Just recently, we saw Australian almond producers make claims that were rather surprising for the industry and many who take a keen interest in almond production. After going through a period of stability and very little growth, producers of almonds based in Australia are have been claiming to be experiencing tremendous growth. Contrary to previous industry comments, many speakers at the Australian Almond Conference have stated that this growth has not been overestimated.
According to an analyst within the market, Vernon Crowder, the growth here in Australia has been phenomenal and is set to become even better in the years ahead. By the year 2020, 83% of the almonds produced will come from California but this is something that has been occurring for a very long time. However, Australia will be in second place supplying around 8.5% – an increase from just under 7%.
Although it won’t have a huge impact on the market itself, Australian producers are now seeing record prices partly thanks to the shortage in production in California. For a long time, Spain was second in the list of producers but Australia has leapfrogged them due to significant plantings of Olam and Select Harvest in the Riverina coming into commercial production.
In terms of consumption, the market in Australia has grown significantly over the past decade and now sits as one of the highest in the world when it comes to ‘per capita consumption’. Although there are many reasons why, one of the largest seems to be the availability of information nowadays. As we learn more about what ingredients can do for us and how we can stay healthy, more people are seeing the health benefits of almonds as well as various products that contain the nut. Although almond milk has been growing in popularity of late, this is not thought to be the reason behind the rise as a litre of almond milk only contains one almond.
Furthermore, there is more good news for almond producers as experts believe that they have found the secret to increasing pollination – hive protein supplements. For beekeepers, pollinating almond orchards is a huge role and so research was carried out to find a way of improving the health of honeybees.
Essentially, there are three different roles within a hive. As well as the baby bees, there are the ‘nurse’ bees that look after the babies and the foraging worker bees. When in the hive, the babies give off a pheromone that suggests that it needs feeding. As a result, the foraging bee will head out and collect pollen. If there is no brood in the hive, the demand for pollen drops. Therefore, this additional protein allows bees to live longer and they become more effective as a colony and the foraging bees pollinate more frequently.
In recent years, we have seen the demise of the honeybee as their lifespan has reduced. As carbon dioxide levels increase, pollen is losing its nutritious value too so this is the beginning of an overall effort to save the bee colonies and allow them to become as efficient as they once were. In addition to this added protein supplement, researchers are also looking for ways to tackle the ever-growing varroa mite issue.
Over the years, we have seen various different methods of raising funds within a business. More recently, there has been a substantial rise in businesses being funded by crowd-funding websites and this could be an answer to farming troubles if the Federal Government were to relax the funding limit laws currently in place.
In a recent report, we saw that debt for Australian farmers had risen to around $60 billion in the last quarter-decade alone. At the same time, the proportion of gross income being used to service this debt had remained near-enough the same – on average, this is about seven cents in every dollar of income. Therefore, the problem is only getting worse and the time for solutions is getting closer and closer.
With new options being explored, such as crowd-funding as mentioned, we could now have the answer in the shape of super funds. In the past, the agricultural business was seen as far too risky, volatile, and the rewards were often too low for Australian superannuation funds. Despite this history between the two, there could be evidence that opinions are now changing and key farming figures believe this to be true.
Since the share market is flat and the interest rates are low, many super fund managers could now be re-examining their stance when it comes to the agricultural industry. Above all else, Inghams’ -Australia’s largest chicken producer – decision to float in November for over $1 billion proved to be a key turning point. Not only did they do well, AustralianSuper took an opportunity to buy a $100 million share and Australia’s largest super fund also has an option to invest further in shares later down the line.
With revenue of $2.3 billion and around 8,000 employees within 340 farms, Inghams is perhaps showing the potential that other farms have. As opinions continue to change towards the agricultural industry, there is a new optimism for companies looking for investment going forward. Furthermore, it should also be noted that the success of Inghams wasn’t just seen in Australia. After floating, they received funding from locations all around the world and super funds are now said to be having a ‘serious look’ at the agricultural industry.
