South Australia

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Why is South Australia relevant to the WANA region?


     South Australia has a climate and terrain similar to Tunisia.

Adelaide the principle city is on almost the same latitude south as Tunis is north.

Adelaide has a similar annual average rainfall and a similar pattern of rainfall during the winter as Tunis.

The winter temperatures are mild and frost is rare.

Summers are hot and dry.

Again all characteristics are similar to Tunis and many other North African cities.

North of Tunis and south of Adelaide and in the hills the rainfall increases.

This is the High Rainfall Zone above 500 mm annual average. South of Tunis and north of Adelaide is the Cereal Zone where the rainfall is between 200 mm and 500 mm and the terrain open plains that are cultivated and sown to cereals.

Even further south of Tunis and north of Adelaide one reaches the Rangeland and then the desert.

Soils and topography

As well as the climatic similarities and those of hills and plains the soils in the Cereal Zones are neutral or alkaline in both regions.

In the High Rainfall Zone the South Australian soils tend to be acid rather than neutral or alkaline where as the Tunisian soils usually have a pH of 7 or more.

Farming enterprises

    The principle livestock are sheep and cattle in both countries.

The major cereals are wheat and barley while grain legumes such as chick peas, lentils etc. are grown in both countries.

Tunisia has more camels in the rangeland and desert than South Australia where the numbers are small and of these only a few are used for tourism.

As well as the dryland farming both countries grow similar tree crops such as vines, olives and almonds.

Tunisia has a thriving date industry that does not exist in South Australia but there are greater similarities than differences in the agriculture.

The dryland farming systems are now quite different.

The most notable difference is the South Australian use of pasture legumes.

They are everywhere.

They are used on rough grazing land in the Cereal Zone.

They are used in the High Rainfall Zone.

They are used in rotation with cereals on arable land.

Their impact on livestock production is enormous. The use of legume pasture has been developed in South Australia from the same base of exploitative fallow as in Tunisia.

Until the 1950's the common cereal rotation was fallow and wheat. The soil was eroded by wind and water.

Fertility was low and livestock production was low.

The use of pasture legumes has transformed the farming system.

Many agricultural experts have said that Tunisia and other countries in the WANA region suffer from over-grazing. That is the pastures are too short. They fail to provide a complete cover of the ground and produce much less than their potential.

From a South Australian perspective over-grazing is not the problem in WANA but under-pasturing.

South Australia supports many more sheep and cattle and more abundant pastures as well.

The secret is the legume pastures.

Where did the legume pastures come from?

     The pasture legumes came to South Australia mainly from the WANA region and the Mediterranean countries to the north.

The more recent pasture cultivars came directly as the result of scientific collecting expeditions from Australia.

The early cultivars came accidentally as contamination in cereal and other seeds.

The story of the last two hundred years is the development of legume pastures in South Australia and their destruction in the WANA region.

I hope in these case studies to try and explain why and how the two regions took such different paths.

Early farming in South Australia - shallow cultivation is rediscovered. 

    The significance of South Australia as a case study in farming development for the WANA region is the remarkable innovations in legume pasture.

Why then is shallow cultivation so significant? 

The importance of shallow cultivation was not realised until the 1970s when FAO tried to develop medic pastures in rotation with cereals in Algeria and found they were destroyed by the use of deep ploughing during the cereal phase. The deep ploughing buried the medic pods so deep that there was little regeneration.

The shallow cultivation story is also useful as an example of the difference between farming knowledge and scientific expertise.

Prior to 1836 there was no farming in South Australia.

The aborigines who were the occupiers of the vast territory of South Australia before the Anglo-Celtic invasion did not farm.

They were hunter gatherers.

The new settlers from Britain quickly took up farming and found the land and the climate hostile. 

Unlike a modern farming development project there were no land capability studies nor was the climate understood.

The new settlers came from a northern temperate region of Europe with cold winters and wet mild summers. They found a Mediterranean climate (although it took some years for them to realise that was what they had) in South Australia.

The settlers came with tools and ploughs purchased in Britain that reflected the advances in deep ploughing that were being made at that time.

The use of iron and steel mould board ploughs were a great advance in the 18th and 19th century.

They provided much better weeds control in temperate climates with summer rainfall.

Weeds were cut off by the plough and then turned over by the mould board and buried under a thick layer of soil. To work effectively the soil layer needed to be at least 20 cm and was often 30 cm or more.

Problems with deep ploughing and the development of shallow implements.

The settlers had an immediate and urgent need to cultivate the land and sow crops for their physical survival as well as their economic prosperity.

They had brought deep ploughs from Britain.

The arable land was open forest and grassland.

There were many stones and tree stumps.

There was a shortage of animals suitable for traction and there was a shortage of farm labour.

The history of shallow cultivation over the next few decades from 1836 has to be inferred.

There are plenty of historical records describing the shortages of traction animals and farm labour.

There were many complaints about the stones and tree stumps but there is no record of a single inventor of shallow cultivation yet this was the immediate response to the farming challenge.

We know the first ploughs were import English models and we know from museum pieces that shallow cultivation became the norm over the next few decades with implements designed for that purpose but we do not know who made the design changes.

Later in 1876 the stump jump mechanism was developed by R. B. Smith but the earlier design modifications to British ploughs was made by many unnamed blacksmiths and manufacturers.

The stump jump plough was one that allowed individual tines or mouldboard to ride over a stump or stone without stopping the whole plough or breaking the implement.

The early ones consisted of an arm with weights.

Other mechanisms were developed and now, many generations later, we have spring and hydraulic releases.

The major design modification required for shallow cultivation was to have more closely spaced tines (for a scarifier) and more mouldboards for the plough. The reasoning is explained through diagrams in Buyers guide to scarifiers

South Australian farmers were lucky.

