By Anika Molesworth
The images of dust storms across Far West NSW have spurred me to write this article.
If you’ve ever stood before an approaching dust storm, you will know what I mean when I describe it as a formidable dark beast crawling along the landscape. Bellowing a low grumble as it makes its way across vast stretches within minutes, unfolding to the heavens and engulfing everything in its way.
It’s a sight we out west have seen numerous times during this drought. A powerful reminder of one’s insignificance in the face of Mother Nature – and simultaneously our impact upon her.
But dust storms are not new to this region. Broken Hill township was established in 1883, and by the early 1900s overgrazing and mining operations had denuded the landscape. Sand drifts and dust storms threated the town, and rags were regularly jammed under doorways and along window seals to prevent red dust creeping into one’s house.
Images of this time period remind us of how bad it got. And how, in the face of such adversity, locals banded together to fight for their future.
Led by Albert and Margaret Morris and William MacGillivray, the Barrier Field Naturalists club was established and one of the earliest known ecological regeneration projects in the world began. The vision for a set of regeneration reserves started in the early 1920s, and by 1936 the first had been established. The benefits of the reserves in reducing dust became clear to the townspeople, and the scheme was soon being championed by locals and community groups.
More than 80 years since the first reserve was established the benefits of the regeneration reserves to wildlife, vegetation and the town are still clear.
Take a stroll through the natural green belt that wraps around the Silver City, and see the striking red flashes of Sturt Desert Pea and the bedeared dragons lounging on Ruby Saltbush.
But despite a harsh exterior, we are reminded that this landscape is incredibly fragile. The recent dust storms highlight just how vulnerable these special places are if we do not look after our common home.
In a region that is projected to become hotter, drier and experience more frequent and intense droughts and dust storms, what does the future hold for towns like Broken Hill in semi-arid inland Australia?
Our future rests in our hands.
Just like the courageous people who defiantly changed the trajectory before, so again the outback people stand with their home and fight for its future.
Whether it’s to save the Darling River, the Menindee Lake system, endangered wildlife or farming families, the power and might of dust storms rolling across the landscape remind me of the groundswell happening in these rural communities.
Outback people have resilience and fight imprinted in their DNA.
Our climate and environment are changing rapidly and we will not sit quietly and accept inaction.
Hear the rumble, cause we’re fighting for our future.
By Anika Molesworth
In failing to act on human-induced climate change, our political leaders are neglecting the rights of the next generation.
You just need to turn on your television to know this drought is tough. Every evening, Australian families are being bombarded with footage of struggling farmers, dust-bowl paddocks and hungry animals.
The bad news is that the extreme weather events plaguing Australian agriculture are about to get worse.
This drought is not an anomaly. It’s not a once-in-one hundred year event. It’s inextricably linked to human-induced climate change. We’ve known for more than 50 years that the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels is destabilising the climate system.
Right now, that’s set to continue with the IPCC Fifth Assessment report warning that ‘continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.’
Despite all of this evidence, our political leaders have continued to campaign for new coal mines. They have failed to develop a clear and ambitious strategy to transition to renewable energy. Even now, in the depths of the worst drought of our generation, no political leaders are openly discussing what is needed to arrest climate change impacts.
This failure to act in regards to human-induced climate change is fundamentally an issue of intergenerational justice. Our leaders have been aware of the hard-scientific evidence of climate change for decades, yet they have failed to act. In so doing, the benefits of present generations have been put ahead of the rights of the next.
As a young person with the dream of taking on the family sheep property, I am being unfairly disadvantaged by this failure to take action. My family’s sheep farm in far west New South Wales is projected to become hotter and drier, with more frequent and intense dust storms due to human-induced climate change.
High temperatures can stress our livestock, reduce fertility, increase mortality and adversely affect pasture and fodder crops. In the near future (2020–2039), this region could expect maximum temperature increases of 1oC. In the longer term (2060–2079), this could rise to 2.7oC. The viability of our farming operation – and my future as the custodian of this property – is precarious.
The hurdles facing the next generation of food and fibre producers are great. There’s no denying it. The combined challenges of feeding a growing number of people on the planet, with reduced environmental footprint, on a backdrop of social pressures and climate change, will ask more of these farmers than ever before. Building the support structures now in policy and institutions that are forward-thinking, ambitious and embrace intergenerational equity is essential.
