Farmer of the Year attributes success to surrounding himself with positive people

April 11, 2016

Grant Sims is having a hectic start to the year. Actually, last year was pretty hectic as well. And now that he’s been named Victoria’s Farmer of the Year, it’s likely the hectic schedule will continue.

Vic No-Till was lucky to catch him for an interview for the magazine, but in his true nature he took a big chunk out of his busy day to share his story. It is a testament to why so many other growers, journalists, agronomists, soil scientists and farming groups turn to him for advice, and hang off his every word.

When we spoke, he’d just come inside for a quick bite of lunch after helping load bags of seed for Minyip grower Brad Leith, who was all fired up to plant his first winter cover crop after returning from a US Study Tour in February.

The day before Grant was on his tractor sowing his own two cover mixes – which contained some new ingredients. One part was corn, sorghum, soya beans, tillage radish, canola, oats, cereal, rye and field peas. The second mix was the same minus the cereal rye plus faba beans and vetch.

He put the new mixes together building on what he’s done in the past and new knowledge gained on the US trip. Every plant has its own job for improving the soil and over the past few years Grant has been perfecting the mix. What he saw in the US has helped filled in some more missing puzzle pieces.

“There are certain plants that are key ingredients we always use, then we mix these with plants that fill holes, plants that add more diversity and plants that do the job our normal rotations don’t do. Last year we sowed winter covers on part of our irrigation and they did pretty well so this year we’re planting on all the irrigation.”

He says the biggest challenge will be sourcing seeds for cover mixes at a price they can afford. He says American growers can source whatever seed they want, sesame seeds, buckwheat, linseed and more. “They’ve got such a huge array of choices and they’re cheap because so many people are growing them because so many people are buying them. I think this will start to happen in Australia when more farmers look at introducing different cover mixes into their rotations and the demand is there.”

Motivated to grow covers

Grant says everyone on the trip has returned motivated and ready to make changes and try covers back home as soon as possible.

“For the whole three weeks we were away it couldn’t have been drummed into us more or made more clear that we’ve just got to try it, we’ve just got to get covers into our systems. There were no mixed messages at the conferences or in the car with the Americans who showed us around. Everyone we were with, they were all singing the same song.”

Grant says the trip has also made him rethink his wish list, the things he needs to create the most sustainable and profitable zero-till farming system possible in his hot and dry Northern Victoria climate zone.

“We’ll be keeping on with a lot of stuff we’ve been doing with covers and companion cropping but hopefully a bit better with the really valuable stuff we learnt on the trip. Not only from the Americans but the really valuable stuff we learnt from the other Australian growers and agronomists we travelled with. We had a chance to ask lots of questions and pick each other’s brains about machinery setups, header settings, air seeder settings and so on. Everyone on that trip had something to give; we just learnt so much from each other.”

Finding the best fit for covers is an ongoing challenge but one Grant is determined to meet.

“In high rainfall areas it’s a lot easier because they have excess moisture problems and can use covers to pull the moisture out, they’re a perfect fit. But in the dryer areas it’s hard to get your head around. How can we get those covers to work when we’re trying to conserve moisture? That’s a thing we have to learn, and work with it. There are ways, but people just have to be prepared to think outside the box and try it.”

Roles plants play in soil

Grant says he was impressed by the level of knowledge from the people they met in the US about plant species and the roles each play in the soil.

“The advantages and disadvantages for every single plant – they’ve got such a wide knowledge on that. They are thinking differently. The farms we visited, they used to think the way an Australian farmer does which is how can we get a machine or input to address that problem? But these guys were farming with nature. Instead of fighting against it or manipulating it, they’re working with it. It’s easier, in a way, to do it like that. There are challenges but now it’s just a matter of taking this new knowledge and getting it to work back home.”

Grant is also having a fresh look at his row spacings. Currently on wide spacings of 13” (330mm) he is keen to go narrower. In the US many farms they visited were on 7.5” (190mm). Grant used to be on 8” (200mm) rows, but faced challenges because their tyne machine couldn’t handle the trash he wanted to keep to cover his soils. After seeing wider rows in the Wimmera, they went wider to solve this. But now they have a disc seeder, which can chop through the residue easily, he thinks they can go to 10” (250mm). Once they try that they’ll see if they can go narrower still.

Stripper front

The trip has also inspired Grant to look more seriously at investing in a stripper front. As reported in the Summer Vic No-Till magazine, Grant was pretty excited during Harvest15 when Shelbourne pulled into his paddocks with their stripper front as part of a Vic No-Till demonstration tour. Once it was attached, and started working, he didn’t want to give it back because of the efficiency gains and the extra cover on their soils it could generate. The front is right at the top of his list after seeing how many growers in the US were using them.