Again we can infer this from modern research.

When deep ploughs are used for shallow cultivation they perform badly.

Weed control is poor and yields will sometimes decline.

The South Australian farmers presumably first used their imported deep ploughs at a shallow depth.

They were fortunate that the flora of the Australian grasslands did not contain any aggressive weeds of cereal crops.

The poor standard of cultivation was probably of little importance.

Weeds were quickly introduced as a contamination of cereal seeds and all the common Mediterranean weeds were soon found in South Australia.

Some were even more invasive than they were in their home land as they usually came without their natural insect and fungus predators.

Presumably by this stage farmers, blacksmiths and manufacturers had modified the deep ploughs or built new ones that worked efficiently at a shallow depth.

Shallow cultivation strengthened

The use of shallow cultivation rather than the British or European technique of deep ploughing would perhaps have faded into the background of folk farming.

It was one of those things that Australian farmers did as a matter of course without comment.

However in 1882 the South Australian Government decided to establish an Agricultural College to bring science to farming.

They appointed J. D. Custance from England as the first college principal. Custance was appalled at the apparent slovenliness of shallow cultivation and immediately stomped the countryside calling on farmers to abandon it and take up deep ploughing as practised in Britain.

The farmers were furious at the slur on their farming skills and argued fiercely that deep ploughing was costly and impractical in the climate and soils of South Australia. Custance left South Australia having failed to convince the farming community but deep ploughing was advocated by his successor, Lowrie, although in a less aggressive manner.

The extraordinary aspect of the debate was that is was carried out without any research base.

The farmers supported shallow cultivation on the basis of their practical experience.

By this period they had overcome the shortage of traction animals.

Many stumps and stones had been cleared so it was theoretically possible for them to return to deep ploughing.

The argument being put forward by Custance and others from the new Department of Agriculture was based on the superior wisdom of science from Europe not research results. It was not until 1912 (thirty years later) that experiments were conducted to attempt to prove the argument.

    Table 1.

Yield of wheat with different depth of cultivation.   Average of 14 years to 1926 (Spafford 1927)

Depth of cultivation in cm

  Yield of wheat kg/ha.













    These experiments conclusively proved the superiority of shallow cultivation and the farmers were confirmed in their use of it.

In spite of the conclusive experimental evidence the Department of Agriculture continued to suggest deeper ploughing until the retirement of Perkins (the then Director) in 1934.

  The scientific community in South Australia does not cover itself with glory in the shallow cultivation debate.

Of course Custance should have revisited the question in 1882 when he became Principal of Roseworthy Agricultural College as economic circumstances had change since the pioneering days of 1836.

Instead of relying on the automatic superiority of British science he should have confirmed his ideas with experimental evidence from trials conducted in South Australia.

One should not criticise all agricultural scientists because Custance was obsessive about deep ploughing but his successors although less abrasive in their attitude to farmer knowledge followed the same path and took 30 years to resolve the debate through scientifically conducted experiments.

There are other aspects of the debate that have not changes in a century.

The Spafford experiments (Table 1 above) were conducted with implements designed for shallow cultivation because they were readily available. They had over the last 80 years become the default position in South Australia.

Deep ploughs would have had to be specially imported.

While it has been proved that deep ploughs function poorly when used at a shallow depth for which they were never designed no one considered whether the reverse was true.

Like modern scientists Spafford simply set the ploughs a various depths without considering whether these were greater or less than their design parameters.

Finally while farmers emphasised the practical difficulties and costs of deep ploughing the scientists only considered the depth - yield relationship.

Costs, speed, early sowing and all the other aspects of shallow cultivation were ignored in the South Australian experiments in the 1910s as they were in Algeria in the 1980's and later.

Transfer to WANA

    Whole question of depth of cultivation faded back into one of those folk farming techniques that South Australian farmers carried out as a matter of course and the issue was only revived in the 1970's when legume pastures returned to North Africa.

The first projects were in Libya and the Libyan authorities decided to adopted the whole Australian package.

Medic pastures were sown and shallow cultivation was used.

It was a great success.

I do not know whether Bashir Jodeh saw the importance of shallow cultivation for the regeneration of medic. I doubt it.

The Australians at that stage certainly did not. I think he used shallow cultivation because it was cheap and effective.

A little later FAO established a medic project in Algeria.

The FAO team deconstructed the medic package into its components which were treated separately.

Medic pastures were sown.

There was little grazing management as medic was considered to be a green manure.

Deep ploughs were used as was normal in Algeria and the whole medic system collapsed in failure.

Various consultants from Australia were asked to examine the reasons for failure and Ted Carter from the Waite Institute in Adelaide showed that deep inversion ploughing destroyed the medic pod reserves in the soil by burying them so deep they could not regenerate in future years. He advocated the use of tined scarifiers and seeders as used in South Australia.

He even provided photos of these machines in his reports and was accused of being a machinery salesman for his efforts.

The lack of understanding of shallow cultivation as a different system with different implements is still not widely understood thirty years later.

In the WANA region shallow cultivation was the default position for most farmers using animal traction.

The use of tractors expanded greatly in the middle of the 20th century and deep ploughing arrived with mechanisation as the mechanisation concepts were firmly based in European and US agriculture.

The driving force for deep ploughing was a tradition or cultural bias.

The few experimental results available indicated that deep ploughing was better in terms of yield than shallow cultivation with animal traction.

This indicated the poor quality of the local implements rather than the depth of ploughing.

Shallow cultivation with modern implements produced the same or better yields than deep ploughing but this experimental evidence could not prevail against deep cultural traditions of Europe and USA.

Deep ploughing become the normal practice and was totally unquestioned until the medic system was introduced into the WANA region in the 1970s.

