Not many people take on the onerous task of preparing a doctoral thesis late in their careers, but this is what seasoned agronomist John Lacy has decided to do.
Mr Lacy's thesis will come out of his practical work of assisting irrigation and dryland farmers increase productivity on their farms in the southern Riverina.
Mr Lacy has been an agronomic consultant in Finley for the past 13 years, having first arrived in 1976 with an agricultural science degree from the University of Sydney.
He was previously employed by the NSW Department of Agriculture - now known as the NSW Department of Primary Industries - as district agronomist until 2003 and specialised in lifting the production of irrigated crops, especially wheat and rice which were significant enterprises for the area.
"I started by doing crop judging and I realised that in the judging forms and the way that the yields were related, farmers, agronomists and researchers were only talking about one, two or maybe three factors," Mr Lacy recalled.
"It would always be the variety, the date of sowing and with good weed control. And I thought after a few years that way was not lifting the yields for the farmers."
Concerned for the viability of the farmers, the crucial moment for Mr Lacy occurred during his attendance at a CSIRO field day held at Griffith and led by Martin Stapper.
"He had a project with the aim of lifting wheat yields to five tonnes per hectare which was a pretty high yield at the time and he had actually worked out the whole package," Mr Lacy said.
"How many plants per square metre, the optimum sowing time, how much nitrogen needed, when to put it on - they were all objective parameters and it was exactly what I was looking for."
In the early 1980s, Mr Lacy knew an average yield of irrigated wheat was 2.5t/ha, so doubling that was a wonderful challenge.
To achieve that, Mr Lacy started a club he called the 'Five Tonne Irrigated Wheat Club' with farmers whom he had assisted through his employment with NSW DPI.
"We started by nominating paddocks and we recorded all the practices we could think off - disease, weeds, fertiliser, and after two or three years we started to identify what were the main practices which contributed to the higher yields," he said.
Factors which were lowering yields - such as crown rot, stripe rust and not timing the irrigation to optimum advantage - were identified and Mr Lacy collated an annual report for the farmers to study.
"After a few years, we basically had a significant number of farmers actually achieving the five-tonne yield," he said.
"That got a lot of publicity and I got a call from the head of the rice research committee and was invited to use my 'five tonne club' concept with rice growers."
Mr Lacy accepted and with the assistance of a funded technical officer, he selected 30 rice crops in 1984 to begin measuring everything that impacted the yield potential.
"I knew some of the farmers were getting very good yields," he said.
"We were very fortunate in the first two years we identified four or five key practices, which we called checks, where the farmer had to actually go into the crop and take an objective measurement - he couldn't just stand on the bank or look over the fence and estimate.
"And we found the key checks for the higher yields - one was deep water, sowing time, application of nitrogen, checking for bloodworms and good weed control."
The process was replicated with more farmers and on different paddocks.
"For the first time we were able to say for the whole industry, there appears to be six practices, or checks, which are definitely associated with higher yields," Mr Lacy said.
"It was readily accepted by farmer discussion groups and in the 1990s we had farmers measuring their plant populations for the first time, and by collating with researcher's recommendations, we were able to identify optimum plant densities."
The wheat club, and other winter cropping groups, continue to this day.
"We've learnt a lot - it's not the old top down extension method where the researcher knows everything who gives the information to the extension officer who gives it to the farmer," he said.
"The information is coming from the farmers, we were learning from the farmers and people like myself are really collating all that information and turning it into really useful practices or checks.
"It's an integrated, participatory program and it's quite different to the old extension methods."
Mr Lacy is now advising four groups, partly because of the amalgamation of farms in the district, but also because he is spending more time preparing his thesis for his PhD.
He knows his career won't last forever, but wants to leave a lasting legacy for the cropping industry and thought of collating his 'three-year-crop-sequence' experience.
Approaching Professor Jim Pratley at the Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, with the idea and requesting help, Mr Lacy was told he would have to work it out for himself.
"Jim thought it was a good idea and suggested the only way to really make it all work was by doing a PhD," Mr Lacy said.
"I've been working on it for the past two and half years because I have had to review all of the literature and you have to pretend that you don't know a lot about the subject.
"And from that we had to decide upon a topic which no one has ever done before and which has been approved here at the uni a few months ago.
"And that's basically the identification of the best practices/drivers of farm profitability for dryland and irrigated winter crop sequences in the eastern Murray Valley."
Mr Lacy expects to work on the project for another two years. It is a unique PhD as neither himself or his supervisors are aware of any other data that comes directly from the farmers as they worked their way through the three-year-crop-rotation program.
"It is actually relevant to the farmer because it is real farmer data and the CSU staff are finding it difficult because this has never really been done before," he said.