Although this is largely good news, there is a little concern for some as they believe that there is a limited time for which this door will stay open. According to the Chief Executive of Thomas Foods International, Darren Thomas, Australian producers have around three to five years before investors go through with their plans of looking towards South America and Africa. For Hugh Robertson, stock broker at Bell Potter, it is ‘about time’ that Australian agriculture is taken seriously!
For many years, the measurement for investment returns on farms was not indexed to a national standard but we saw big changes at the beginning of November as with the introduction of the Australian Farm Index. Launched at the Australian Farm Institute Roundtable Conference, investors now have an opportunity to compare agricultural investments performance with various other assets classes or other agricultural indexes around the world.
According to Frank Delahunty, the creator of the index, it took around three and a half years to develop and was based on the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries index for farms seen in the United States. Although he was first hoping to start with high-end investors with assets worth over $1.2 billion, more farms quickly joined the trend and we are now starting to see the results come in.
Taking into account the June-end quarter alone, Australian farming investments has increased by nearly a quarter at 24%. Compared to the 16% seen in March and the 12% at the end of 2015, this is a significant increase. Within the 48 fund-managed properties that have been monitored, the increase in value for capital investments is thought to be the biggest contributor to the overall boost. In particular, there has been a marked increase in the value of water, beef cattle, and land of late.
In truth, it increases all around as capital appreciation, which sat at just 4.6% at the end of last year, reached nearly 15% back in June. In addition to this, incomes for farmers has increased by nearly one percentage point to 8.3%. Launching on November 11th, this news comes as the aforementioned changes to the index are introduced. Essentially, the Australian Farm Index now looks to evaluate all properties that are worth over $827 million and are managed by six key investment groups.
Since the new Australian index is based on a very similar model in the US, we can now draw direct comparisons between the two and early signs suggest that the US is being outperformed. With the United States reporting 8.6% for the third quarter, Australia seems to be in a good position to better this but we won’t find out the Australian indices until a few weeks’ time. However, Delahunty thinks that the opposite may be true and June’s strength may not last because the end-of-year asset revaluations could have driven the index artificially high. Despite not being as high as the US, a steady positive trend is expected.
Of course, the index hasn’t been in action for too long so it remains to be seen what impact it will have on the industry as a whole. Currently, all involved are hoping that it will lead to transparency so that we can all see how the sector is performing which is something that has been missing for many years!
Wheat is everywhere. It’s in bread, pasta, pastries, biscuits, pizza, batter, cereals, soups, sauces, instant drinks, salad dressing, processed meats and sweets, to name but a few.
The western diet is so infatuated with wheat that most of us eat a kilo or more a week. So why do we love it?
It’s simple. It provides the texture of our pasta, the spring in our bread, the thickening in our soups and sauces, and the crunch in our batter and pastries.
But what some of us crave, others look to avoid. They study ingredients on packaging and travel across town to find processed foods that don’t contain wheat. While they may enjoy the texture, spring, thickness and crunch, they don’t feel well after they eat wheat.
So what’s the problem?
Some have a sensitivity to a small set of wheat proteins called gluten. For a subset of people their reaction is so extreme it’s defined as coeliac disease.
But most people who avoid wheat are not intolerant to gluten but rather to some other substance in wheat. Scientists agree this is likely to be other proteins found in the wheat grain, but it is typically unknown what the culprit is in each case.
This is a frustrating mystery for wheat sensitivity sufferers which hangs over their café breakfasts, luncheons with friends and social dinner parties.
The full set of proteins that make up wheat grains has only recently been revealed, with details published last month in The Plant Journal. These proteins make up the wheat proteome and have been exhaustively mapped out for the first time in wheat by research conducted here in Australia.
With this discovery we now know that, beyond gluten, thousands of different proteins can be found in wheat grain. Some of them we didn’t even know existed before this research was undertaken.