The failure of many medic pastures to regenerate after deep ploughing made people realised that deep inversion ploughing was burying the pods so deep they could not germinate in future years.

While some countries took up shallow cultivation because it was cheaper, easier and faster the majority saw it as an unfortunate aspect of the medic system that had to be over come.

    Like the Australian scientists in the 1910s most of the WANA scientists conducted poor experiments with implements designed for deep ploughing.

It is hardly surprising that the results were erratic. They also failed like their Australian counterparts to consider shallow cultivation is terms of speed, cost and early sowing.

    In Libya, Iraq and Jordan shallow cultivation was adopted either as part of the medic system or independently as an efficient means of cultivation and sowing.

Elsewhere in the WANA region it ran into problem within the agricultural bureaucracy who had little practical experience of farming. They were convinced that the scarifier and seeder push was a disguise for selling Australian farm machinery.

Their lack of practical experience also made it difficult for them to understand the cost structure of the new machines.

A scarifier may be more expensive than a deep plough but it is twice as wide and does more than twice the area.

It replaces two implements and is therefore cheaper than the deep plough.

The same applies to the tined seeder.

Now that the bureaucracy has withdrawn from these mechanisation decisions and left it to the market the situation is no better.

The Europeans or European subsidiaries of US companies dominate the market and find it easier to sell the equipment used in Europe rather than the implements adapted to the Mediterranean climate.

The large companies all have the designs for shallow cultivation as they sell them to Australian farmers through their Australia outlets.

Harvesting the cereal crop. 

    Labour shortages were a crucial factor in the early days of farming in South Australia.

They were particularly important at harvest.

The crops were harvested by hand.

The cereal varieties imported from Britain easily shed their grain in the hot summer winds.

Losses were considerable if harvesting was delayed.

    The crops were cut with a scythe.

The cereal was bundled into a sheath and tied.

The sheaths were stacked and then threshed at a convenient time.

Every operation required large amounts of labour.

Until the cereal sheaths were stooked or stacked they were vulnerable to loss by shedding in hot winds.


The story of mechanised cereal harvesting is one of mechanising each separate hand process step by step.

South Australia is an exception.

Elsewhere mowers replaced the scythe.

The cut cereal was still collected into sheaths by hand until the binder was invented in England and USA at about the same time.

The binder cut the cereal and tied it into sheaths.

The sheaths were collected and stacked.

Mechanical threshers and winnowers separated the straw from the grain and chaff.

Finally the binder and the sheath was abandoned and the thresher taken directing into the crop as a combine harvester.

In South Australia a completely different concept was developed in 1843.

The South Australian reaper or stripper rearranged all the traditional processes in a new order.

The invention is usually attributed to Bull although it was manufactured by Ridley and became know as the Ridley reaper.

The machine threshed the grain directly from the head as the crop was standing in the field.

The front of the machine consisted of a comb that entered the crop.

Above the comb was the thresher drum which beat the grain and chaff from the heads and flung it back into a box.

The box was emptied and the grain and chaff were separated using a winnower.

The original machines were simplicity itself.

A comb, a thresher driven from the ground wheels and a box.

Later it was found that a knife that cut the heads rather than stripping them was more efficient.

Even with the addition of a knife the machine remained simple and cheap with only four or five moving parts. See Stripper

In terms of labour productivity one man could cut and bind 0.4 ha of cereal in six hours. The stripper, pulled by a single or two horses could harvest and thresh 4 ha in a day.

Later in the 19th century the winnower was added to the stripper to produce a combine harvester that produced clean grain and like its European and US equivalents dumped all the straw and chaff back on the field as waste.

The Australian machinery had arrived at the same point as the rest of the world even if they had taken a completely different route.

It is more than an interesting piece of technical history because the original stripper had set high efficiency standards for low yielding crops in hot climates.

It was capable of harvesting crops with yields of only a few hundred kilos per hectare with very low levels of harvest loss.

When combine harvesters replaced the stripper on Australian farms they had to meet the same standards. Australia has continued to produce modification to the international combine harvesters to maintain high levels of efficiency in low yielding dry crops.

The stripper has disappeared in Australia but would be an ideal machine for small farmers in the WANA region.

The productivity level of 4 ha a day is less than the area a combine harvester will harvest in an hour but that is assuming large open fields and uniform crops.

In small fields the stripper can be more effective.

The first South Australian machines cost about E 40 each in the 1850s.

Even today they could be produced for E 1000 to E 2000 or a tiny fraction of the cost of a combine harvester.


    Custance the first Principal of Roseworthy Agricultural College brought other ideas from England besides the belief in deep ploughing.

Super phosphate had been invented at Rothamstead in the 1850s was was being used with great effect in Britain.

Custance immediately advocated its use in South Australia.

Unlike the deep ploughing story he embarked on a series of experiments to prove his belief and the positive benefit of super phosphate on cereal yields.

He tried to persuade farmers but with little success.

He advocated very high application rates without any apparent calculation of the cost benefit ratio. For more than a decade Custance and his successors at Roseworthy tried to convince farmers on the effectiveness of super (as it quickly became know) but the uptake was extremely low.

In 1896 a farmer named Correll reported at a farming improvement conference that he had mixed super with the cereal seed and sown them together.

With a rate of only 125 kg per ha he had achieved a yield increase in the cereal crop similar to those achieved with 500 and 600 kg on experimental plots where the fertiliser had been broadcast.

The process of mixing seed and fertiliser was labour consuming but farmers found it worthwhile and two years later 20,000 ha of cereals were sown in this manner.

Machines were soon developed to sow seed and fertiliser together without the tedious mixing before hand.

By 1910 80% of the cereal crops in South Australia were sown with super using placement.