As a young farmer, I am calling on our government to do more to prevent harmful climate change impacts. The failure to protect the future of young farmers by slow or inadequate action violates their rights to life, liberty and property enjoyed by previous generations. The idleness in setting in place policies and structures to reduce pollution emissions exacerbates the risk and intensity of droughts, pest-outbreaks and floods – threatening those setting out on a career in agriculture.
Climate change is impacting me personally. My future is being re-written. Extreme high summer temperatures will make my working conditions less safe, it will reduce the profitability of my farm through diminished livestock capacity, and this will have flow-on effect to the vitality of my rural community. Our government is accountable for taking action to fight climate change. The alleged danger of drought has been sufficiently demonstrated – we see that on the faces of the farmers pushed to the edge on the nightly news – and there is direct link connecting CO2emissions to the danger of drought. Ignoring these facts is putting people’s futures at risk.
Farmers are people who generally have their eyes on the horizon, from planning the next growing season to ensuring a strong working farm for their kids in their succession plan. As landmanagers we know we have responsibilities to the next generation so we also must be part of the story in reducing greenhouse gases arising from agriculture and taking care of the places we call home. And as a wider society, we have certain obligations to the welfare of future generations.
This obligation to future generations must guide the strategies that we adopt to address issues like climate change, to minimise damage caused by changes already set in place, and ensure that young people receive the tools and resources to help them adapt. Many of the solutions already exist, from renewable energy technologies that reduce pollution, to education programs on best-practices in a changed climate – what we need urgently is now the political will to change our current trajectory in the magnitude necessary for the better. Climate justice means implementing measures that effectively protect young citizens from the foreseeable impacts of climate change – and that means taking ambitious action today.
By Anika Molesworth
I have an uneasy queasy feeling. The kind one gets after being on rough waters too long. A dull nausea feeling in my gut and a lump in my throat. I am feeling a sense of agitation, yet I stopped drinking coffee months ago. Each day images of drought affected Australia fill my newsfeed. Emaciated livestock, barren paddocks and stoic farmers breaking down on camera. As I write this, a dust storm is howling outside and I’ve brought the dog indoors so he isn’t coughing on the desiccated topsoil whipping through my yard.
I’ve just finished an interview with breakfast radio, and have another interview after lunch. Everyone seems to have discovered the drought this week. A “hot topic” that will once again blow away when the attention span wavers. Interview questions come from the same handbook – with an unoriginal sentence structure incorporating ‘debate’ and ‘belief’ on ‘climate change’. The unambitious NEG also raising its head.
Its salt in the wound for farmers in the middle of the drought. Like having a terminally ill family member, then being asked if you ‘believe’ the best available science on its cause, and perhaps we should ‘debate’ the illness itself. In the meantime, why don’t we offer a ‘remedy’ that won’t do much at all. Doesn’t that sound good?
Sometimes I feel it’s easier to tune-out than tune-in. To turn off the newsfeed and stop answering the journalist’s calls. The answer to the question “are you concerned about your farming future” is yes. The answer to the question “are you worried about the increased frequency and intensity of droughts projected” is yes. And the more I think about these things the more the queasy feeling grows.
But I won’t tune-out when the newsfeed grows more raw. And I won’t tune-out when the “hot topic” of the week changes and the images of drought dry up as quickly as our dams.
There is too much at stake.
Farmers around the country demand that climate change is addressed with urgent and ambitious action. Business as usual is no longer an option.
Ending Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels is the easiest and most economically sensible way to reduce pollution.
I ask that each person who is as heartbroken by the images of drought affected Australia as I am, to tune-in, step-up and speak loudly that now is the time to put in place the strategies to reduce emissions in line with what the experts recommend.
Our future depends upon it.
My family’s sheep station is located in the Far West of NSW – a bioregion that is naturally hot and dry. However, this region is set to become hotter and drier, and will experience more frequent and intense dust storms that darken and choke the sky. The crippling droughts that we are getting to know all too well, will have even greater consequence for the next generation of food producers. As someone who dreams of taking on the family farm one day, climate change is a sobering subject for me.
I saw a desiccated desert lizard a few weekends ago. Open ground temperatures out here are reaching 75oC in summer. Specialised arid flora and fauna that have evolved over millennia are struggling to keep pace with the changes occurring now. My family graze an African breed of sheep and harvest rangeland goats – these are some of the hardiest and most drought-tolerant livestock species you will find anywhere – but even for them, extreme high temperatures are dropping birth rates and we now nearly completely destock over the hottest months to ease pressure on this fragile land.