He says this would be another piece of the puzzle, another step towards perfecting their system.

“Our system is like putting stepping stones in place – controlled traffic, disc seeder, broad range/diversity of rotation, stripper front. Once we had our controlled traffic running we knew we needed to go to a disc, but we had to get out paddocks right first. Last year we sowed our whole crop with an NDF disc seeder and I believe the stripper front will help take things to the next level.”

New lease of life for others

Grant says the trip has opened his eyes and given him, and others he travelled with, a new lease of life. It is also benefiting others who were unable to go on the trip, like one of his friends, North-Central grower David Cook, who attracted widespread interest over summer with his sunflower cover crop.

“David’s been doing good work with covers and thinking outside the square for a long time, and although he’s been to America on a Nuffield Scholarship to study cover crops, he says it’s just great to talk to us because it gives him a breath of fresh air and keeps him going to keep trying new things. Someone like him who’s been innovative for a number of years, doing it differently from everyone around him and feeling like he’s doing it on his own, having others be so enthusiastic is a new lease of life for him too.”

The face of modern farming

Not long after returning from the US Grant, wife Naomi and their three children travelled to Melbourne for the Weekly Times Coles Farmer of the Year awards. They were one of three finalists, along with Vic No-Till life member Chris Drum, in the cropping category.

After winning the Cropping Farmer of the Year award they went on to win the overall Farmer of the Year, with judges citing their commitment to innovative cropping and sharing information that put them in the top spot.

Grant says the recognition was appreciated, not only for him but for everyone around him like his wife, children, parents, their farm employees, agronomists – right down to the blokes who make their fertiliser.

“The process we have taken hasn’t always been wasy because we’re doing something really different, so when we get recognition like this it’s really rewarding for us all. This is a real team effort and it’s nice to see people start to realise there’s probably something in what we’re doing that makes sense.”

The story spread far and wide, both online and in printed newspapers including The Weekly Times and The Herald Sun. Weekly Times editor Ed Gannon, who also writes a column for The Herald Sun, described Grant and Naomi as ‘The modern, field-smart face of Australian farming’. Gannon starts his piece with: “This is the face of farming. Good, modern, profitable farming.”

Grant says he enjoyed the positive media coverage the awards generated for all innovative farmers.

“I don’t watch the news because when you turn it on first thing in the morning it’s always negative and the worst way to start your day. So it was good to have a positive story in the news that week.

“It’s like life in general, people can be down about the season and the rain but you can’t change it. So I look for things to be positive. I look at the soil and say, ‘You beauty! Things are happening!’ Then you hear so many times when it rains ‘I only got 5 to 10mm’ but I say ‘It’s better than 1 to 5’. Naomi has taught me all of that. She’s a really positive person and that rubs off on me. If you surround yourself with positive people, it’s a nicer way to live your life.”

Farmers helping farmers

Grant says this quest for remaining positive is what prompted him to join the Vic No-Till committee.

“Part of the reason I joined Vic No-Till was their massively positive approach to farming – from all the magazines I’d read and talking to other members, it was the direction I was already going and I feel they are thinking about soil health the right way.

“Plus the wealth of experience within the organisation, there’s some real experience and a huge amount of knowledge within Vic No-Till, and I don’t know anywhere else where you can get all that.

“Every time someone comes here to see what I’m doing, or I go to their place to see what they’re doing, a door opens. It makes you think and ask questions – I love that whole practical approach to farmers helping farmers.”

So what next for Pine Grove?

Cattle. Grant says since seeing snow-covered cattle on the South Dakota Prairies he can’t get them out of his mind. He says they were everywhere, but it wasn’t like they were either a rancher or a cropping farmer – they were both. They use them as a tool to knock about big corn residues before they put crops in as well as a tool to add biology to the soil through their manure.

“They call them the ultimate fertiliser spreaders over there, because they wander all over the paddock and scatter fertiliser everywhere.”

Pine Grove used to run sheep but got rid of them to focus on achieving a zero-till system. And he’s really enjoyed not having sheep.

“But since the trip I can’t stop thinking about cattle. I’m lucky because we’ve got a lot of cattle blokes around us, so I can try them for short amounts of time on and off covers on lease or agistment.

“If I can see that working I can look at buying young heifers and turning them out onto covers for a short time. I’m lucky because I have irrigation, and so they’ll always have something to eat inbetween when the dryland is getting going. I can see good value in turning dry matter into meat and getting paid per kilogram of meat instead of per kilogram of grain.

“It’s another way of spreading risk and diversifying a bit. That’s something I think we’ll look at doing. It just looks right.”