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.