Seemingly relentless climate-related headlines paint a picture of an agricultural industry under siege.
- A seven year drought concluding in a once-in-40 year flood
- Bushfires in a normally moist Tasmanian wilderness
- Mass fish deaths and a river system in peril
- The entire state of New South Wales is currently in drought
It has sparked concern among people like Nigel Gibson, who like many others have increasingly taken steps in their own suburban lives to prepare for the impacts of climate change.
But recent weather events have left Mr Gibson wondering if enough was being done for agricultural communities on a broader scale.
“Will farmers need to move or can they transition to other opportunities?” he asked ABC Central West NSW’s Curious project.
“I feel this is something no-one is talking about.”
It is true traditional agriculture is being increasingly tested, and until recently conversations around it evolving were largely taboo.
According to many on the ground, rural and regional Australia are now at a critical point in turning conversations into action.
But this is something farmers, by their adaptive nature, are well placed to do.
A redistribution of agricultural zones
Across Australia, our climate zones are moving. It’s something Professor Mark Howden, the director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, has been tracking professionally for more than 27 years.
“What we’re seeing is a couple of things; one is the whole of Australia is warming, although at slightly different rates and in different places,” he said.
“What used to be conditions that we found further north in temperate terms are now happening further south, so you have your temperature migration happening.
“The other thing that’s going on is the rainfall patterns are effectively following that.
“So the cold fronts that used to bring most of the rainfall to Perth across to Canberra now tend to be tracking further south and that rain is falling now over the Southern Ocean.”
The implication for the agricultural industry from these climatic migrations varies from region to region in speed and scale.
Professor Howden cites high-rainfall grazing zones as an example.
“What used to be called the high-rainfall grazing zones — around Goulburn or down towards Melbourne or just inland in WA — those are zones that used to be too wet for cropping.
“But now, because the rainfall has reduced by about 20 per cent, they are actually good for cropping.”
Climate migrations are changing what is possible to cultivate and where and therefore changing the land use for certain areas.
But those in both research and farming alliances stress this is not a reason to panic but rather time for an overdue assessment of what is happening in rural and remote Australia and how communities can meet and manage the changes.
The political climate
Conversations around climate change have been held back by controversy and politics, stymieing meaningful policy change for people in farming communities.
It’s something Farmers for Climate Action (FCA) chief executive Verity Morgan Schmidt is tackling.
The first agricultural climate alliance in Australia, FCA is advocating for climate solutions both on and off farm — and changing the conversation in a sector that has traditionally been climate conservative.
“We find there’s a lot of reluctance at a federal level to actually base policy on science, and that means, as farmers and rural communities, that you are making decisions within a policy framework that isn’t actually the best informed, and that’s deeply concerning,” she said.
As a result, Ms Morgan Schmidt believes agricultural communities have been left at a huge disadvantage.
“It consistently sets you up to fail,” she said.
“If you don’t take into account the speed at which our climate is changing, if you don’t take into account, for example, shifting inflows into the Murry-Darling Basin or rainfall zones shifting south, it’s very hard to build a sustainable farm operation because you are operating on a policy framework that is at best outdated.
“But it’s also very difficult for you to do sustainable planning at community level.”
In August last year, FCA released its Rural Futures report that confronted climate change-related issues facing many regional communities.
“[The report] stared a lot of these issues in the face and went, ‘Right, how do we do things differently, how do we kickstart a conversation with these communities so that we are not walking blindly into that cycle of decline?'” Ms Morgan Schmidt said.
“How can we diversify regional economies, particularly some of these economies that have been through a boom-bust cycle of drought, mining and extracted industries?
“How do we recognise that the climate is making it increasingly challenging for us to continue agriculture in many of these regions?”
The ultimate early adapters
Anika Molesworth is a young farmer from Broken Hill in New South Wales who in 2017 was the state’s finalist for Young Australian of the Year.
Ms Molesworth’s family moved on-farm at the start of the Millennium drought, and growing up in the grip of climate extremes shaped her early understanding of its role in agriculture and galvanised her commitment to change in the industry.
She has emerged as a strong voice in the next generation of farmers, comfortable discussing the realities of climate change and realistic about its limitations.
“I think farmers are an incredibly innovative, adaptive and resilient breed of people,” she said.
“They have always been adapting to changes in temperatures and rainfall seasonal variability and they’ve done a phenomenal job of it.
“But I think the rate and the scale of the environmental changes being driven by climate change mean that we really have to start thinking outside the box.
“Agritourism, insect farming off waste resources, bush tucker foods — there are options out there, but it’s not traditional agriculture in that sense.
“We need support structures, new ideas, people helping us transition to these other production industries.”
She believes the first step needs to come from the energy sector to buy more time for other industries to develop response strategies.
“The easiest way to put the brakes on what we are experiencing is to transition away from dirty fossil fuel energy to clean, renewable energy; that then takes the pressure off other industries.”
