The sunshine harvester and the Ridley stripper

Adelaide Botanic Gardens sowed a crop of wheat in May. While the budget is difficult the intent isn’t to sell the harvest. This year is the Australian Year of the Farmer and the crop is intended to connect visitors with our dependence on plants and their stewards – the farmers that literally put bread on our tables. The crop is about 425 square metres – if successful, sufficient on the Adelaide Plains to keep a family of four in bread for a year. A family can drive through the wheatbelt farms inside Goyder’s Line without registering the fundamental equation that the crop is transforming sunlight into a form of energy that sustains us – the literal transformation of light that we can utilise to make our hearts beat Perhaps in the Botanic Gardens the intimacy of the crop will help to tell that story.

Botanic gardens’ role in this arena is hardly new. Adelaide Botanic Gardens owe their origins to Colonel Light’s Plan of Adelaide and a committee of the Royal Agricultural & Horticultural Society that would have seen the Gardens’ roles in crop introduction and agricultural extension as paramount Mid-North farmer Don Whiting’s remarkable display of historic wheat varieties (together with breads baked from some of these varieties) in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany remains the most visible reminder of these origins. The selection of suitable wheat varieties by Gardens’ director Richard Schomburgk, amongst others, together with the port access offered by South Australia’s Gulfs and the invention of the Ridley stripper saw South Australia’s wheat production the highest in the country by the 1880s. Wheat remains critical to South Australia’s economy.

The origins of wheat cultivation are found in the Middle East (the so-called Fertile Crescent) around 10,000 years before present. This landmark shift from hunting and gathering to cultivation is described as the Neolithic Revolution – a revolution perhaps driven by the ending of the Ice Age and sea level rises. Indeed, one view of the Neolithic Revolution sees the expulsion from the Garden of Eden as a historical event (with the Garden now lying under the Persian Gulf) that drove a previously laissez-faire approach to agriculture to a necessity: ‘In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread, till though return unto the ground.’ Wheat proved amendable to cultivation and storage. The importance of the domestication
of wheat remains apparent today – wheat is critical to world food security accounting for around 20 percent of human calorific intake.

The consequences of the Neolithic Revolution are profound and are often seen as the beginning of civilisation through the storage of agricultural surpluses and the consequent establishment of cities and their complex differentiation of tasks and social structures. However, the origins of agriculture in the Neolithic Revolution reflect necessity and opportunity rather than a revelation. Prior to the Neolithic Revolution humans certainly managed landscapes to enhance the availability of edible plants and wildlife. Agriculture as we know it required the right opportunity in terms of soils, climate and plant genetic resources, and the necessity for a change from managing landscapes. Indigenous Australians managed Australia’s resources effectively in a capricious environment without recourse to domestication and cultivation.

With any luck the Gardens will be able to harvest a crop. There is, of course, no certainty – the expectation of harvests representing a return on investment is often in sharp counterpoint to the reality of rain, wind, fire, disease and market economics. South Australian poet and farmer Geoffrey Dutton’s Harvest is a poignant reminder of the reality:

Waiting for my golden harvest to begin …
Gold cannot tarnish … Oh no?
Look at my rusty wheat. and my neighbour’s?
Fat crop foiled, ringbarked by fungus.
He rolls an ear in the crater of his hand,
Stirring with a noise as thy as dragonfly’s wings.
When he blows withered husks
Winglike chaff and a dust
Of red rust flows from the shrivelled grain.’

Rust is today better controlled through resistant wheat varieties. However, rust remains a potent threat and plant breeders and agronomists are in a race to keep ahead of new rust varieties. The challenge of producing food to support the world’s current population of seven billion, let alone a potential population of 10 billion by 2050, remains as significant as that at the Neolithic Revolution. Wheat, farming and farmers all have to continue to adapt to address climate change, soil management, increasing energy and fertiliser costs and disease threats. So, it’s worth paying some attention to something we’re too often inclined to take for granted – the importance of the plant, the plant breeders, agronomists and farmers that literally put bread on our tables.

The Australian Year of the Farmer 2012 is a year-long program of activities conceived by NSW-based farmer Philip Bruem AM, and former Sydney Markets CEO Geoff Bell to celebrate the contribution farmers and rural communities make to our national economy and society. The Year was launched by the Governor General at Sydney Botanic Gardens, the site of Australia’s first farm, and recognises what farmers do for all Australians in feeding the nation and world, and celebrates the innovation that’s been critical to successful farming in Australia.

More information is available at yearofthefarmer.com.au

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 June 2012.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.

@StephenJForbes
@BotGardensSA

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