We know when they are made during grain development and we know if they are also found in other parts of the wheat plant such as the leaves, stems and roots. Each of these long wheat grain proteins are digested in our gut to become short peptides.
That means there are hundreds of thousands of different peptides that can be derived from wheat. Most are harmless and good nutrition but for some people, a set of them will make us unwell.
Single out the proteins
Only now that this mapping of the wheat proteome has been completed can we measure each protein separately and see how abundant they are in different varieties of wheat.
This information enables scientists to use mass spectrometers to sift through proteins and peptides by subtle differences in their weight – a difference that can be smaller than the mass as a proton.
We can literally dial up the masses of a particular set of peptides and set the mass spectrometer to work measuring them. The technology is at the cutting edge of new blood tests for disease. It can now be applied to make new measures in wheat.
This means we have a remarkable new opportunity to see wheat in a novel way – as a complex set of proteins that can work for us, or against us.
This breakthrough not only shows us the list of proteins in grain. When paired with wheat genome data (information about the complete set of genes in wheat) it tells us for the first time which of the 100,000 different wheat genes are responsible for making each of the proteins.
Armed with this new information, things really can change. We will ultimately be able to determine which proteins in wheat are causing people to feel unwell. We will then be able to breed wheat varieties that contain less or none of the proteins responsible.
These kinds of selective changes in wheat protein content don’t need to stop at aiding those intolerant to today’s wheat. They can enable wheat varieties to be tailored to make wheats that are better for baking or brewing or thickening.
They can even help us to breed wheat that is better able to survive in harsh environments, to adapt to changes in climates and is better suited to more intensive farming.
This is important because wheat is not just an integral part of the western diet. It is also part of an international plan to raise crop yields to ensure we have food for the estimated 8.5 billion people across the world by 2030.
Safe, benign, abundant, cheap, high quality wheats with protein contents ready for many different applications are a key part of food security and a fairer future.
With one of the wettest winters on record for much of Australia, there is continual discussion around the increasing Murray River flows. With one common question asked being, what height are the flows actually going to reach and what effect will this have on rural communities?
In 2011 daily flow was 93 GL which resulted in flooding of low-lying flood plains in the Murray River system. In 1993 the Murray River peaked at 111 GL per day.
Currently, the Murray River flow is sitting at 93 GL per day with a peak flow estimated around 100 GL per day during early December. To put the current river flow into perspective at this time last year the Murray River flow was just 6 GL per day increasing to 6.5 GL in early December.
The obvious effect of the increase in the Murray River flows is the risk of flooding in low-lying riverside shack areas, across roads and through national parks. Often less thought about is the effects of tourism in the region.
Many regional areas along the Murray River system are bracing for their peak annual tourist season across the summer holiday period. The question on everyone’s mind is, what impact media flood talk have on tourists set to travel to riverside towns?
The upswing from such high inflows is the effect of the local ecosystem as waters moving across the floodplains initiates the food chain. Frogs are starting to excel, yabbies’ are breeding and the Murray Cod is seeing its best breeding year in 20 Years.
To the agricultural community, one of the best things is the increase in water allocations, which were sitting at 30 percent for many water license holders earlier in spring. This will offer renewed confidence in this season’s forecast. Farmers and growers will be happy to be able to plan and accommodate the additional water.
With increased rainfall and favourable seasonal conditions throughout most of Australia, we keep hearing about a likely booming cropping season. However, many paddocks are waterlogged, some disease ridden and temperatures have been up and down – so what is harvest really going to look like?
ABARES predicted, in 2016-2017 winter crop production will increase in all states. Which is the first time this has happened since the 2007-2008 cropping season. Other forecasted figures of interest to consider are:
46.1 million tonnes is the amount of total winter crop production expected (+16%)
The predicted gross value of crop production is $29.2 billion (+6.6%)
28.1 million tonnes predicted for wheat production (+16%) and 9.5 million tonnes for barley (+11%)
3.6 million tonnes predicted for canola production (+23%)
Summer crop production predictions remain positive with an estimated 4.8 million tonnes (+28%)
Overall if these predictions prove correct, this will be a booming cropping season lets hope harvest achieves these forecasts. However, some of the highest yields on record come with challenges. There will be an increased demand for transportation, handling and storage of grain.