As someone (well) under the age of 41 - I have never experienced a year of global average temperatures – and already we are seeing the effects of the soaring heat evaporating dams faster than before, stressing livestock and wildlife, inhibiting seed germination which in turn reduces ground cover and increases erosion risk. This past summer was 2.1oC above average max temperature.
Rainfall is dropping and becoming increasingly unreliable. Since my family purchased our farm 18 years ago – 13 of those years have been below average rainfall. Our farming strategy is centred on saving and wisely managing this scarce resource. Rainfall effectiveness has been reduced due these changing precipitation patterns and higher evaporation rates. I miss seeing the bright red flashes of Sturt Desert Peas covering the Barrier Ranges in the springtime – it’s been too dry for a long time, and I hope they’re not gone for good.
The emphasis of agricultural research and development to date has been on making the best use of good soils and good climates and little attention has been given to marginal farming environments. This uneven spread of effort has resulted in a dearth of information on the less favoured arid and semi-arid areas. A combination of lack of interest, low research commitment, and the complexities of the problem has resulted in a shortage of solutions offered by new-knowledge and technology that need to be applied to improve agricultural sustainability and resiliency in these regions.These places are the most fragile, and I refused to believe that these areas are any less important than more fertile lands.
I am encouraged by the Agriculture Minister and Nationals MP David Littleproud stating climate change is a “real issue we need to address” and the PM’s effort to visit drought effected communities on his ‘listening and learning’ tour. However, for farmers in the dry regions of Australia, whose climate resilience capacity is being stretched to the limit, acceptance is not as useful as action. We need the Government to take decisive and urgent steps to tackle Australia’s rising emissions and to drive the shift to clean energy, both locally and globally.
by Anika Molesworth
Around half the world is under 30 and nine in ten of these young people live in developing countries.
Some are calling it Peak Youth – never before have there been so many young people in this world.
Due to this, their voices are going to be heard, and their actions are going to be felt. Their presence in global to local issues will be known. Why do I think this? Because the young generation are now more educated, tech-savvy and connected than ever before. And they care about their future.
This is why youth coalitions are growing and hashtags like #YouthVoices18 matter.
Young people restless for change are striving for fair, just and ecologically-sustainable development.
The youth today are going to face challenges like never felt before in history.
Climate change, forced migration and ecological degradation to name a few.
When natural environments cease to function as they should, and communities fracture and disperse, young people are caught in the wave of consequences from past actions and inactions.
But the youth also play an important role in overcoming these challenges.
Youth voices are particularly powerful.
Their smart-phone megaphones and global cyber-networks mean ideas and information are shared instantaneously. They see the injustices, they hear of the biological-plundering, and they are motivated to speak up, knuckle down and swipe-left on the status-quo.
For instance, young people in many parts of the world are calling on their governments to do more to prevent harmful climate change impacts. They say the failure to protect their future by slow or inadequate action violates the rights of young people to life, liberty and property enjoyed by previous generations. The idleness to set in place policies and structures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions exacerbates the risk and intensity of droughts, bushfires and floods – severely impacting those setting out on a career in agriculture.
Young people pursuing farming have no small task on their hands. Striving for high quality produce and global food security whilst reducing our environmental footprint is one of the most significant challenges of our time. Many experts predict that by 2050, population demands from nearly 10 billion people will require a 60% increase in global food production or a significant change to the global distribution, storage, consumption and access to food. Education and empowerment of young people in agriculture is critical.
When planning a brighter future, we need to be guided by young people, drawing upon their energy, creativity and skills for positive change. There are so many exciting young people working in genetics, soil science, irrigation engineering, carbon capture research, etc. - powering ahead in research, technology development and sharing their stories. Our leaders must not only acknowledge their interest, but seek the input of the youth, to implement measures that effectively protect young citizens from the foreseeable impacts of the ‘mega-challenges’ like climate change, and provide the platforms for young people to rewrite the narrative.
Young people in agriculture are taking a seat at the solutions dining table.
Their restless desire to change the trajectory should serve us all food for thought.
As the people who will be most greatly impacted by climate change, social upheaval and ecological unravelling, they need to be armed with the skills and knowledge to face these head-on, and they need to be part of developing the global redesign.
When given the capacity, support and trust – these restless young people push the boundaries and become a force for ambitious positive change.
By Anika Molesworth
There’s a dust storm blowing in. The horizon is becoming hazy. It’s an eerie dark rust colour – a colour most farmers are familiar with as the corroding tin sheet on the back shed. A sheet that is part of so many pieces, yet an integral fragment of the whole structural stability of the shed. When the rust eats away too much, the structural integrity is undermined.
