Mallee Sustainable Farming helps producers stay optimistic during drought

Mallee Sustainable Farming (MSF) is helping farmers in the Mallee remain optimistic as they anxiously wait for a break in the drought.

The not-for-profit organisation services an area of more than four million hectares in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, stretching from Balranald in NSW to Murray Bridge.

Allen Buckley, from Waikerie, is one of the founders of the MSF, which began nearly 22 years ago.

He was one of the first Mallee grain growers to use no-till techniques, which reduced soil erosion and significantly increased yields of crops such as wheat and barley.

No-till means crops are placed in the ground without turning over the soil and keeping the previous crop stubble standing.

The word spread about Mr Buckley's success and other farmers in the Mallee region in SA, Victoria and NSW were eager to follow suit.

Farmers in the Mallee realised they needed to be represented by a permanent organisation to help them become more sustainable.

Their determination attracted funding from the Grains Research and Development Corporation and support from the CSIRO to establish MSF in 1997 and it became an incorporated body in 1998.

This collaboration is still strong in 2019.

The first core sites to demonstrate no-till farming practices were established on three properties: at Waikerie on Mr Buckley's farm and at Gol Gol and Balranald in NSW.

More than two decades later, the Mallee cropping region, once seen as a dust bowl, has been transformed into a lucrative grain and legume producing area.

But Mr Buckley said one thing MSF couldn't control was the weather.

The 67-year-old said last year was the second driest season he knew of around the Waikerie area since the 1982 drought, when SA recorded its lowest rainfall on record.

"On our property we received only 88 millimetres of rain in 1982 and in 2018 we received just 94mm," he said.

MSF program manager Tanja Morgan, who has a farm at Jabuk, said bringing farmers together was the key to helping them through the tough times.

The organisation's 2019 research updates, which were held at Waikerie and Murrayville and Manangatang in Victoria in February, were well supported by farmers.

They also featured a session on handling stress.

"We try and provide them with the resources they need and we also run a lot of field days, where we get farmers together," Ms Morgan said.

Growing legumes has also become a way of reducing soil erosion and increasing farmers' viability.

"Between 2012-16, the prices for lentils and chickpeas were strong, " Ms Morgan said.

Fourth-generation grain grower Wade Nickolls, from Pinnaroo, said his family had been growing legumes such as lentils since the late 1980s.

However, he made most of his profit last season from hay, which he exports to Asia for about $300 a tonne.

He has also been involved in faba bean trials, which performed well despite the drought and frost.

Australia's faba beans are presently attracting about $800 a tonne, with strong demand from the Middle East due to a global shortage.

Mr Nickolls, 40, said the future of farming in Pinnaroo looked bright and that the MSF had contributed to it.

"In Pinnaroo, the average age of farmers would be 35, which is rare, as in most places it would probably be about 60," he said.

This story was originally published by Brand SA.