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.