The projections tell me that these dust storms that blanket my home in far western NSW are to become more frequent, and more fierce.
But there’s another storm brewing. A chorus of farmers and landmangers who are demanding greater action be taken on climate change. They are the people staring into the dusty winds, feeling the grit in their eyes and the sand in their clenched teeth.
As different parts of the country this week are gripped by drought, exhausted by heatwaves and washed clean by floodwaters – it is clear to myself, and many of us working in the farming sector, that the time to choose our common future, is now.
Farmers for Climate Action is an alliance of farmers and leaders in agriculture who are working with its peers, the wider sector and decision-makers to make sure Australia takes the actions necessary to adapt to climate change and cut emissions where possible.
It is listening to the parts of the country where cattle outnumber people 2,000 to 1. It is listening to the people who have sun spots, sweaty brows and dirt under their fingernails. It is providing a voice to those who care about their farm’s old River Red Gums as though they were family members. It is giving the platform to farmers who have promised to look after the land and all the life that inhabits it.
Groups like Farmers for Climate Action give us all hope – it is a great example of how grassroots movements can change the world for the better.
Farmers for Climate Action is running workshops to build the capacity of farmers – so they are resilient in the face of climate change. It has formed working groups on RD&E and for policy progress. It is bringing scientists to woolsheds and farmers to Parliament House.
Stated on the Farmers for Climate Action website:
“As farmers, we are on the frontline of climate change in Australia. Rising temperatures, less rainfall and more extreme weather are already harming our land and risking our livelihoods.
Damage to our climate has forced us to adapt the way we farm, but science tells us worse is on the way if the world doesn't act. Aussie farmers are rightly proud of feeding and clothing millions of people around the world. Australia needs to address climate change so we can keep farming well into the future.
That’s why we are collectively calling for stronger action to reduce carbon pollution from all levels of government, and in our sector.
By working with people in many fields – from researchers to industry bodies to government – we will have the best information and support available to make well-informed business and land management decisions. This includes responding to the unavoidable changes already set in place, and making every effort to limit further damage to our climate.
Australian farmers can be part of the solution. Renewable energy, like solar and wind power, can help rural and regional Australia not just survive, but thrive. So, let’s grasp the opportunities!”
And it’s true - the solutions are out there!
Improved genetics in livestock are reducing methane emissions. Tree plantings are sequestering carbon. Improved irrigation efficiencies are keeping more water in the rivers and protecting fragile ecosystems. Biogas digesters are turning effluent into green power. Advances in weather forecasting are helping Aussie farmers plan ahead. Just to name a few!
If you haven’t already, I urge you to show your support by signing up to this most important organisation, and join the chorus of people demanding stronger climate action – www.farmersforclimateaction.org.au
By Anika Molesworth
I am the daughter of two people who love the land. Over the course many years they have held the land as if a delicate ornament – fragile, beautiful, and unique. A one off gift to bestow their children. A place that will nurture them as they nurture it. A landscape that will produce food. A backdrop for family milestones. A panorama with endless horizons where one can breath deeply and feel peaceful.
Yet, I am troubled.
I am troubled by the challenges that come with this gift.
As the weatherman tells me from the TV screen that daytime temperatures will not dip below 40 degrees this week, I feel the crease of anxiety furrow my forehead. The sky outside is azure blue. A colour so beautiful to the eyes, yet troubling for the soul.
The heat is oppressive. And the knowledge that this part of the world – my little spot – will become even hotter and drier worries me deeply.
I am a future farmer. But this land that I cherish will bring many challenges. The intoxicating heat on the other side of my window juxtaposed with food sitting cool inside my fridge offers up an enigmatic and perplexing scenario. A confusion met with deafening silence on these issues that ripple across the world.
One of my favorite writers popped up in my inbox this week. His concern is palpable, and one I share for our common future.
“The trouble begins where everything begins: with soil. The UN’s famous projection that, at current rates of soil loss, the world has 60 years of harvests left, appears to be supported by a new set of figures. Partly as a result of soil degradation, yields are already declining on 20% of the world’s croplands.
Now consider water loss. In places such as the North China Plain, the central United States, California and north-western India – among the world’s critical growing regions – levels of the groundwater used to irrigate crops are already reaching crisis point. Water in the Upper Ganges aquifer, for example, is being withdrawn at 50 times its recharge rate. But, to keep pace with food demand, farmers in South Asia expect to use between 80 and 200% more water by 2050. Where will it come from?
