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Sustainable and Conventional Agriculture in South-Eastern Australia - A Comparison

Wynen, Els (1990) Sustainable and Conventional Agriculture in South-Eastern Australia - A Comparison. Economics Research Report, no. 90.1. School of Economics and Commerce, La Trobe University, Melbourne.

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Summary

A survey of sustainable cereal/livestock farmers in South-Eastern Australia in 1985-86 is described in this study.
The first conclusion is that the average net financial results of producers who farm without the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides can not be seen to be different from those obtained on comparable conventional farms in 1985-86.
The sustainable farms were in areas with similar climate and soil quality (as measured by improved capital value per hectare) to that of their conventional counterparts. The use of less fertilisers per cropped unit of land on sustainable farms is therefore not due to the intrinsic quality of the land, but to a conscious decision to adopt an approach to farming very different from the conventional production system. The fact that some farmers tending towards sustainable practices, especially those in relatively marginal cropping areas, were still using some synthetic fertilisers indicates that not all problems have been solved regarding soil fertility and alternatives to conventional inputs.
Several methods were used by sustainable farmers to prevent loss of soil fertility. First, the percentage of arable area cropped was kept down. On average the fully sustainable (fs) farmers cropped less than half of the arable area, while the conventional neighbours of the fs farmers (the cfs farmers) cropped more than three quarters. All of the fs farmers cropped less than their conventional counterparts. This was not true for the semi-sustainable (ss) producers, whose cropping percentages were, on average, much closer to those of their conventional counterparts (css).
Soil fertility was also maintained by the use of animals. However, no statistically significant differences in number of livestock were recorded between the two systems per hectare grazed.
A third possible method of maintaining soil fertility is by diversifying crops. Although no statistical differences in number of crops were recorded, the percentage of cropped area in wheat was lower on sustainable than on conventional farms.
Most of these management tools (levels of cropping and stocking, and diversification of cropping) can be used not only to solve soil fertility problems, but also in the battle against pests. With regard to mechanical pest management, differences in cultivation practices were not immediately obvious from figures on fuel costs per hectare cropped. Also timing of cultivation was similar in the two systems, although sustainable farmers tended more towards the use of tined implements.
The differences in management practices did not lead to significant differences in yields. However, the sustainable farmers did obtain lower receipts from cropping per hectare operated. This was due to a smaller cropped area as a percentage of arable area. These lower receipts are at least partly compensated for by lower input costs of fertilisers, pesticides, and especially machinery and equipment.
Receipts from livestock per hectare operated were similar under the two management systems, for those pairs of farmers where both kept stock. When all eight fs and cfs farmers are included a difference can be shown for this variable.
Overall, the total cash costs of sustainable farming were significantly lower than those of conventional farming. Total cash receipts, though not different between the two systems for the fs-cfs and ss-css farmers separately, was higher for the conventional farmers if all 13 farmers were pooled. The bottom line, return to capital and management adjusted for interest and rent, was that a difference between the two systems could not be shown statistically.
Apart from indications of differences between sustainable and conventional farmers, a picture of differences between the fs and ss group of farmers emerged. The css farmers, although selected in the same way as the cfs producers, showed some characteristics distinct from those encountered amongst the cfs farmers. On average, the pattern of inputs for the css farmers indicates that it is likely that they farm in more marginal areas than cfs producers (for example, relatively low land prices), where cropping is relatively extensive (for example, relatively low use per hectare cropped of pesticides, fuel, machinery and equipment, and labour).
The question could be asked whether there is a causal relationship between the degree of adoption of sustainable farming and the degree of marginality of the area. If a relationship could be established, the question arises whether the reasons for such a relationship are agronomic problems, or whether they are different in nature. For example, in marginal cropping areas the area in crop per farm is relatively large, with low returns per hectare. Although input costs per hectare are also low, total expenditure on inputs per average farm is relatively high. This could imply that higher risks are taken by sustainable farmers in marginal areas than by those in non-marginal area when adopting a management system about which little information is available. It is only when the cause of a relationship between the degree of acceptability of the sustainable system and the degree of the area's suitability for cropping is established, that a beginning can be made with answering the question about the limits of sustainable agriculture.
It is unlikely that differences between practitioners of the two systems in formal and informal education, experience, and knowledge of local conditions influenced the relative financial returns of the two types of farming. Likely differences in management skills between some pairs of farmers probably depressed average returns on sustainable farms. It is also likely that lack of information about sustainable farming negatively influenced the financial returns from this type of farm system.
In summary, the results from the survey indicate that net private financial benefits from sustainable farming were similar to those in the conventional sector in certain areas in 1985-86. This was the case despite lack of information about the sustainable management system, and despite the fact that some conventional farmers were likely to be better managers than their sustainable farmer counterparts.


EPrint Type:Report
Subjects: Farming Systems > Farm economics
Crop husbandry > Weed management
Crop husbandry > Soil tillage
Crop husbandry
"Organics" in general > Country reports > Australia
Crop husbandry > Production systems > Cereals, pulses and oilseeds
Animal husbandry
Research affiliation: Australia > Other organizations
Deposited By: Wynen, Dr Els
ID Code:3062
Deposited On:26 Jul 2004
Last Modified:12 Apr 2010 07:29
Document Language:English
Status:Published
Refereed:Not peer-reviewed

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