The familiar bright yellow Cavendish banana is ubiquitous in supermarkets and fruit bowls, but it is in imminent danger. The vast worldwide monoculture of genetically identical plants leaves the Cavendish intensely vulnerable to disease outbreaks.
Fungal diseases severely devastated the banana industry once in history and it could soon happen again if we do not resolve the cause of these problems. Plant scientists, including us, are working out the genetics of wild banana varieties and banana pathogens as we try to prevent a Cavendish crash.
The cautionary tale of ‘Big Mike’
One of the most prominent examples of genetic vulnerability comes from the banana itself. Up until the 1960s, Gros Michel, or “Big Mike,” was the prime variety grown in commercial plantations. Big Mike was so popular with consumers in the West that the banana industry established ever larger monocultures of this variety. Thousands of hectares of tropical forests in Latin America were converted into vast Gros Michel plantations.
But Big Mike’s popularity led to its doom, when a pandemic whipped through these plantations during the 1950s and ‘60’s. A fungal disease called Fusarium wilt or Panama disease nearly wiped out the Gros Michel and brought the global banana export industry to the brink of collapse. A soilborne pathogen was to blame: The fungus Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense (Foc) infected the plants’ root and vascular system. Unable to transport water and nutrients, the plants wilted and died.
Fusarium wilt is very difficult to control – it spreads easily in soil, water and infected planting material. Fungicide applications in soil or in the plant’s stem are as of yet ineffective. Moreover, the fungus can persist in the soil for several decades, thus prohibiting replanting of susceptible banana plants.
But the Cavendish unfortunately has its own weaknesses – most prominently susceptibility to a disease called Black Sigatoka. The fungus Pseudocercospora fijiensis attacks the plants’ leaves, causing cell death that affects photosynthesis and leads to a reduction in fruit production and quality. If Black Sigatoka is left uncontrolled, banana yields can decline by 35 to 50 percent.
Cavendish growers currently manage Black Sigatoka through a combination of pruning infected leaves and applying fungicides. Yearly, it can take 50 or more applications of chemicals to control the disease. Such heavy use of fungicides has negative impacts on the environment and the occupational health of the banana workers, and increases the costs of production. It also helps select for survival the strains of the fungus with higher levels of resistance to these chemicals: As the resistant strains become more prevalent, the disease gets harder to control over time.
To further aggravate the situation, Cavendish is also now under attack from a recently emerged strain of Fusarium oxysporum, known as Tropical Race 4 (TR4). First identified in the early 1990s in Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia, TR4 has since spread to many Southeast Asian countries and on into the Middle East and Africa. If TR4 makes it to Latin America and the Caribbean region, the export banana industry in that part of the world could be in big trouble.
Cavendish varieties have shown little if any resistance against TR4. Growers are relying on temporary solutions – trying to prevent it from entering new regions, using clean planting materials and limiting the transfer of potentially infected soil between farms.
Black Sigatoka and Panama disease both cause serious production losses and are difficult to control. With the right monitoring in place to rapidly intervene and halt their spread, the risks and damage imposed by these diseases can be considerably reduced, as has been recently shown in Australia. But current practices don’t provide the durable solution that’s urgently needed.
Getting started on banana genetic research
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the sad history of Gros Michel, it’s that reliance on a large and genetically uniform monoculture is a risky strategy that is prone to failure. To reduce the vulnerability to diseases, we need more genetic diversity in our cultivated bananas.