The next constraint is temperature. One study suggests that, all else being equal, with each degree Celsius of warming the global yield of rice drops by 3%, wheat by 6% and maize by 7%. This could be optimistic. Research published in the journal Agricultural & Environmental Letters finds that 4°C of warming in the US Corn Belt could reduce maize yields by between 84 and 100%.
The reason is that high temperatures at night disrupt the pollination process. But this describes just one component of the likely pollination crisis. Insectageddon, caused by the global deployment of scarcely-tested pesticides, will account for the rest. Already, in some parts of the world, workers are now pollinating plants by hand. But that’s viable only for the most expensive crops.
Then there are the structural factors. Because they tend to use more labour, grow a wider range of crops and work the land more carefully, small farmers, as a rule, grow more food per hectare than large ones. In the poorer regions of the world, people with less than 5 hectares own 30% of the farmland but produce 70% of the food. Since 2000, an area of fertile ground roughly twice the size of the United Kingdom has been seized by land grabbers and consolidated into large farms, generally growing crops for export rather than the food needed by the poor.
While these multiple disasters unfold on land, the seas are being sieved of everything but plastic. Despite a massive increase in effort (bigger boats, bigger engines, more gear), the worldwide fish catch is declining by roughly 1% a year, as populations collapse. The global land grab is mirrored by a global seagrab: small fishers are displaced by big corporations, exporting fish to those who need it less but pay more. Around 3 billion people depend to a large extent on fish and shellfish protein. Where will it come from?
All this would be hard enough. But as people’s incomes increase, their diet tends to shift from plant protein to animal protein. World meat production has quadrupled in 50 years, but global average consumption is still only half that of the UK – where we eat roughly our bodyweight in meat every year – and just over a third of the US level. Because of the way we eat, the UK’s farmland footprint (the land required to meet our demand) is 2.4 times the size of its agricultural area. If everyone aspires to this diet, how do we accommodate it? …
When I say this keeps me up at night, I mean it. I am plagued by visions of starving people seeking to escape from grey wastes, being beaten back by armed police. I see the last rich ecosystems snuffed out, the last of the global megafauna – lions, elephants, whales and tuna – vanishing. And when I wake, I cannot assure myself that it was just a nightmare.
Other people have different dreams: the fantasy of a feeding frenzy that need never end, the fairytale of reconciling continued economic growth with a living world. If humankind spirals into societal collapse, these dreams will be the cause.”
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th December 2017
The dirt track I head down to become a food producer of the future is littered by rocks and obstacles. So I must keep my footing and my eyes keen. I am woefully underprepared to meet these challenges. Despite foraging for new knowledge, skills and ideas each and every day – I do not feel properly equipped. Yet, these are the hands, head and heart that will be growing food, fighting for the land, and roaring these issues into the hot summer winds.
By Anika Molesworth
In the farming game – life is a bit of balancing act.
Sipping a glass of cabernet sauvignon may seem a simple enough act, but getting fine wine into your evening glass takes a few steps. Grape vines are carefully tended to over the summer months. Weeding, watering, trimming, fertilizing, checking for mildew and insect pests can be time consuming and use precious resources. As the grapes ripen, the farmer monitors sugar levels, acidity, grape colour and flavours. The window of time when the grape chemistry is right for picking is narrow. As temperature alters the grapes sugar levels, chances are your glass of red was picked in the middle of the night when cooler temperatures are kinder on the fermentation process.
Many kilometers from Australia’s wine growing regions are livestock farmers who also keep a close eye on the weather channel. Rainfall not only fills the dams which thirsty stock depend on, but also ensure a green covering of vegetation on which the stock can graze. When the weather is cold or hot, livestock rely on a stress-free environment with adequate shelter. When the conditions are just right, livestock can then be moved between paddocks, mustered, marked in yards, and trucked off for sale.
Whether it’s a dryland crop, a tasty wine drop, or a future lamb-chop – farmers take part in this game of balance in order to produce nutritious and sustainable food and fibre.
However, the rules of the game are changing. Seasonal weather patterns that farmers have long depended upon are becoming more variable, and with that comes uncertainty. The seasonality of rain and temperature which dictate the germination of seeds, the wheat’s growth, and the cattle’s feed availability are changing. This also brings changes to the hatching of insects, the flow of rivers, and the transport of stock and goods (a dirt road turned to mud or an extended heatwave can put the brakes on truck movements).
