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Ditching the Plough: A social history of how Western Australian farmers started a revolution in their paddocks that gave us modern farming

Fulwood, Jo (2021) Ditching the Plough: A social history of how Western Australian farmers started a revolution in their paddocks that gave us modern farming. Masters by Research thesis, Murdoch University.

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For thousands of years, farmers have ploughed their paddocks prior to planting a crop. This method of planting crops, using soil cultivation, was passed down through the generations, almost as a cultural ritual, with the primary purpose of burying the weeds to create a clean seed bed. Documented research results in Western Australia (WA) from as early as the late 1920s, demonstrated the yield advantages of planting a crop at the break of the season (April/May). Because few other options were available to them, growers had no choice but to wait until the weeds germinated before cultivating (ploughing) the soil, often several times, before planting a crop. In the mid to late 1960s, coinciding with the push by ICI Australia to sell its revolutionary Spray.Seed® herbicide, grain growers began to experiment with a new planting technique called direct drilling, minimum tillage or chemical ploughing. This was the forerunner to the modern day no-till movement. This method was based on the simple premise of spraying the herbicide on the paddock to kill the weeds, followed closely by planting the seed directly into the soil, thereby either reducing or eliminating cultivation from the system. Further, in the late 1970s, environmental pressures, particularly relating to the need to reduce water and wind erosion following extensive cultivation, forced farmers to innovate, and consider other ways, besides ploughing the soil, to plant a crop. This research project examines these various motivations behind the adoption of this revolutionary style of farming, the reasons why adoption stagnated across the grain growing regions of Western Australia and tells the stories of some of the first and early adopter growers. Through a series of semi-structured one-on-one in-depth interviews with five participants, this thesis documents the social history of this turbulent time in agricultural history, recording the stories of the people who were part of this global revolution in food production. The interviewees have all detailed their experiences in the practical implementation of using the direct drilling method in combination with the Spray.Seed® product, the relationships they made throughout this time, the events and meetings they attended, the responses they received from other industry participants, the environmental benefits they saw over time, and the business profitability achieved by committing to a vision of minimum cultivation over the longer-term. The interviews have captured the memories of the first and early adopter growers and a ‘pioneering’ agronomist who were bold enough to defy thousands of years of cultural tradition by removing multiple cultivations from their seeding strategies. Discussion centres on the geographical, social, and technical barriers that created a delay in industry-wide adoption, despite the repeated demonstration that this new strategy was clearly, in hindsight, more profitable and more environmentally sustainable than the traditional method of planting a crop using cultivation. This research also demonstrates the critical importance of documenting human stories before they are lost forever.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters by Research)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): College of Arts, Business, Law and Social Sciences
Notes: Research Masters with Training
Supervisor(s): Trees, Kathryn and Archer, Catherine
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