is hoping for another bumper season. 

Among them is fifth-generation Islander Travis Bell, who together with his brother Lachlan, is about to take over the Bellevista farming operation from his father Rodney Bell.

“The whole agriculture industry on Kangaroo Island is really exciting at the moment,” Travis Bell said.

“We’ve got a heap young people and we all get along and share information and to a certain extent challenge each other.”

There has been a massive increase in yields in the last four years, due to innovation such as a liquid system for seeding that injects trace elements and fertilizer into the furrows as crops are planted.

The same system can be used to inject fungicides, inoculation for legumes and even pesticides.

Innovation has come from capturing and using data from previous harvests, so that now smart seeding systems are used varying the seeding and fertiliser rate based on the previous year’s harvest data.

“With air seeding we can now do inter-row sowing and we have the ability to amalgamate soil maps with yield maps from our headers and direct resources from area of high yield to low yield,” he said.

There are challenges looming over cropping, including climate change and losing some of the most productive parts of the Island to development, whether it be urban sprawl and hobby farms, as well as more trees being planted.

There are six main cropping families or operations and the area cropped on Kangaroo Island in 2014/15 was 15,000 hectares, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures.

This figure is believed to be understated and depending on season and grain prices, it probably varies between 15,000 and 20,000 hectares. 

The main crops planted on Kangaroo Island are hard and soft wheat, malting barley, canola and broad beans.

Environment, efficiency

The new generation of farmers have a fresh outlook. Many have university degrees and are keen to adopt the latest technology. 

Cropping in Kangaroo Island is all about being as efficient as possible, which goes hand-in-hand with being more friendly to the environment.

Travis Bell said there were new technologies coming on line such as improved mapping, which allowed farmers to pinpoint seeding, herbicide and pesticide usage down to the milligram and centimeter.

His tractor already steers itself down the rows in each paddock with such accuracy, down to 2.5 centimeters, so that the new crop of canola can actually be planted between last year’s row of wheat stubble.

Even greater technology was on the horizon where cameras on a boom sprayer could direct herbicides onto individual weeds. 

The Bell’s spraying equipment has already been modified to use varying compressed air to govern the droplet size of herbicides and pesticides being applied, reducing spray drift. 

“I am fifth generation and I want to hand it on to the sixth generation,” Travis Bell said. “It’s all about being sustainable.”

Farmers are working hard to reduce compaction of the soil, improve soil structure and fertility. There is a massive liming program underway to reduce soil acidity and great progress has been made on reducing salinity. 

Landcare is big part of farming operations these days maintaining tree lines and vegetation along creek beds.

Marketing success

Kangaroo Island Pure Grain, the marketing arm for the local croppers, has also been key in the success of cropping on Kangaroo Island.

The biggest challenge to cropping on KI is the limited land available, with cropping only suitable on the more productive low-lying, well drained areas.

KI grain and legume farmers have instead taken advantage of niche marketing so that now each of the crops gets top dollar when sold.

The soft wheat goes to Arnott’s biscuit company to be made into Tim Tams, hard wheat goes to the Skala bakery and Laucke Flour Mills, GM free canola goes to Japan, malt barley goes to Coopers and other boutique breweries and broad beans go to Indonesia. 

KI Pure Grain continues to search out new markets that will mean a greater return for the cropping farmers.

Agriculture dominates

Agriculture remains the most significant industry on Kangaroo Island and its contribution to the economy continues to grow, particularly as the wool price reaches new highs.

A report commissioned by KI commissioner Wendy Campana “Kangaroo Island: Monitoring Economic Progress” was written by The South Australian Centre for Economic Studies, University of Adelaide, in September 2017.

“In 2015/16, Kangaroo Island’s gross value of agricultural commodities produced was estimated at $87.5 million,” the report reads.

“Livestock and livestock products were most notable, with sheep and lambs valued at $29.4 million and wool at $24.9 million. 

“Agriculture is still the most significant industry on Kangaroo Island. Monitoring the value of Kangaroo Island’s agricultural produce is likely to inform the state of Kangaroo Island’s economy including any diversification in commodities produced.

“Changes in gross value are likely to be driven by commodity prices or unexpected weather leading to changes in yields.”

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