Super factories were built to meet the huge demand for fertiliser from farmers.

The story of phosphate is a triumph of science and practical farming knowledge but that is not how it was reported.

Credit (deserved) was given to the scientists at Roseworthy for bringing super to South Australia but the role of Correll and other farmers in turning an expensive idea into a practical farming technique has received little attention.

One can draw parallels with the Fleming and Florey's discovery of antibiotics. Fleming made the initial discovery but it remained unusable until Florey and others turned scientific oddity into practical medicine.


    Nitrogen fertiliser was part of the British technical package brought to South Australia in 1882 by Custance and he quickly advocated its use on cereal crops.

Unlike super phosphate the experimental results proved inconclusive.

In some dry years the cereal yields declined.

He dropped nitrogen from his extension message to farmers.

More experimental work was carried out at Roseworthy Agricultural College over the years by Custance's successors but the results continued to be confusing and the scientific community began to look elsewhere for a source of cheap and reliable nitrogen for cereals.

While modern Australian agriculture uses a great deal more nitrogen fertiliser it has arrived at this point though a long period of using legume nitrogen. Nitrogen is seen as a supplement to the major organic sources of nitrogen not as a total replacement.

The scientific culture is most important.

In Australia the early experiments seem to have established a culture where nitrogen fertiliser was used sparingly and was not seen as the major source.

In the WANA region agricultural science is more closely connect to Europe and USA. Scientist trained in those regions returned to WANA and tried to develop similar continuous cereal farming systems based on large amounts of nitrogen fertiliser.

By the 1960 and 1970 it was obvious this would not work but the scientific culture remains firmly rooted in nitrogen fertiliser as the main source for cereals.


    "Fallow" is one of the most confusing of agricultural terms.

It means "resting the land between cereal crops."

That sounds a good idea in theory.

However is the land really "working" for the sake of a cereal crop to feed humans?

What is the "work" carried out?

Why does a "rest" help the land to recover energy?

Early in South Australia's farming history the land was simply left to grow volunteer weeds and grass as a rest fallow between cereal crops.

Towards the end of the 19th century the idea of the cultivated fallow became common in scientific circles.

The concept was based on poor initial science combined with a failure to adapt to the dryland Mediterranean climate.

The cultivated fallow was designed to conserve moisture.

By killing the weeds on the surface of the soil and cultivating the soil frequently to produce a "dust mulch" it was believed that soil moisture would be conserved for the subsequent crop.

Cultivated fallows of this type do work in certain environments.

In the Mediterranean they can transfer winter rainfall to spring growing crops such as vines or olive.

In tropical climates summer rain can be stored and used by crops in autumn and winter.

There are other examples of short term transfers that work effectively.

The cultivated fallow that was used in South Australia in the 1890s onwards was much more ambitious.

The land was fallowed in the spring by killing the weeds through cultivation.

There were more cultivations during the summer to kill more weeds and produce the infamous dust mulch.

The cereal crop was sown in the following autumn.

In Fallow moisture storage   I show that the storage of moisture from one winter over the long hot summer to the following autumn and winter is insignificant and totally uneconomic.

    However fallow worked ....................... why?

It might have been based on a moisture storage fallacy but it was very effective in increasing cereal yields.

Roseworthy Agricultural College advocated fallow and farmers needed little encouragement as yields were good after fallow.

It is possible to see in retrospect and from the Waite Institute long term rotational trials that the yield increases were due to better weed control and the mobilisation of organic nitrogen in the soil.

Before the era of herbicides the cultivation of the weeds in spring to prevent them producing seed was an effective means of reducing infestation in the following autumn.

Cultivation also mobilised the nitrogen in the soil as it began the process of breaking down organic matter.

... but not over time.

There were enormous costs that only became obvious over time.

The frequent cultivation of the soil destroyed the soil structure which combined with bare soil over summer created the perfect environment for increased erosion by wind and water.

The number of dust storms and their severity increased.

Water erosion created gullies and gutters that made arable land usable.

The mobilisation of soil nitrogen was also an illusion.

Once the initial fertility of the soil had been mobilised yields decline as nitrogen was not being replaced.

There was fierce debate in the farming and scientific community.

It was recognised that fallow was the problem but is was also the solution.

It became an article of faith that wheat (but strangely not other cereal crops) had to be grown after fallow.

The arguments went round and round in circles.

Farmers had to grow wheat therefore they had use fallow but fallow was causing soil erosion and had to be replaced.

The experimental work was narrow. Fallow - wheat rotations were compared with wheat- wheat or wheat - barley rather than longer term rotations with pasture.

The Department of Agriculture encouraged farmers to partake in wheat yield competitions where wheat after fallow always won.

The cost of the fallow year in terms of lost production or the increased erosion was not offset against the wheat yield and the glory of winning the prize.

As a case study the South Australia experience is similar to WANA although the great expansion of cultivated fallow in the WANA region seems to have taken place much later.

There is some evidence that it became the dominant farming rotation in the middle of the 20th century.

In the Algerian case study I compare South Australia in the 1930s when the cereal-fallow rotation was at its peak with Algeria in the 1970s when fallow was still the dominant rotation.

The reaction of the South Australian and WANA scientific and technical communities to the fallow problem have been very similar.

There has been no lack of excellent analysis.

The fallacy of moisture storage was quickly understood.

The erosion problems described and tackled through contour banks.

The decline in soil fertility over time was measured. Economic analysis has not been as good in either region as there has been excessive concentration on the costs and returns from cereal crop rather than the rotation as a whole.

However taken as a whole little has been achieved.

South Australia held endless conferences, enquires and commissions on the problem of the fallow and WANA has done the same but one can only say they jumped up and down in the same place.