When asked what life will look like if action isn’t taken, Ms Molesworth is absolute.
“It has to happen, it’s a simple as that.
“We are already seeing these terrible outcomes of mismanagement of natural resources impacting huge parts of Australia, our ecosystem, the biodiversity, the communities.
“We really need to be working together on these issues. Not happening is not an option.”
Thinking outside the box
There are instances of agricultural industries moving their operations in response to climate change, most notably the wine industry’s migration south to Tasmania.
There are also individual examples of private enterprise packing up and moving in response to climate limitations.
And while some degree of human migration is likely to be necessary eventually due to climate change, overwhelmingly how rural communities should be thinking is what new, sustainable land use their region could migrate to.
“Agricultural zones that have been our primary grazing zones are drying out, but there’s advantage there,” said Associate Professor Lauren Rickards, co-leader of the Climate Change Resilience research program at RMIT.
But realising it will require a real-time rewiring of traditional thinking about agriculture, policy and incentives.
“We’ve got to look past the rusted-on, siloed ideas — so, agricultural land might become energy production land, but the opportunity for that town is not going to be realised if agriculturalists keep talking to agriculturalists,” she said.
“To get those new, different alternatives in there like wind farms, solar farms, bio fuels or even new wheat crop varieties; it feels like we’re not having the big enough conversations about broad enough options.
“I think a lot of creativity is possible if we actually bring together a broader range of people.”
Need for a bigger picture
David Littleproud, the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, says measures are being put in place by the Commonwealth to help rural communities.
“Every year, the Federal Government puts $300 million into research, development and expansion to give our farmers the tools, the cutting-edge science to adapt to a changing climate,” he said.
“The Future Drought Fund will also go towards an investment — a $100 million dividend each year to look like climate adaptation.”
But Ms Morgan Schmidt believes these measures are reactionary and operating in a policy vacuum.
“The reality is it’s always going to be a band-aid solution. We need to stop thinking in short-term approaches to managing this,” she said.
“If we look at the drought summit that was heralded when the new PM Scott Morrison came in saying that drought was his top priority — the summit didn’t even include climate scientists.
“If we are not actively engaging in a conversation about what the future of our regional areas look like under climate change, then we are going to struggle to ever get drought policy right.”
Grains for solar
Peter Mailler, a farmer from Boggabilla on the NSW-Queensland border, read the writing on the wall and transitioned part of his grain operation for solar farming in 2015.
He believes the Commonwealth is yet to provide any powerful or realistic market incentive to migrate rural communities away from unsustainable farming practices.
“If you want practice change in agriculture, there has to be a market signal to incentivise it, and at the moment it’s not there.
“The transition to solar, for me, is a no-brainer. And in terms of mitigating our economic risk, diversifying out of agriculture is really important at being able to sustain the agricultural enterprise.”
But planning and policy roadblocks throughout the set-up meant the Maillers actually had to go back to agriculture to subsidise the project.
“At the moment, the lack of policy consistency is slowing it down and hampering [new technology transitions],” Mr Mailler said.
“If the Government want structural change in agriculture, they have got to provide incentives, they have got to make it commercially viable.”
A practical solution for a practical problem
Peter Mailler describes a dearth of political leadership addressing the impact of climate change impact on agriculture, just when the problems faced couldn’t be more complex to solve.
He believes there need to be a collective, government led response to the threats facing agriculture, rather than the responsibility of solution resting with individuals.
“The problem is beyond my internal business strategy. We’ve invested in solar and some other things, but unless the country moves with it, we’re doomed to fail and it’s a really bad situation.”
“As a farmer, I can’t farm they way I really want to – I’m doing my best. But I know that I’m compromising on any long term strategy just to survive at the moment. And that terrifies me.”
Ms Morgan Schmidt sees this void as an opportunity for rural communities to take their futures into their own hands, especially at a local government level.
“Communities tend to be less bound by the politics of fear and dare to imagine a different future,” she said.
“However, we need to ensure they have the information flow so these communities have the courage to ask: ‘How do we start diversifying our economies?'”
Farmers like Ms Molesworth believe the industry needs to run towards the problem, not away from it.
“I think we’re in for a very bumpy ride in the next few years [and] the next few decades,” she said.
“But if we use our wisdom, if we use our technology, if we use our knowledge, we should be able to support farmers who are in the more fragile regions, like I am, and we should be able to support the new farmers coming through too.”
Who asked the question?Photo: Nigel Gibson says the technology is there to transition to 100 per cent renewable energy. (Supplied: Nigel Gibson)
Nigel Gibson grew up in Brisbane, where he still lives and works.
“I have made my career in technology and the last 30 years in supporting science and research in Australia.
“I guess my reason to ask why we are not doing more for climate change and if farmers should move is pure logic as the centre of Australia is like a hot plate in
“There are challenges, but shouldn’t the Australian government be giving us some direction?”
Mr Gibson said the issue is serious and wants to see conversation across the country.
While you’re here… are you feeling curious?