Day 3 of the CSC was mostly taken up with learning about a large industrial complex situated just out of Reims known as the ‘Industries and Agro-Recourses Cluster’. The complex contains several world-class facilities dedicated to Bio based products and bio refinery. The facilities included a wheat and sugar-beet refinery, which we were able to tour and it was an impressive place. Refining over 1 million tons of wheat into ethanol annually and a large number of sugar-beets also. Impressive scale. The facility was receiving over 2000 Tons of wheat per day. Most of the by-products were able to be used as animal feed or turned into spreadable fertilisers for nearby farmers.
The complex also contained a pilot cellulistic ethanol plant that is able to turn almost any organic matter, that is, anything that was once or still is a part of a plant. Very futuristic but expensive and capital intensive. It’s hard to know if a plant like this could even exist without the huge government subsidies and support programs that seem to exist over here.
Our first speaker on Day 4 was one of the highlights of the conference for me. His name was Frederic Thomas and he’s an arable farmer and also involved in a magazine called TCS France which is loosely translated as ‘French No-till Farmer.’
His talk was around the state of conservation agriculture in Europe and particularly France. For those of you playing at home, conservation agriculture has been widely adopted in Australia. It’s a broad term that means different things to different people, but the heart of this method of farming is abandoning the millennia old practice of tilling (working /ploughing) the ground and attempting to mimic nature in the way it looks after the soil.
This way of farming has lead us to be able to achieve things that many never thought possible, including growing break-even or profitable crops with only 200mm of rain on them. Frederic took us on a thought provoking journey into this system in France, a place with conditions vastly different to our own.
Some of my notes from the session:
Around 1/3rd of arable land in France is no-till.
- 10% followers
- 10% for savings
- 10% involved in Conservation Ag
Soils are worn out from 1000-2000 years of farming!
Direct drilling doesn’t always work straight away. Often have to regenerate soil beforehand.
Some farmers using strip tilling to help with transition. Often direct injecting slurry while they’re at it.
If you employ someone you look after them. Do the same to your earthworms!
Only nutrients that can be introduced by cover cropping are nitrogen and carbon.
Cover-crops are an extra energy source for the soil.
Water holding capacity increased from 35mm to 180mm on his farm.
Cover cropping works well here because the French have an excess of something that we lack in Australia. Water. Frederic receives 800mm of rain or more per year and he is able to convert this extra water into free nitrogen and carbon by growing legume cover crops. There are some trials going on with cover cropping in Australia at the moment and it will be interesting to see what results they come out with. I doubt the principle will work the same at home, but the point is well noted that we need to consider ways we can better look after our soils and bugs and life that live in it.
My takeaway line in my notes from his session was If you increase your soil fertility you need less water. We’ve certainly done this at home. But how can we keep going?
The two other speakers of note for the day both spoke around the related themes of genetics in plants and genomics in animals. The takeaway from these talks was that modern breeding techniques are blurring the lines between what is commonly known as a GMO and a conventionally bred plant. If a plant is developed using GMO techniques, but it cannot be distinguished from one that isn’t, is it a GMO? As it often does, science is going ahead of current laws relating to this technology.