Graduation address given by Professor Alex McBratney

Professor Alex McBratney gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Agriculture and Environment graduation ceremony held at 2.00pm on 4 May 2012 in the Great Hall. Professor McBratney is Pro-Dean, Faculty of Agriculture and Environment

The photo of Professor McBratney is copyright, Memento Photography.

Professor Gerard Goggin

Graduation address

Pro Chancellor, Deans, parents, families and friends, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, and most of all fellow graduates.

I am thrilled to be able to offer great congratulations to all of the graduates today. To celebrate your great efforts over a number of years on what is surely one of the most exciting days of your lives. May your hard work and knowledge gained - along with the imprimatur of this great institution - lead you onward and upward.

And on behalf of the graduates, of which I'm one, I'd like to thank all those who have helped us. Our parents and families, our friends, our mentors and instructors. Those who made coffee. Thank you. Even those standing behind me who may have -challenged - us at times. Thank you.

I am truly thrilled today. It has taken me 23 years to get here – hopefully longer than any of you – although there may be one – or two – not far behind. This tardiness may be well be a symptom of my inefficient scholarship but still I am ecstatic. Because - I believe in this great university and I am proud at last to be a graduate of it - and most of all - because I believe in agriculture. For me agriculture is a way of life, and agriculture is essential to humanity.

I come from a farming background – it now seems somewhat distant in time and space – but it’s very deep in the soul. My compatriot Robert Burns more than two centuries ago reflecting on his own agricultural work – upon turning up a mouse’s nest with the plough - wrote:

I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

And in that poem he presaged the contemporary emphasis of agriculture, increased production with reduced environmental consequences.

That was a little bit of Scotland but I really would like to concentrate on Australia. When I think of Australian agriculture I think of constancy, and of continual innovation.

Around the turn of the last century, 1900, there were three famous bush balladeers who wrote in the Bulletin. Only two of them are really well-known today – namely Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. The third was a Scot by the name of Will H Ogilvie who jackarooed up on the NSW Qld border between Bourke and Cunnamulla for a decade in the 1890s. He then returned to Scotland and wrote ballads of the Scottish border until the 1960s. His great mate and fellow balladist and stockman up there on the Darling was Harry Morant – of whom he wrote:

'Breaker Morant' was the name he earned,
For no bucking horse could throw
This Englishman who had lived and learned
As much as the bushmen know.

In Scotland around 1910 Ogilvie wrote an epistolary poem back to Australia lamenting the border country of north-western NSW:

Do the shearers still go riding up the Warrego to work,
Where the Thurulgoona woolshed flashes silver in the sun?
Are the bullock-teams still bending through the coolibahs to Bourke?
Is there racing at Enngonia?
Is Belalie still a run?
Do the Diamantina cattle still come down by Barringun?
Is the black soil just as sticky?
Is the mulga just as dense?
Are the boys still rounding cattle on the red Mulkitty plains?
Are there still some brumbies running on the Maranoa fence?
Still some horsemen always ready with more gallantry than brains
To race them through the thickest scrub with loose and flapping reins?

Well the answer then in 1910 - as it is now a century later - is essentially yes yes and yes – there’s definitely racing at Enngonia; I’ve seen that woolshed; they’re still running cattle - but they’re probably going by truck. And the black soil is just as sticky –perhaps a little stickier – through a loss of carbon.

So Australian agriculture - even in fragile environments such as the Warrego – is constant but adaptable. Australian agriculture in this sense is sustainable.

And why is Australian agriculture so successful? Part of the reason is attitude towards government. Something I realised after a quick trip round the world late last year. In Europe farmers put up with, work with, governments but they expect to be subsidised. In the US farmers detest the government, yet expect to be subsidised. In Australia farmers don't really mind the government but don't really expect anything from it. This leads to continuous innovation with 2.5% productivity increase per annum – for a long time Australia’s most efficient industry – backed by a peerless research record in science and technology. Food is now cheap - from more than 20% of disposable income in the 1950s to less than 10% today. Some would say too cheap. Agricultural production clearly has its impact on our catchments and we as a society expect our environment to be maintained in good condition. In the language of today we expect the farmers to maintain ecosystem services on our behalf - and at the same time to produce cheap and more food for us and the world. We need government on our behalf to put in place mechanisms to compensate landholders for the provision and maintenance of such ecosystem services. Some would say that this could be achieved at a stroke by putting a GST on fresh food and hypothecating that source of tax to provide ecosystem services. I guess none of our political parties currently have the intestinal fortitude for that.

We must continue to innovate to solve the world’s food security crisis and to do it sustainably. We are truly skilled at agriculture in Australia and we must take our ideas to the world. We should continue to develop our Australian agriculture and regional Australia and we should also build the high speed train lines, and develop a couple of new large cities to take the pressure off Melbourne and Sydney. We need to develop a country less tyrannised by distance. And if we must have coal-seam gas – and many would ask why not leave it subterraneously until we really need it – we need to figure out how collocated mining and agriculture can be better synergised. The only barrier to any of this is human capacity and will .

And the universities have their part to play. Universities are here to serve and lead the community sustainably. Universities need funding models that ensure that we don’t lose great swathes of our national capital of skill, knowledge and wisdom in agriculture. But it must be more than that – our universities need to encourage our youth who don’t yet realise the import of agriculture, and we need to be able to generate the knowledge and wisdom for tomorrow’s much increased food production.

Without agriculture there would have been be no cities no trade no civilization as we know it. Those of us who live in the cities might think it - but there is no - post agricultural society – we live here by virtue of all those who work on the land and produce our food and fibre. We still need to grow food and even more and more of it with less resources of soil, water and non-renewable energy per unit of production. E need to produce with more precision. And there my fellow graduates lies your future – that noble challenge – please take it up – it will reward you - and it will benefit humanity.

In the end - and you’ll be glad to know I'm at the end - I am truly optimistic about agriculture - about Australia - and most importantly about you. Have a little bit of poetry in your lives. Create - be imaginative- pass on your skills and knowledge to others - here - and across the world. In this way, we shall prevail.

Thank you. May the fourth be with you.