Over a thousand species of banana have been recorded in the wild. Although most do not have the desired agronomic characteristics – such as high yields of seedless, nonacidic fruits with long shelf life – that would make them a direct substitute for the Cavendish, they are an untapped genetic resource. Scientists could search within them for resistance genes and other desirable traits to use in engineering and breeding programs.
To date, though, there’s been little effort and insufficient funding for collecting, protecting, characterizing and utilizing wild banana genetic material. Consequently, while almost every other crop used for food production has been significantly improved through plant breeding over the last century, the banana industry has yet to benefit from genetics and plant breeding.
Researchers now have the tools to identify resistance genes in wild bananas or other plant species. Then they can use classical plant breeding or genetic engineering to transfer those genes into desired cultivars. Scientists can also use these tools to further study the dynamics and evolution of banana pathogens in the field, and monitor changes in their resistance to fungicides.
Availability of the latest tools and detailed genome sequences, coupled with long-term visionary research in genetics, engineering and plant breeding, can help us keep abreast of the pathogens that are currently menacing the Cavendish banana. Ultimately we need to increase the pool of genetic diversity in cultivated bananas so we’re not dependent on single clones such as the Cavendish or the Gros Michel before it. Otherwise we remain at risk of history repeating itself.
Younger farmers on family farms are more willing to accept outside investment and even ownership, whereas older producers are wary of this type of equity and would rather pursue niche markets, a new study has found.
The study features interviews with 12 producers from Queensland and northern NSW and 13 agricultural investment professionals from Queensland, NSW and Victoria.
The farmers interviewed include five that have experience with raising capital or who had started to and seven who were trialling different types of horticulture as a way of testing how to finance a new venture.
The most common scenario in Australia for farm investment at the moment is an outright purchase of a folio of properties operated by employed farm managers. This is because farmers are unwilling to share their land.
The study shows there is an emerging class of investor that is looking more closely at investment arrangements with family farms as an option to outright acquisition.
The younger farmers in the study were open to this type of off-farm equity because they felt banks would not provide the service they needed. One young farmer commented:
“We have carried out some expansion here and have used debt financing to do that, and that was a lot harder to get those loan applications through…We have actually just appointed an advisor with the view to looking at finding a partner to come into the business.”
Those who were older and less open to outside investment, found it harder to see a return on the effort it would take to expand their business. One older farmer said:
“I would only be interested in expanding if my son came back in to take over the business. I don’t have the energy to do it alone.”
They were also less willing to satisfy the financial reporting requirements from outside investors.
Admittedly this is not easy. For farmers to secure local or foreign off-farm investment, they need to produce business plans which look ahead as far as 10 years and be prepared to commit to a rigorous reporting process.
There are also potential impacts of working with an outside investor including: the dilution of returns, potential loss of control and the complexity associated with dealing with a third party. In most cases operational control of the business remains with the producer while the investor is involved in strategic decisions, regardless of whether the investor owns more or less than 50% of the business.
Overall, farmers in the study seem keen to look at alternative capital-raising, but they had little or no understanding of the process involved in pitching their farm business to a prospective partner.
This seems a shame, because investors are willing to listen. Many are looking to diversify their portfolio by adding some Australian agricultural investments to the mix to supplement their interests in other sectors or countries.
Investors can offer family farm businesses the skills to access new markets, as well as adding to their own business portfolio. Farmers seek out investment partners who value their skills, but do not seek to micro-manage; they do, however, recognise the importance of more frequent reporting at key times like harvest to keep their investment partners up to date.
Like producers, investors chase an increase in land values of around 5-7% and a cash return of 4-5%, and private investors are sometimes prepared to accept a lower level of return than institutional investors. Other investors may have different business goals such as securing a supply line to their profitable overseas business operations and may be prepared to accept a lower return on investment if satisfies a strategic objective.
And unlike banks, investors want a stake in the profit but can also weather a loss on the venture.