The problem of the fallow was solved in South Australia with the medic system (see below) but this was developed by farmers not the scientific community.

It is difficult to understand why so many decades of analysis and debate produced so little but in retrospect it is possible to see that the focus was too narrow.

The fallow problem was considered to be a problem for cereal agronomists and soil scientist.

Livestock and pastures were separate sections of the bureaucracy with their own fields of activity.

The arable land of the cereal zone was the province of the cereal agronomists who had too narrow a focus to solve the problem of the fallow.

Pasture legumes.

    The pasture legume story does not start on arable land with the medic-cereal rotation.

Medics in rotation with cereals have been transferred back from Australia to the WANA region and the earlier role of pasture legumes on the parcour or rough grazing has been forgotten.

The initial break through came in 1887 from a farmer and nurseryman, Amos Howard, who noticed the strong growth of sub clover (T. subterraneum) on his land at Mt. Barker in South Australia.

Sub clover is not native to South Australia and it had been introduced over the previous fifty years accidentally from the Mediterranean region.

No doubt it had been used by shepherds in the Mediterranean countries for centuries as sheep feed but Howard's contribution was to identify it as a useful pasture species.

He wrote about the benefits of the clover, talked to his neighbours and began to harvest the seed pods and sell the seed.

Sub clover as identified by Howard is the basis of a totally different farming concept - the self- regenerating annual legume pasture.

The agricultural establishment at that time saw farming in European terms of annual crops such as wheat and barley which were sown by the farmer and perennial species such as white clover, lucerne or rye grass that formed a pasture for many years.

Unfortunately these perennial pasture species are not well adapted to the long summer drought found in the Mediterranean (except for lucerne).

The self regenerating annual legume forms a well adapted pasture that is "perennial" in the sense it lasts for years but each year regenerates from seed.

The use of Mt. Barker sub clover slowly spread in South Australia in the region with more than 600 mm.

Sub clover pastures allowed farmers to greatly increase the number and quality of their livestock. In fact the "sub and super" formula became the slogan for developing the parcour.

The Department of Agriculture noticed the spread of sub clover among farmers but took little scientific interest in it.

It was not until 1924 - about 35 years after Howard's original articles on sub clover - that the Department conducted experiments to measure the productivity of sub clover pasture.

Even then their curiosity was strangely limited.

Mt. Barker had limited application as it was a long season cultivar suitable to regions with more than 600 mm. It was not until the 1930's that another farmer in Western Australia found a cultivar suited to lower rainfall zones.

After that the search for new cultivars exploded.

Many new cultivars were discovered in Australia and expeditions sent to the Mediterranean region to collect wild plants.

The development of the parcour had a dramatic effect on sheep and cattle production not just in South Australia but throughout Australia.

It was an excellent and simple technical package that produced highly profitable results for farmers.

The greatest increase in the sub and super formula on the parcour was in the 1950s during a period of high prices for wool and generous tax incentives from the government. Except for the 1950s wool boom livestock returns are generally low in Australia but the cost benefit ratios for the sub and super package were so good that millions and millions of hectares of pasture were developed using the technology.

In the WANA region the sub (or medic) and super package has had little impact.

Knowledge of the system dates back to at least the 1950s and the FAO publication "Legumes in Agriculture."

There have been some developments in Tunisia at Sejnane (high rainfall) and at Souaf (low rainfall).

In Libya  in the low rainfall regions of the Benghazi Plain, Wadi Karouba and Wadi Al Bab.

In Iraq at J'Ravi.

However these are all isolated projects and there has not been the spontaneous take off of pasture development by farmers as in Australia.

The lack of take off is surprising as the returns from livestock in the WANA region are on average three or four times higher than Australia which should provide a considerable incentive to develop more productive pastures.

On the technical side the "sub and super" tag provided a neat slogan but was a barrier to some who did not realise that the package was really "self regenerating annual legumes and super phosphate" and not limited to subterranean clover.

Most of the high rainfall parcour in Australia has acid soils that are suited to sub clovers but the same concept can include medic and a wide range of other annual legumes with the same characteristics.

These alternative species would be better adapted to the parcour of the WANA region.

As well as need to slightly adapt the technical package there have been other barriers.

Much of the parcour in common grazing (for example at Sejnane, Benghazi Plains etc.) and the pasture development program needs to be linked to new management systems.

A very high proportion of the development of agriculture in the WANA region over the last 50 years has been bureaucratically led. The driving force has usually been government projects and programs.

Unfortunately pasture (except in the rangeland) has been the orphan of the bureaucracy.

Agricultural bureaucracies divide immediately into a plant division and an animal division.

The plant people are interested in crops - cereals, legumes and tree crops.

The livestock people in animals and grain feeding.

Pastures receive a low priority.

Medic rotation

    The medic-cereal rotation was developed by farmers in South Australia.

It is not possible to identify a single farmer or even a group that made the vital changes to the fallow-cereal rotation.

The evidence shows that farmers in South Australia were interested in various medics from the early part of the 20th century with burr medic (M. polymorpha) receiving the most attention.

The vital ingredients of the medic system were already in place.

Farmers were using shallow cultivation as a matter of cost and effectiveness.

They were applying phosphate to their cereal crops regularly and residual levels were building in the soil.

The critical barrier to the medic was the fallow.

Cultivation in the spring destroyed the medic pasture and no seed was produced for future regeneration.

It seems (although it cannot be proven) that barley was the key.

For some reason the belief in fallow applied only to wheat.

On the heavier soils the most common rotation was fallow-wheat.

If barley was grown it was after wheat.

On the lighter soils of the Yorke Peninsular high quality malting barley was grown instead of wheat and without fallow.

