Forget the partisan hype, Aust farmers are preparing for the extremes of climate change

Australia’s farmers are “doing amazing things” and rising to the climate challenge by adopting a deep level of strategic thinking to almost everything they do, according to a new survey on resilience in agriculture.

Charles Darwin University doctoral student David McKenzie interviewed 22 farmers across eastern Australia to track their experiences and responses. He reports the challenges they face are immense.

“We didn’t have any rain through those three years of winter… That’s never happened before,” a Queensland cattle farmer reported. “We had two winters without any frost – that’s never happened before.”

Extreme heat waves, drought, and floods are washing over the country at an increasing rate.

And they bring with them increasingly regular social, economic and ecological disruption.

One survey respondent said even in a good year, “everything now seems to come all at once.”

“(We) get massive dumps of rain that last for one month, then it will leave us for four to five months at a time, so we’ve basically set our grazing business up to harvest that rainfall event,” a NSW mixed farmer explained.

For a farmer, a string of mini-crises can quickly become a struggle for survival.

“Unless farmers are ready to build resilience and adaptively manage the risks associated with climate change, the viability of farming in certain locations may not be sustained,” says McKenzie.

He interviewed a variety of participants in industries including dairy, cattle, sheep, cropping and sugar production.

And the main thrust of his inquiry was to determine to what extent operators had already sought to adapt.

McKenzie found that farmers were well aware of the shifting patterns of rainfall and temperature affecting their properties. And they were putting in contingency plans for “extreme and unprecedented” events.

But, mostly, they were adapting their everyday operations.

Measuring sustainability worth it say farmers

One Riverina sheep farmer explained a breed switch “to something that’s shorn twice a year to manage the vegetation issues…there is less dust in them and less vegetable matter… (We) don’t need to treat for lice or fly. They just don’t get into them with that skin type.”

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Col Barton feeding his sheep cottonseeds on dry paddock in the drought-hit area of Duri in New South Wales. (Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s a similar story for cropping.

“The farmers adapted their processes to better accommodate growing crops in the non-growing season rainfall episodes and intense hot, dry season rainfall events outside the usual growing period,” McKenzie found.

No aspect of a farm’s operations is avoiding scrutiny.

Farmers consider the animal breeds and crop types they produce to be flexible choices. Others are prepared to relocate operations to chase the conditions their particular produce needs.

All recognise the need for financial reserves.

“Like a Formula One racing car driver, make a bad decision (and) miss a corner, you can tumble… (but) still be safe and sound in your shell,” a NSW sheep-cattle farmer explained.

But their means of producing a “roll cage” was varied.

“For example, one farmer sells stock to provide equity, another has money invested with a financial advisor in a farm management deposit, while others reinvest profits back into the farm,” McKenzie says.

The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.

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