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Monday, 19 June 2023

Study examines growing climate adaptation response among North East farmers

Information that is relevant, accessible and trusted is critical to those farmers seeking to adapt their agricultural businesses to changes in climate according to a study which examined the results of surveys taken by the North East Catchment Management Authority (CMA) while working with approximately 1800 land managers in north east Victoria during the past four years.

The project, which aimed to support the awareness, knowledge and skills of farmers to manage climate change also found the level of trust among farmers in climate forecasts was highest for short term forecasts delivered by Government authorities such as the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.

The Regional Land Partnerships (RLP) Embedding Climate Adaptation in Agriculture project is supported by North East CMA, with funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.

A significant majority of the land managers surveyed (88 per cent) believed the local climate and weather patterns in north east Victoria had changed.

Kiewa Valley dairy farmer Scott McKillop returned to the North East to farm in 2009. He said the climate is changing year to year with less reliable seasonal patterns and greater extremes of dry conditions and rainfall. But that change in the North East alpine valleys may also yield some positives.

“Slightly warmer and drier means we would be able to grow more grass. We expect the summer to be hot and dry but we may be able to grow more feed across more months of the year,” he said.

Farmers identified changes to rainfall patterns and bushfires as the biggest risks to their agricultural business. Extreme weather events including drought, bushfire and flood, were responsible in-part for more than three-quarters (78%) of those farmers surveyed making changes to their business due to changes in climate.

The largest proportion (47%) were adaptive changes to pasture management, infrastructure upgrades and changes to livestock management, while only 5% of changes were transformative, such as shifting farm location.

The study found the major financial investments by land managers in the past two years to adapt to climate change were pasture improvements (25%), machinery (22%) and water infrastructure/storage (16%), which accounted for 63% of responses.

As a champion of “new” grape varieties that match long-term changes in climatic conditions at his Whorouly and Beechworth vineyards, North East viticulturalist Mark Walpole says he can see no reason why production of grapes in the Murray Valley “food bowl” couldn’t be moved upstream in future to north east Victoria.

Almost three-quarters (71%) of land manager survey respondents said they were planning to make fundamental changes to their agricultural businesses in the future as a result of the changing regional climate.

Of those farmers who hadn’t made changes to their business, the most commonly cited areas for further support needed to do so included having a stronger financial position and more scientific information.

Rosewhite commercial beef producer Jane Carney says whether they recognise it or not, more farmers are adapting to a changing climate, supported by greater opportunities to increase their knowledge and improve their skills.

“They are adapting to drier seasons; they are adapting to water quality issues,” Mrs Carney said.

“Increased knowledge supports on-farm decisions. It’s very easy some years to say I can’t afford to make these decisions but then really you can’t afford not to do it.

The study found farmers used multiple sources of information to make decisions about their business. Farmers said they learned more about the potential impact of climate change on their farms by attending seminars/webinars, information from government departments, articles in industry publications/mainstream newspapers, and talking to other farmers or those working in similar agricultural businesses.

The study recommended designing the data collection to compare with an established baseline in future projects, and analysing changes in awareness, knowledge and practice change both before and after intervention.

Andrew Russell, a partner in a Rutherglen family farming operation driven by data, said weather records, trial results, seed quality specifications, soil information are all important to decisions made every day and across seasons.

“We have a baseline. Instead of trying to catch rainbows we set rotations and we will modify that if the Bureau says there is a higher probability of a dry year, a drought year or a wet year,” he said.

The Embedding Climate Adaptation in Agriculture project is a five-year project (2018-2023) supporting landholders, communities, and local government to develop the awareness, knowledge and skills to allow them to undertake changes in land management and strategic planning for climate change.

An online spatial tool, known as Climate Explorer was developed during the first year of the project. The tool displays region-specific predictive climate information to help land managers, communities, and local government to identify local climate-based threats and support improved decision-making. It covers the cropping, horticulture, viticulture, dairy, beef/sheep grazing, and forestry industries.

HVP Plantations General Manager Forest Resources Dr Tony O’Hara said the company was able to play a significant role in climate change mitigation.

“As a primary producer, we are clearly exposed to climate change,” he said. “Our reason for being is growing trees in a natural environment and the very real changes in climate are a high risk issue for us. We need an active program around adaptation.”

Since the development of the tool, the Embedding Climate Adaptation in Agriculture project has focused on developing and delivering extension and communication activities to increase land managers’ knowledge, skills, and awareness, build resilience and support decision-making, including long-term strategic planning and practice change.

Activities have included conferences for land managers in 2022 and 2023 focused on soil and soil carbon; field days sharing information about carbon outputs; working with individual Landcare groups on projects to improve soil health; facilitating seminars on water yield challenges in the region; and support for the North East Dairy Climate Futures Project, which invited dairy farmers to have a say about their own businesses in response to data released by the CSIRO in 2020 that supported predicted climate change impacts across the valleys of north east Victoria.

The North East CMA also released six detailed case studies of local leaders in the cropping, viticulture, dairy, beef grazing and forestry industries.

Further information is available at Embedding Climate Adaptation in Agriculture (necma.vic.gov.au)

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