Unlike paying car rego, final exams or AFL grand final – farming deadlines are not definitive dates. Instead, food and fibre producers rely on patterns. So if these patterns are changing the rules of farming, then we need to be best prepared, and that means pulling out all stops and finding new players, new equipment and new skills. And I think Aussie farmers are up for the task.
In Australia, farmers make up less than 1% of the population, yet we provide 93% of food consumed here. Yes, we have a lot of land, but we are also the driest inhabited continent on earth, 20% of the country is classified as desert. Our ability to feed ourselves, and feed ourselves well, is only possible through continual betterment of farming systems that grow more, efficiently use nutrients and water, improve food quality, and diversify our businesses.
Aussie farmers are doing remarkable things to improve their practices and reduce their footprint on the environment. Our livestock have greater survival rates and are producing less methane. Soil sensors are providing real-time data that we can immediately respond to, and drones are gathering aerial imagery of crop health, helping us to water better and control weeds more accurately. And this is happening out in the paddocks today!
We are also seeing farms and rural communities embracing renewable energy and helping our nation transition away from fossil fuels. From Barcaldine to Broken Hill, Coober Pedy to Karratha, around the country clean energy projects are popping up. Australia is the sunniest and one of the windiest continents on Earth – there is huge potential for solar and wind energy to be running our businesses and providing farmers with a secondary and stable source of income. Farmers have long fed and clothed the world – now it is time we help power it as well.
As an industry, we have built a powerful foundation of wisdom and awe-inspiring technology. Engine improvements in agricultural machinery mean we have more power and use less fuel. The cotton we grow in Australian uses 90% less chemical than it did only a decade ago. We are using drones, satellites, robotics and genetics to improve production efficiencies. We are better educated, networked and connected than ever before. We should be proud of the quality and quantity of food and fibre we are able to grow here – and these advancements are only set to continue.
We know the challenges that climate change presents farmers – not only in Australia, but around the world – are changing the rules of production and land management. If we can’t rely on patterns, we need to equip ourselves with research, investment and engagement at all levels – in order to be adaptable and make sure that the players on the field have the right skills, knowledge and support structures in place.
My vision is a future where farms have long range weather forecasts and advanced telecommunications so they can make well informed decisions. They are powered by renewable energy, supported by our communities and where no produce is wasted unnecessarily. And we can achieve this as the advancements we see in Australian agriculture in sensors, automation, engineering and genetics are incredibly impressive. And as we come to realise the urgency for this change, we will see a surge of inventiveness that will create solutions that are languishing in their infancy, or even yet to be dreamed of.
So this National Agricultural Day, let’s celebrate Australian agriculture, and cheer on the players who are adapting to change, seizing new opportunities and producing our food, fibre and energy that we can all be proud of.
By Anika Molesworth
Although I've been told “don’t be a farmer” on numerous occasions, my dream has always been to be a farmer.
And I don’t want young people being told not to be involved in farming.
I want them to be told that agriculture is exciting. It is dynamic. And those involved with the improvement of this industry are making a meaningful contribution to food security, the protection of natural habitats and wildlife, and the vibrancy of rural communities.
And that means we need to change the story.
The Far West of NSW is where I call home. This is a beautiful part of the country, yet the ecosystem is fragile – an eggshell of interdependent and symbiotic relationships. And the combined challenges of feeding a growing number of people on the planet, with reduced environmental footprint, on a backdrop of social pressures and climate change, asks more of farmers than ever before, so the protection of these delicate environments, rural communities, and food production systems is paramount.
And I believe a key to sustainable farming and protecting these places we love - is engaging people in the farming story, and getting passionate and bright people to join our team.
We need all hands-on deck, and here’s why.
The global population continues to climb at an astonishing rate, and with it ascends one of the most instinctive needs of human existence: the need for food. At the same time, arable land, pastures and forests are disappearing – and at a rate that far outpaces the Earth’s ability to restore and replenish such diminished areas.
Food producers are acutely aware of what is being asked of them. After all, they are on the front lines. As emerging economies fuel middle-class growth, protein consumption per grows in strides.
Society is progressing, but not without its challenges, and a great strain is being put on the food system’s ability to adequately nourish everyone.
Now let’s throw climate change onto the farmer’s plate – who are already trying to produce more, with less. Floods, bushfires and altered rainfall patterns are pretty bad for farmers. Particularly for those who walk the tightrope of life like farmers in developing nations.
When I’m not in a dusty sheep yard at home, I’m often found in the lush ricepaddies of Southeast Asia – as well as being a farmer, I am also an agricultural researcher. Because as land managers, we need to continually seek new information, a better understanding of how our world works, and human interaction with it.
