Syed Muhammad Ali: Diversifying farming through innovation and knowledge-sharing
Posted: 18 December 2018
Australia Awards alumnus Syed Muhammad Ali describes himself as a farmer, but his work involves much more than one would expect of a ‘traditional’ farmer in Pakistan.
Since taking responsibility for 500 acres of farmland ‘from his forefathers’, Syed has diversified from the general agricultural production sector to now include fish farming, fruit tree growing, new stock-feed legumes and greater use of available water resources, all using the latest farming methods.
Born and raised in the Southern Punjab region of Pakistan, Syed was one of 19 participants in the Integrated Water Resource Management Australia Awards Short Course in 2014. This course was delivered mainly in Western Australia, with a one-week session in Islamabad after the in-Australia component offered at the University of Western Australia.
Syed’s fellow Short Course participants included other farmers like him, teachers, water resource management officers, journalists and community service organisation representatives. Before meeting at the course, the participants were strangers with interests in the same sector. They then became colleagues, and have now progressed to being good friends who continue to share ideas and new research across their network.
Syed first began to work on his family’s farm in 2000, when he returned to his home province of Bahwannagar after completing his Bachelor of Law and Master of Political Science in Pakistan.
“In Pakistan, we inherit the land from our forefathers, and when I went back to my home I saw there was a critical need for our land to become more productive,” says Sayed.
“So we diversified our products and found ways to get better productivity from them. Now the farm has expanded from the cotton growing focus in previous years to supporting rice and a rice mill, goats for milk and meat, fish farming, and sugar beet production.”
Syed found that his time undertaking the six-week Short Course influenced improvements to his farm, particularly in land levelling, the layout of watercourses and drains, and using organic matter more efficiently.
He heard about the Australia Awards Short Course opportunity from a friend living in Islamabad. “Initially, I thought, ‘I cannot do this,’ as I am a farmer and not a water supply expert. But when I read that a proportion of course places were allocated to farmers, I decided I should apply.” Syed said that the course met and even exceeded his expectations. He made sure that he got maximum value from the Short Course by taking the advice of one of his University of Western Australia lecturers, who told him to review his learnings every day. He has found that he has learned much about life from the advice of his teachers and lecturers.
“I have always emphasised with my children in their own schooling that they need to review every day what they have learned; I sit with them, and they tell me what new things they have learned, and this helps to reinforce with them the main points of their lessons,” says Sayed.
Syed believes that every day on his farm he is using the skills he has learned during the Integrated Water Resource Management course.
“I am implementing all that I learned in Australia,’ he says, “even more than water resource management. From 2000 to 2005, I knew about farming from working on my family land, but I was not doing it scientifically. In Australia I learned how to level land, to manage watercourse and channel layout, and to reduce water wastage.”
Farm and facility visits while in Western Australia were an added bonus for Syed. He and his course colleagues visited ‘green manuring’ sites and were particularly impressed with a farm facility that was growing lettuce in the sandy topsoil near Perth.
Sayed says what he learnt in Australia broadened his views. With that knowledge, he now gets better returns from the goatherd. He has increased his land area under guava trees from one acre to 20 acres and plans to expand that even more. He has also introduced an Indian fruit tree approach using ‘meadow orchards’, which means he can now plant 1800 fruit trees per acre, rather than the 170 per acre he planted in the past. With careful pruning, he can get high-quality fruit crops in two years. In Syed’s fish farm, which he created from previously barren, unproductive land, he now imports ‘fingerlings’ from Thailand and grows Telapia and Sea Bass to up to three kilograms in weight for harvesting and sale to the domestic market. He points out that these imported breeds provide a much better return on investment compared to the local Pakistani fish breeds.
Syed enjoys sharing his Australia Awards knowledge with his neighbours. Many realise the benefits arising from the changed farming methods he has introduced and have replicated his approach. His underlying philosophy to farming and learning is summed up when Syed says: “Talk to the people who will be inspired by you” a philosophy he learned as a child from his parents.
Syed was impressed by the close relationship that exists in Australia between policy and practice. “Government policy should be focused on helping to improve farming and farmers’ livelihoods. Unfortunately, policy and practice do not always align with each other in this industry,” says Syed.
When asked what he would be doing in five or ten years time, Syed said that he would be doing “much the same”. He will still be finding innovative ways to improve his goatherds (already a national prize winner in Pakistan), improving his ‘meadow orchard’ and expanding his fish farm outputs. He would also like to welcome Australian experts and Australian Government representatives to his farm at some stage in the future to see what he has learned from his Short Course, how he has implemented his new skills and knowledge, and how he has shared his knowledge with his neighbours.