Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Finally, Russia....

Well the Nuffield journey has certainly taken me to some amazing places where 12 months ago I could not have imagined going.

I was more than a little daunted as I boarded the plane in Sydney, the thought of heading off again by myself to a foreign culture made me realise just how fast I had slipped back into my comfort zone.

Approaching Moscow the cloud cleared and snow was evident as far as I could see. I wondered just how much I would be able to move around and observe. The next flight was southward, some 400 km to Voronezh, where the snow had melted less than 2 weeks ago. Already the talk is around starting the spring planting programme next week.

My impression of the black earth region encompassed deep, black clays, based I suppose around the small areas of alluvial black soils at home. I am surprised to find a sandy clay, sticky, but by no means tending to be cloddy or overly difficult to manage and work. Still haven't got a good handle on the water holding capacity, although it sounds as if it is limited, as every year the profile is full following the snow melt, however, this does not convert to yield without sufficient rainfall in the spring/early summer.

One of the major constraints is the very short autumn and spring planting windows. Winter wheat has about a three week optimum planting period, and the entire spring and summer programme has to be completed, again in around three weeks. For a business operating at the scale of Black Earth Farming, this presents a major logistical challenge, growing 80,000ha of wheat and 160,000ha of spring and summer crops.

It is for me, another lesson in cultural difference and the influence of history. The sheer size of the country and the diversity is difficult to comprehend. Unfortunately my knowledge of Russian history is limited, and I feel in order to connect with a culture a deep understanding of the past and the things that have shaped the society is essential. A complete lack of basic trust, translating to having to pay for the petrol before you fill the car at the service station, to the lack of forward and futures markets and all trade done on a cash on delivery basis. There is no counter party trust in business.

Emerging from the long winter, the small towns and villages can only be described as bleak, the trees still devoid of foliage, no green in the grass, and the sunshine feeble against the cold breeze. Yet only a week after my return to Australia, temperatures in the high twenties to low thirties were predicted. A very quick turnaround... It is amazing to reconcile the images I have with the productivity of the region.

It has been a really great taster to visit both Russia this year, and Ukraine last November, and I would love to travel more widely through these areas as the potential and opportunities are exciting, albeit with significant challenge and in some cases, political and social risks. Management oversight would be critical to in order to limit drift back to former farming and production techniques, as well as petty theft and pilfering.

I hope to return

Monday, 24 December 2012

Friday, 21 December 2012

Harvest nears...

Fiona's wheat crop!
It will be close in another couple of weeks. Hoping for around 8 tonnes per Ha.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Mental health night!!

Been a long time, and it's great to be back! Gone are the worries about the Lucerne, poppies, pivots and spraying!!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Rain on the hay..

28mm on 80ha, not ideal!
Good for most other crops though, so on balance, a nice rain

Saturday, 1 December 2012


It's easy to become reflective at 11000 meters I find. However I think at this time I may be excused by readers, as my Nuffield travel is largely coming to an end. There will be a little more, so watch this space, however the chance to travel the world for nearly ten weeks on my own will not come again, ever.

It easily to judge myself harshly as I think back on the journey, to opportunities not fully exploited, or a contact missed. However, it is far more beneficial to concentrate on the amazing people I met on the way, the unforgettable experiences, both good and not so good, and the knowledge gained.

I was not initially going to spend long in the UK, however Fiona was kind enough to suggest I spend another couple of weeks there. I went along with this idea, after all, as I always say, Fi is never wrong! And on this, she was right on, as I have gained a huge amount. It is always good when your expectations are exceeded, and I don't think they were unrealistically low at the outset.

After spending time with Kate Morgan, current UK scholar studying animal welfare in the pig industry, including having to help vaccinate around 650 piglets after much red wine the evening before, I went north to Scotland. I had heard there was some excellent agriculture in Scotland, however I was not expecting to find the scale of soft fruit and horticulture. I visited scholars involved in all sorts of enterprises, grains, brassicas, soft fruits, potatoes, tourism, intensive livestock, and extensive grazing systems. There is no shortage of innovation here.

I also had a really good meeting at the Hutton Institute, the main R&D institution largely government funded, investing in all forms of agriculture. They have been involved in a project to map the barley genome, and are credited with the breakthrough. The benefits to flow from this in the future will be huge, from yield improvement, disease resistance, quality, to the way specific enzymes react in cell walls during the malting process.

A big thanks to 2012 scholar, Caroline Millar, who looked after me well, organised meetings for me and had me to stay for three nights in the 5 star luxury Hideaway Experience accommodation. It was absolutely fantastic, and set the bar high for the remainder of my journey!!

From there, via Ayrshire and Heather Wildman (2012 scholar) for a look at Scottish hill farming, to Cambridgeshire. By now my time was starting to come to an end, and it looked like I was not going to get to the UK conference which seemed like a great shame as I could gain a lot of contacts and catch up with scholars I had previously met at the contemporary scholars conference in February.

I was easily talked into staying on for another week, and with Fiona's unending support, rolled the Qantas ticket again!

I ended up staying with James Peck, 2011 scholar, for an extended period, meeting many interesting and highly relevant businesses. I found this time to be both stimulating and highly motivating. James has a great outlook on life, and has achieved a huge amount in a short time. I found his enthusiasm infective.

My time was now short again, a quick trip to Taunton, some more innovative businesses, both large and small, including a visit to the Bristol Ports and ABS, an animal feed import and blending facility located at the port.

After catching up with my relations in Sanderstead, it was time to do the dash across outer London to Heathrow, and return the Audi I had been driving for three weeks, and in the process had become quite attached to. A plug for Europcar for giving me a free upgrade, mind you, I had hired a car for the previous 8 weeks or so in various parts of the world!

As I have mentioned before, locating the rental car return, when running with not much time to spare, can be the crux of one's journey, and the added pressure of having to make sure the fuel tank is full has the potential to cause high stress levels. Luckily I was on my own and could describe the state of the traffic, other drivers, red traffic lights and the GPS telling me to "cross the roundabout, 5th exit", followed by the inevitable "recalculating" after losing count, in a language I deemed appropriate at the time, without offending others!!

Finally, a really big thanks to everyone who helped to make my journey of ten weeks so memorable and rewarding. Without the support, assistance and generosity I was afforded along the way it would have been impossible.

What a life.... Thank you

Tuesday, 20 November 2012


Following the Ukraine, I met up with Fiona in Amsterdam, and stayed with friends for a couple of days to catch our breath. As I have said before, the agriculture in the Netherlands is very intense, they make the most of every square meter.
The agricultural businesses we visited were small in terms of land area, but still had enviable turnover, a good reminder for regions such as Tasmania where scale is harder to achieve.
A big thank you to the Nuffield network in the Netherlands for hosting Fiona and I, and providing introduction.
Since the tour of the WW1 battle field tour as part of the global focus programme, I had wanted to return to Ypres, and the daily playing of the last post at Menin Gate, fortunately we made it in time, and I was again privelidged to witness this moving event.
The next stop was a friend in Switzerland, he is a grain grower and potato producer. In reality however, Swiss agriculture is more about landscape maintenance, and by his own admission, he feels he is a large scale green keeper! Society does seem happy to pay for the service, you just have to play by the rules...
It is a truly beautiful country, and you cannot help but feel energised, and somewhat wistful, gazing across Lake Geneva towards Mt Blanc. Next time perhaps?