Farmers noticed the spontaneous growth of medic in the cereal stubble after barley.

They applied more phosphate, increased their sheep flocks and the medic system was borne.

Some of these medic pastures from the 1930s still exist and have not been re-sown.

It seems that the first medic rotations were based on the spontaneous regeneration of a range of local ecotypes.

An important advance was the identification of barrel medic (M. truncatula) as a productive medic which caused much less wool contamination than the common burr medics.

Alf Hannaford, a seed merchant, inventor and seed cleaning contractor became a strong advocate of barrel medic (or barrel clover as he called it) in the 1930s.

He developed medic seed production and advertised and sold the seed throughout South Australia.

While he played a most important part in the widespread use of medic he never claimed to have discovered barrel medic or invented the rotation.

After the 1930s the use of fallow declined and medic rotations increased but the great take off period was the 1950s when improved livestock prices encouraged cereal farmers to spend more on pastures.

The South Australian Department of Agriculture adopted the medic rotation on one of its experimental farms in the 1950s.

The system expanded widely throughout Australia and many more cultivars were developed to expand the range of medic into low rainfall areas.

The early cultivars were mostly collected in Australia.

These were medics that had been introduced accidentally over the previous 100 years.

Over the next few decades expeditions were sent to the Mediterranean, WANA and other regions to search for even more ecotypes that could be developed as usefully pasture cultivars. In the 1970s this work reached a new level of urgency with the introduction of a new group of pasture pests and the need to find resistance cultivars.

Transfer to WANA

    A great deal more effort has been put into the reintroduction of medic (as a medic-cereal rotation) into the WANA region than the development of the parcour.

Every country has had at some stage a medic program.

Knowledge of the system was slow to move out of Australia.

The 1953 FAO publication "Legumes in Agriculture" makes a passing reference to annual medic but does not explain the rotation.

One of the authors was an Australian from the Waite Institute in Adelaide (which many years later received most of Alf Hannaford's legacy) but like the South Australian Department of Agriculture he was not aware of the system or its significance as a replacement to fallow.

The Waite long term rotation trials were altered in 1952 to include an annual legume pasture rotation.

The early 1970s saw the transfer to the WANA region begin.

All the governments and international agencies leapt straight into the medic-cereal rotation - that is the most difficult system involving annual legumes.

Later there were projects such as the one a Sejnane to develop permanent annual legume pastures but all the initial effort went into the rotation.

In retrospect it is easy to see this was a mistake and experience should have been gained with simpler medic pastures before tackling the rotation.

Two different models emerged.

    The Libyan model

    The Libyan model came in two variations.

On family farms

    In the eastern part of the country in the Jebel al Akhdar authority area (based on El Marj) the authority undertook a program of land reform.

Family farms were established and equipped and the medic system introduced by a combination of individual demonstration and more conventional extension.

On large project farms

    In the western part on the Jefara Plains Australian contractors established large medic and cereal farms which were later divided into individual farms.

    Whether the family farms were established before or after the introduction of the medic system is irrelevant.

The most important aspect of the Libyan model was the complete package.

The Libyans imported the medic seed, the farm machinery for shallow cultivation and the Australian farmers and technicians to make it work.

I do not know whether the Libyan planners were aware of the links between the various components of the medic system.

I doubt it.

The Australians certainly were not.

The Libyans simply observed the Australian system, liked it and developed it as a package.

The boldness of this policy can only be understood when it is contrasted with other countries that took the more conventional approach.

There is no doubt that it was stunningly successful during the 1970s and early 1980s. medic pastures were established.

Production of livestock and cereals was increased.

Other countries and organisation saw the Libyan approach as an extravagant use of oil wealth but as the decade progressed it became obvious that the Libyan success meant the costs were in fact much less than those countries who had a high level of failure.

The medic system declined on the 1980s.

The reasons will be given in the Libyan case study.

    The Libyan model was used in Iraq.

    The technical model

    The technical model is the more conventional approach to technology transfer.

Instead of the total package approach of the Libyans the technical approach starts more cautiously.

Trial plots are established and expanded through various bureaucratic institution until whole farms are involved.

The first example of the technical model was Tunisia where the medic system began with the posting of a single South Australian agronomist, John Doolette, to Tunisia by CIMYTT. 

He achieved an enormous amount.

Good medic pastures were established on cooperative farms and livestock production increased considerably.

Doolette was an agronomist with a brief to increase cereal yields.

In Australia cereal crops were at that time roughly three times more profitable than grazing sheep.

However the frugal Australian farmers did not waste the medic pasture but grazed it to achieve optimum sheep production.

It is not surprising that Doolette saw the medic as a manure for the cereal crop and thought that the grazing was of secondary importance.

Besides livestock was not his field of expertise.

A lack of grazing management was a serious problem for weed control and good seed production.

One cannot blame Doolette for not spotting the deep ploughing problem.

No one had at that stage.

During the 1970s deep ploughing was identified by Carter in Algeria as a problem but unlike Carter, Doolette felt it was something that farmers could cope with.

A bit of improvisation would suffice.

The problem is that implements have to be seriously modified not adjusted.

Besides, unless one knows what has to be achieved it is not possible to do so.

Deep ploughing continued as a problem in Tunisia for decade after decade.

Great medic pastures were established again and again (see the cover photos of our book "Sustainable Dryland Farming") but were destroyed or weakened by the cereal phase and had to be re-sown. The reaction of the government was to develop medic seed production rather than tackle the cause of the failed regeneration.

    Doolette and others missed the huge opportunities for developing the parcour with permanent medic pastures.

    The same technical model was used in Algeria by FAO with more money and more staff.

They took the fragmentation of the technology a step further.

Doolette while being principally a cereal agronomist had at least seen the whole system in operation.