Investment advisers from the study indicated that family farms also need to target the right type of investment partner because different investors will want to spend different amounts. For example, private investors tend to seek a spend between A$3 to A$20 million, smaller institutional investors have a minimum range of A$25 to A$50 million and large institutions like superannuation funds generally want to invest a minimum of A$100 to A$150 million on a property or aggregation.
Younger farmers with a strong business mindset are no longer constrained by family equity in the farm and bank lending policies. This study shows they are willing to take the opportunities to grow their farms exponentially, respond quickly to market opportunities and work with strategic partners.
In recent years, we have seen incredible changes to the world of agriculture and growers of wheat crops are now seeing a new reward in the shape of protein levels. In many regions, growers are considering a late application of nitrogen not to boost the final yield but to increase the level of protein found in the yield to target the premium.
Between hard wheat and general purpose pay grades, there is thought to be around $40 per tonne difference which is leading many growers to consider this new tactic. However, many industry experts believe that it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Although it is possible, many believe it to be a tough balance to master and even after this, growers will also need a healthy dose of luck.
Dr Rob Norton, International Plant Nutrition Institute, has said that the opportunity to increase protein levels does exist but it needs to be done economically. For example, an increase of one percentage point to 11.5% could allow for a premium but a difference of one percentage point up to 9% wouldn’t have the same effect. It’s fair to say, the debate will roll on for some time to come and it could lead to some more interesting developments.
With that being said, there is a new variety of wheat that many people are turning to and this has been given the name of ‘tungsten’. Having been developed over a period of ten years, tungsten seeds produce the highest amount of protein out of any wheat on the market and grows most efficiently in the sandy soils of Western Australia. For the country as a whole in terms of exports, this is huge news because it could mean that the area’s wheat can finally compete on the global market. Whereas other countries have been able to produce high protein wheat for some time, this is new for Australia and is expected to provide a million dollar boost to the export market.
With Southeast Asia as the biggest customer, around 90% of Western Australia’s wheat is exported but this is limited somewhat by the lack of protein. With many bakeries in Asia requiring high protein levels, they have to import from other locations in order to meet the demand. After many trials of tungsten, experts believe that a 14% level of protein can be reached which is more than sufficient for the Asian market.
All in all, this is great news for agriculture and a huge step forward for the future. If WA can become a staple in the global market, opportunities will be aplenty in the coming years and the rewards will soon be felt from this.
Research from north Queensland could massively reduce the negative damage the agricultural industry causes to the global environment.
Rocky De Nys, the professor of aquaculture at James Cook University (JCU) in Townsville, is part of the CSIRO study analysing the effect that seaweed has on the amount of methane a cow produces. The researchers discovered that adding some dried seaweed to the diet of a cow could reduce the amount of methane they produce almost entirely. De Nys said that they started out with 20 species of seaweed and experimented until they discovered the best seaweed for the job; Asparagopsis Taxiformis.
Professor De Nys says that methane gas makes up the majority of the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the agriculture industry. He also believes the findings could have a positive effect on climate change. He also corrected the popular myth and clarified that cows emit more methane gas from their mouths than their rear ends.
Make an artificial cow’s stomach using pieces of real cow stomach
Collect some microbe-filled rumen fluid
Add grass and other substrates to the rumen fluid
Add dried seaweed and let it ferment
Measure methane levels in the gases produced from the fermentation process
Refine method to find the best results and test on real animals
The researchers have already had some success with sheep. By making 2% of the sheep’s diet asparagopsis then they would produce between 50 and 70% less methane over a three-day period. This shows precedent that it would work with cows.
Research into the effects the seaweed would have on cattle productions will be conducted at CSIRO Lansdown and the trials will last through to mid-2017.
Logistically, would feeding dried seaweed work?
It would be too expensive to harvest wild seaweed and there isn’t enough out there, so where will they get it?
There are a few options such as:
Partner up with people who are able to cultivate seaweed themselves
Team up with allies in South-East Asia, where seaweed is already being farmed by the tonne
Attempt to create their own seaweed cultivating industry somewhere in Australia.