And it shocks me when the farmers that I work with in Southeast Asia – tell me the number of days that the dry season is extending each year, or describe to me the insects that they had never seen before, that are now eating their crops. They know precisely how their climate – and their world – is changing.
So, we know there are big issues facings us – yet an even bigger problem is when young people are told not to get involved.
I work with young Cambodian researchers on soil fertility and water management on farms – and I have been told stories of how their parents wept when they said to them they are going to work in agriculture.
You have no social standing if you work in agriculture. It is mundane, repetitive and only for the unskilled.
And these are not perceptions confined to Asia, but are alive and well here in Australia.
But what if we changed that image?
In Australia, farmers make up less than 1% of the population, yet we provide 93% of food consumed here. Yes, we have a lot of land, but we are also the direst inhabited continent on earth, 20% of the country is classified as desert. Our ability to feed ourselves, and feed ourselves well, is only possible through continual betterment of farming systems that grow more, efficiently use nutrients and water, and improve food quality.
And the global agricultural industry has also successfully addressed the call for innovation.
Our livestock have greater survival rates and are producing less methane.
Soil sensors are providing real-time data that we can immediately respond to, and drones are gathering aerial imagery of crop health, helping us to water better and control weeds more accurately.
And this is happening out in the paddocks today!
My vision is a future where farms have long range weather forecasts and advanced telecommunications so they can make well informed decisions. They are powered by renewable energy and no food is wasted.
But we are all responsible in creating that future – and we need to inspire people and encourage others to help create it with us.
As an industry, we built a powerful foundation of wisdom and awe-inspiring technology.
We now have flood tolerant rice, that can survive weeks under water.
Engine improvements in agricultural machinery mean we have more power and use less fuel.
The cotton we grow in Australian uses 90% less chemical than it did only a decade ago.
Yet this story is largely unknown.
And while the perception remains that farmers are as weathered and dull as a dam in a drought.
Our natural resources will continued be plundered.
Food will continue to be scraped into the bin because there is no understanding on the time and energy that went into producing it.
And a blind eye will be turned on our industry, at one of the most crucial times.
So we also need to work at changing the story.
We are using drones, satellites, robotics and genetics to improve production efficiencies.
We are better educated, networked and connected than ever before.
We should be proud of the quality and quantity of food and fibre we are able to grow here-
and these advancements are only set to continue.
Trust me, there is nothing boring about this industry!
We need to promote agriculture as the exciting and dynamic industry that it is, encouraged young people to look beyond the Great Diving Range and explore what opportunities lie in rural and regional Australia.
That young people who have grown up with technologies like computers and smart phones, who communicate daily with peers across the world, are given the platform to help shape this industry, because they have a vested interest in designing truly sustainable production systems.
A wonderful example of this are the Young Farming Champions. Lynne Strong’s programs, which include Young Farming Champions, Art4Agriculture and Young Sustainability Ambassadors, are cultivating change makers – she is building the capacity of young people in agriculture who are shaping their industries and sharing their stories in order to connect others to the land and the food system.
Building the capacity of those who work in agriculture, and engaging and inspiring others to work alongside of them is one of the greatest investments that can be made in our common future.
By Anika Molesworth
The Mekong River Basin is known to be is one of the most dynamic, productive and diverse in the world. Just the mere mention of its name conjures images of fishing nets being thrown by weathered hands, brightly clad women stooped low transplanting rice seedlings, and barefooted children with broad grins riding rickety bicycles. The mighty Mekong River provides life and livelihoods to over 65 million people. Most of the inhabitants who call it home are rural poor with livelihoods directly dependent on the availability of its water for their production of food. Poverty is widespread in the basin, with the people in Cambodia and Laos being among the poorest in the world. Within this, the agricultural labour force is the poorest sector of the population, many earning less than US$1/day, and constituting up to 34% of the national population.
Cambodia’s landscape is a scenic timeline of an erratic history; from the vestiges of mysterious god-kings, to colonial imprints left by the imperialistic French. Sweepers for landmines still work alongside the road verge as one gazes from a bus window travelling from palm-lined beaches, past mosaic rice paddies, and ending in present-day city mayhem. It is a country rapidly transforming – a tug-o-war between traditional beliefs and saffron robed monks versus prestigious cars and the latest phones. The younger generation speak of the future and of politics in hushed tones, and groups meet to discuss how deforestation is leading to changes in the weather and what can be done about it. It is in this complex and intoxicating place I have chosen to undertaken part of my PhD.