FAO did not consider this knowledge to be necessary when they selected their initial team for the Algerian medic project.

The team members did not include a single person who had seen the medic rotation in operation.

This was not a coincidence as I discussed the matter with the managers in Rome later.

They saw no reason even after the failure of the project to select staff with practical experience.

They explained to me their policy of selecting the best people from anywhere in the world.

The best pasture person, the best cereal person and the best livestock person would be selected and the fact that none of them had ever seen or operated the medic system did not matter.

I was told they could read about it in the scientific literature and the project document told them what to do.

It is hardly surprising that the project would be such a resounding failure.

Later Australian experts were brought in to identify the causes of failure but by that time the project had run out of time and a large group of the Algerian bureaucracy had become disillusioned with medic.

    A decade later the same technically led model was used in Morocco.

By then there was greater experience in the WANA region and some Australian farmers were used as demonstrators but again the lack of implement for shallow cultivation proved a problem.

Into the 1990s

    The 1970s and 1980s was the era of medic projects throughout the WANA region.

The concept was still very firmly based in the Australian technology.

The short medic rotation was used in order to increase cereal production.

There were many problems of adaptation to the WANA region that slowly emerged.

They were gradually resolved and a new WANA system began to be developed but the governments and international institutions lost interest just as the system was evolving.

One of the great difficulties was that many solutions were farmer led and were not rapidly exchanged.

The withdrawal of the institutions from the medic system was a retreat to their traditional culture.

They had maintained their interest in nitrogen fertiliser over a period of fifty years in spite of the numerous failures.

They had advocated deep ploughing over the same 50 year period in spite of the damage it caused yet they dismissed medic after less than 20 years.

    The major adaptation problems for medic in the WANA region were:

    * Continued problems in sowing seed.

Farmers did not have the experience in sowing small seeds at low seeding rates into fine seedbeds.

    * Grazing the medic.

Farmers experience was vacuum cleaning weeds and stubble with hungry sheep not managing a pasture.

    * Deep ploughing during the cereal phase.

    The ICARDA pod harvester and pod broadcasting solved the establishment problem.

    Keeping the medic for a number years before sowing the cereal gives farmers time to gain grazing management experience and the use of straw in the sheep shed in winter provide local grazing techniques adapted to the needs of farmers.

    The Zaghouan 4 rotation solved the deep ploughing problem.

    Who will now advocate the medic system?

The Australians have lost interest and besides are unaware of the new WANA modifications to the system.

The agricultural bureaucracies through culture and training are firmly linked to Europe and USA.

Who can bring system together and promote it?


    There are plenty of statistics for South Australia that demonstrate in crude terms the effect of annual legumes on agricultural production.

 Table 1

    Cereal Production.


Output of cereals for the State of South Australia rounded.

1930 to 1950. Medic and other annual legumes beginning to be used in cereal zone but total area not significant. Fallow still dominant.

Average cereal production 1,000,000 tonnes.

1950 to 1960 Medic use begins to take off.

Average cereal production around 1,500,000 tonnes.

1960 to 1970 medic use widespread.

Average cereal production around 2,000,000 tonnes.

    The fact that these figures are taken over a decade means that good and poor season are generally averaged out.

There is still the effect of areas sown to cereals.

In general the area sown to cereals fell over the period 1930 to 1970 showing that yields increased by more than the 100% increase in total production.

It also shows that the "grow more wheat campaigns" that were a feature of South Australian and Italian policy during the 1930s and Algerian policy during the 1970s actually result in less production as the fertility of the soil is exhausted by excessive cropping.

Livestock numbers followed almost exactly the same pattern.

Sheep numbers rose from about 8,000,000 to 17,000,000 over the same forty years of the annual legume revolution.

Of course these were not merely grazed on the medic in rotation with cereals but also on the improved parcour.


    The story of Turretfield Research Farm is typical of the changes that took place during the legume revolution.

Turretfield is about 40 km north of Adelaide not far from my own farm.

It is mainly red brown earth (neutral pH) and black soil (alkaline) suited to sub clovers of the Clare group (in fact Rosedale sub clover was selected there)  and medic.

The farm was used by the South Australia Department of Agriculture for research and during the period from 1928 to 1958 for the production of cereal seed.

The rotation was an intensive fallow-wheat.

The structure of the soil was badly damaged and soil erosion became a serious problem. The Department reacted by covering the whole farm with a network of contour banks and grassed water ways.

    In 1958 the management was changed and annual legumes introduced.

It was not the first Department farm to use annual legumes.

The Research Centre at Minnipa had introduced medic early in the 1950s.

Nor was the Department the first to use annual legume rotations.

They were early adopters but by no means the first.

This is important in the light of the accounts given in the 1980s which implied that the Department of Agriculture had invented the medic system and promoted it among farmers.

The reality was that farmers had developed and used the system for decades and the role of the Department was to spread the knowledge and fine tune the range of annual legume cultivars. Both are valuable tasks for which they deserve credit but farmers should also be acknowledged as the initiators of the medic system.

The use of annual legumes had an immediate impact on livestock production.

Wool was the main livestock product.

Output increased from 5 tonnes average for the previous decades before 1958 to 10 tonnes, then 15 tonnes and finally reaching 17 tonnes by 1970.

The increased output was achieved with more sheep and higher output per head.

For cereals the story does not appear to be so dramatic as soils took longer to recover.

Yields during the fallow period had been 15 to 20 qx. per ha up to 1958.

After that they rose over the years to 35 in 1970.

    The new rotation rebuilt the structure of the soil.

Most of the contour banks became redundant and were levelled out to make working the ground and harvesting the crops easier.

Farmers as innovators

    South Australian farmers played an important role as innovators over the last 200 years.