Today I am bent low over my field trial site at the Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI). I am planting maize. With a small stick I make a shallow hole in which I drop three small golden seeds. There are half a dozen Cambodians working alongside of me, persevering with the slow work without complaint as the temperatures creep to mid-thirties with 80% humidity.
Over the past few weeks I have been working with the CARDI Soil and Water team, preparing organic amendments such as rice straw, livestock manure and biochar. Our trials will determine how these treatments influence soil moisture retention and nutrient availability. We have leveled the ground and made beds for planting – this field layout designed to aid the application, movement and drainage of irrigation water. The equipment used here is synonymous with hard-yakka – pushed by hand with small motors rotating tillage blades to loosen the soil surface, then dragging wooden planks to level the soil.
Once our crop has emerged we fly a drone over the field to assess its development. From aerial imagery we can determine plant health and vigour in response to the organic amendment treatments. The Cambodian agricultural research team are keen to learn how the latest technology can be used to improve nutrient and water management, and give new insight into field characteristics.
My PhD research is situated within a larger project by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). This project – “Improving water and nutrient management to enable double cropping in the rice growing lowlands of Lao PDR and Cambodia” – addresses the questions; What are the key constraints limiting crop productivity? And, how can these be overcome to enable successful dry-season cropping? The support and guidance offered to me by the research team and local partners has been invaluable. My teachers are not found in stuffy lecture rooms, but wear sun-faded shirts, mud covered boots and quite often we share no common language.
Every day I learn more of the complexity of agro-ecological systems – how each individual component is connected to another. If the rain doesn’t fall, then the soil here in Cambodia dries like cement, exacerbating its inherently low fertility and constraining crop development. This results in little grain yield to sell at market and less plant biomass to feed to livestock. Less money in the farmer’s pocket means they search for off-farm employment – it is often the men who leave first, or young family members sent to the factories or who head across the border to Thailand or Vietnam. Those left behind work longer and harder. The interrelationship between the environment and with those who live so closely with the land is clear – a healthy landscape is essential to produce healthy food, adequate livelihoods and sustain vibrant communities.
Improving in-field crop management practices holds the potential to increase grain yield, household income, the regional economy and food security. Doing this by incorporating agricultural residues into the soil means that nutrients are recycled, soil organic matter increases, and the need for synthetic fertiliser inputs is potentially reduced. It is well recognised that the nutrient- and water-holding capacity of soils can be increased by the addition of organic amendments, thereby enhancing soil fertility and increasing crop productivity. Crop residue mulches, livestock manures and biochars have been found to suppress weeds, elevate levels of beneficial trace metals and exchangeable cations, increase crop nitrogen uptake, lower soil temperature, and enhance soil surface aggregate stability and permeability which improves crop root movement for access to nutrients and water. On hardsetting Cambodian soils, applying organic amendments can ease its cement-like characteristics by lowering soil tensile strength, reducing runoff and subsequently improving microbial conditions.
Farmers in both Australia and the Mekong Basin are facing environmental, social and political pressures to improve nutrient and water productivity. Farmers also have the desire to improve profit margins by reducing input costs whilst increasing yields. My research in both Australia and Cambodia is investigating two farming systems at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of social capacity and access to technology and new information, however sharing similar production challenges related to water and soil management. Both systems are striving for improved production with reduced environmental footprint. By understanding the building blocks of any farm – the soils, nutrients, water, and their dynamics influencing plant growth – we can transfer knowledge between farming systems, and ensure the best interactions with them.
As climate change impacts become more pronounced and the global population rises, there will be changes to the way food and fibre can be produced and managed. The impacts will be felt across the globe in varying degrees, and are expected to affect managerial and enterprise efficiencies. Projected impacts of climate change include changes to rainfall and temperature patterns, carbon dioxide levels and other climatic variables, that if realised, are likely to affect forage, food and fibre yield, animal welfare, and proper ecosystem functioning. The magnitude of these effects emphasises the importance of developing a greater understanding of our natural world, of how the climate is changing, and finding adaptation strategies farmers can effectively and efficiently embrace.
After a long, hot day in the field, there is no greater reward than sitting under a shady tree with my Khmer colleagues – reflecting on the good work achieved and discussing the obstacles still to be overcome. With a cool drink in hand, a local dish to sample, and an ever-effervescent group laughing loudly at lost translations, it is hard for me not to love what I do. Although there is no misconception to the challenges that face the agricultural industry, I feel hopeful about the future when amongst this group of young Cambodian agriculturalists.