Often their role was not acknowledged and often the innovations (such as shallow cultivation and fertiliser placement) were not even noticed by the scientific community.

As the scientists wrote most of the agricultural history they gave most of the credit to their own activities.

While it is important to recognise the fund of rural knowledge in the farming community and the innovations developed by farmers it is also important to establish mechanisms through which they can be extended more widely.

The story of sub clover in South Australia is an excellent example.

Over a period of 20 or 30 year it had an enormous impact in a small region around Mt. Barker where Amos Howard had made his original discovery but needed the Department of Agriculture and its extension services to take it to a wider area.

In South Australia farmers came together and discussed agricultural problems in Agricultural Bureaux.

The Bureau movement started before the Department of Agriculture and was a powerful force for information exchange among farmers as well as being a platform for Department of Agriculture's extension.

By the 1970s the Agricultural Bureau movement had run out of steam as the major extension arm of the Department of Agriculture but farmer activity continued in many forms.

In Western Australia farmers at Kondinin formed a group that gradually became a national force to evaluate farm machinery.

Mechanisation is the largest investment a farmer makes after land. It has traditionally been neglected by Departments of Agriculture throughout the world and where testing has been done as in Nebraska in the USA it has concentrated on the strictly technical.

The Kondinin Group approach has been to look at machinery decision in a much broader context.

They have provide the technical information publicly available in a consolidated and comparative form.

They have add price information including the cost of a weighted sample of spare parts.

They have established expert panels to assess machines and they have surveyed their own member to discover faults and establish "buy again" rates of approval.

The combination has provided farmers with powerful support in their machinery investment decisions.

In the WANA region many countries organised farm machinery through the Ministry of Agriculture and its related bodies. That policy is now in decline and farmers are in urgent need of similar independent information.

The Kondinin Group and the Agricultural Bureau also demonstrate the success of keeping technology and management separate from resource allocation.

These organisations and many more local Field Day groups keep strictly to a technology and management agenda.

Political action on resource allocation for farmers is left to other farmer groups that publicly campaign for more support for farmers.

As Minister of Agriculture in South Australia I felt this specialisation served farmers well.

They could maintain a constant dialogue with the Department of Agriculture on a technical and management level through one group while they might, through another group or association, be in conflict with the Department or the government as a whole over the allocation of resources to the rural community.

Farmer research

    Farmers in Australia have funded a considerable proportion of the agricultural research budget through special taxes on their output.

In world terms this is not common.

Tax payer funded research is the normal model and is only a small part of the huge taxpayer subsidy going to agriculture in developed countries.

The Australia research funds are controlled by boards who for many generations allocated the funds to the conventional research organisations.

Over the last several decades they have allocated a proportion of funds to farmer organisations such as the Kondinin Group or local Field Day groups to conduct trials.

The projects must be conducted rigourously and the farmers usually employ an academically trained consultant to ensure that the work meets statistical standards.

The major effect of this work has been to examine questions that conventional research finds too complex. For example rotational studies that not only look at the costs and returns but also the investment in machinery and risk.

Farming after 1970

    The medic revolution began in the 1930s on a few farms and then expanded exponentially in the 1950s to achieve widespread acceptance by the 1970s.

Since then there have not been any comparable "revolutions" in farming practice or rotations.

There has been a steady improvement in cereal yields through the use of herbicides, better management of fertilisers, improved cereal varieties and disease control. In fact all the incremental improvements that have been seen elsewhere in the world. 

The major difference in Australia is the cost pressures are much greater than anywhere else except New Zealand.

Australian farmers do not receive taxpayer funded subsidies on their cereals and livestock as farmers in USA, Japan and Europe do.

They are remote from their major markets in Asia and receive prices that have been discounted by freight costs.

They must reduce costs to a minimum if they are to survive at these low price levels.

Costs have been reduced by large scale operations but economies of scale are not the only reason for their low cost structure.

Techniques such as shallow cultivation, fertiliser placement and legume nitrogen all make efficient use of inputs.

Visitors to Australia are often dazzled by the scale and say that an Australian farmer with 2000 ha has nothing in common with a Tunisian farmer with 20 ha.

This is certainly true when one looks at tractors with 150 HP but the efficiency of resource use is just as relevant to the Tunisian small farmer even if it is achieved in another way.

Lessons to be learnt

    There are many lessons from South Australia that are relevant to the WANA region but one that has rarely been identified is INFORMATION OVERLOAD.

If we look at the development of the medic farming in South Australia we see that the starting point was probably the use of shallow cultivation in the first half of the 19th century.

This became the standard method of cultivation because it was cheap and efficient.

It had no connection with medic.

In the second half of the 19th century phosphate fertilisers were used on cereals crops.

Soil phosphate levels began to rise on arable land.

Annual pasture legumes were discovered at the same time.

They were used on rough grazing land not in rotation with cereals.

Farmers developed skills in grazing management for the pasture and the seed pods.

The middle of the 20th was the period when the medic system emerged from the spontaneous regeneration of medic after cereals. farmers were already using shallow cultivation.

They were applying phosphate to the cereals and there was some carry over to the medic.

They already had experience in grazing management for annual legumes.

They had to develop new techniques of weed control in the cereal crop without fallow. All the other aspects of the medic system were already common in the farming community.

    Contrast this with the WANA region.

Farmers adopting medic need to sow the medic.

This requires new techniques. They must understand grazing management for the green medic and the dry pods.

They need to use shallow cultivation for the cereal crop and abandon the fallow.

Most projects attempted to leap straight into the medic cereal rotation so all this information had to be acquired in two years.

No wonder farmers suffered from information overload.

The Zaghouan 4 rotation was developed to overcome the OVERLOAD problem.