Climate Change and Farming

Reflections on a day of science and ideas … and hope The full title of this worthwhile climate change and farming forum was cumbersome but nonetheless descriptive of the fulfilled intention: Join the Climate Conversation: Rural communities making a difference.

I wore three hats: a former professional in agricultural and environmental policy; a recent ex-farmer but an interested resident of the Yass Valley; and a ‘reporter’ for The Gundaroo Gazette. I was one of a contingent of Gundaroo landholders.

The straight ‘news’ about the day can be read on page 2, so I don’t need to repeat it. But I will congratulate the regional landcare groups that put the day together. It was very well done, and left most of the full-house audience commenting how they were much encouraged by the successful changes other farmers had made, and by the thought that they themselves could also make a difference.

Journalist and admired former ABC broadcaster Genevieve Jacobs MC’d the day seamlessly, especially the lively discussions after each speaker, and the final Q&A session.

Wally Bell’s ‘Welcome to Country’ gave us an insight into how this Ngunnawal man and his people have helped deepen the appreciation regional landcare groups have of centuries-old Indigenous land and water management practices.

The first speaker was Dr Bradley Opdyke, a Paleoclimatologist, and Senior Lecturer at the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences. Dr Opdyke injected local flavour by offering answers to the question: What does a changing climate mean for the Yass region—in the past, at present, and in the future?

He set the scene with explanations about the relationships between climate and weather, sea surface and air temperatures, and warmer oceans and air moisture.

His main message was that climate change is not linear, demonstrating this with sobering statistics and graphs showing how, as temperature increases, the amounts of energy, heat and water vapour increase exponentially, leading to extreme weather events and shifting patterns.

The Yass region is experiencing the trend emerging in southeastern Australia of changing temperature and rainfall, to warmer but drier winters and warmer wetter summers with more dramatic weather events.

Dr Opdyke described some past events to indicate what is possible: Lake George water levels rising by 25 metres, the 1860s flooding of nearby homesteads, and—much further back—Paleo records showing that Lake George has flooded what is now Bungendore, poured through Geary’s Gap, and come over the hills into the Yass River catchment. Among those records is the presence of Nothofagus sp (Southern Beech) along the ‘shores’ of the lake. This tree needs 1200– 1500 mm of annual rainfall to persist.

He concluded with a graphic explanation about shortening time periods: Pleistocene period climate is already being experienced in the two poles, where glaciers are diminishing; and CO2 in the atmosphere is trending towards Pleistocene levels within decades. A warmer Arctic could cause the release of vast amounts of methane—21 times more potent as a greenhous gas than CO2.

A challenge for all of society and scientists working in this field is that “we don’t know what we don’t know”.

Dr Charles Massy spoke after morning tea. ‘Charlie’ has been known for decades as the owner of the ‘Severn Park Merino Stud’ near Cooma and later for his two books on the wool industry. His 2017 book, Call of the Reed Warbler is based on his PhD thesis at ANU. He took us through the main themes in the book, talking about the emergence and steady adoption of ‘regenerative agriculture’ in Australia, and the reasons to have hope for the future.

Dr Massy’s talk was demonstrably from ‘hands-on’ experience. I found it encouraging and persuasive—not least because of his having made 40 years of mistakes before becoming ‘landscape literate’, and because I personally know and respect some of the landholders whose transformative stories he used as examples.

Dr Massy used the term ‘Anthropocene Epoch’ to describe, critically, the era we’re now living in—characterised by the development of the ‘mechanical mind’ and ‘industrial agriculture’ and by the embedding of certain practices that have proven to be environmentally destructive.

I cannot attempt in this space to do justice to the number of challenging statements and interwoven conceptual threads in Dr Massy’s presentation—the adverse impacts of industrial agriculture, the benefits of properly balanced landscape functions, the link of healthy soil to healthy food, and more.

I encourage anyone with an interest in this subject to tackle Call of the Reed Warbler. It is not a light read, and could have been two or three separate books. And I personally would take issue with some of its arguments, tone, and ‘blind spots’—as I wanted to during his talk. Nonetheless, for the most part, the book contains much to provoke deep thought and to offer hope, especially the case studies of his own property and of the scores of regenerative agriculture practitioners Dr Massy visited and interviewed.

It is these practical, transformative stories, which we had such a small taste of, that most captured my imagination.

His photos along property and paddock boundaries contrasting ‘conventional’ and ‘regenerative’ farming were graphic. He used these repeatedly, from several continents and around Australia, to help explain the benefits of achieving balance among the five ‘landscape functions’: solar, water, soil, dynamic ecosystems and human/social.

Most pertinent to the central theme of the forum was the enormous capacity of healthy soil biology (eight times more life ‘underneath’ than on top) to contribute to ameliorating climate change. Healthy soil biology leads to healthier growing plants, greatly increased water holding capacity, and more atmospheric carbon being sequestered.

Two other points he made can’t go unremarked. One was a recent FAO study showing that around 70% of the world’s food is produced on five-acre farms. Another, as part of the ‘campaign’ to transform agricultural production, was the need to get children back in touch with natural ecosystems, and understanding where our food and fibre comes from. Dr Opdyke and Dr Massy were encouraged by the interest of student representatives from three high schools around the region.

After lunch, Dr Christine Jones gave us no chance of a postprandial snooze. A practical soil scientist and Founder of the ‘Amazing Carbon’ organisation, Dr Jones’ talk on ‘Restoring soil, restoring climate’ left us in little doubt that Dr Massy’s soil–climate claims were fully justified.

Her rapid-fire presentation filled us with sobering facts about two centuries of soil degradation, despite generations of dedicated farmers and scientists seeking to maintain and restore soil health and productivity.

Dr Jones began by sharing some descriptions of soils and vegetation from colonial Australia. George Augustus Robinson, Protector of Aborigines, rode over large areas of Victoria and NSW, observing the tribes and the state of the landscape. His journals describe luxuriant green grass in summer, even after 90 days without rain, carpets of wildflowers, and deep soft soil into which one could easily push a stick two feet. Seriously?

Around the same time, explorer and scientist Paul Strzelecki analysed soil samples showing levels of organic matter and water-holding capacity many times higher than the same soils today, with the same or better carbon levels in the subsoil as the topsoil.

Dr Jones asserted that by ‘simplifying’ our landscape and losing ‘green’, we’ve contributed to aridity and higher temperatures. Higher temperatures lead to more release of CO2 and CH4 (methane). Generally, organic carbon in our soils now is about 80% lower than in Strzelecki’s time, indicating the massive capacity land managers have to recover that deficit and pull carbon from the atmosphere.

Maximising green plants and increasing the rate of photosynthesis is the natural way to improve soil health and carbon sequestration capacity. “Actively growing green plants support the microbes that create well-structured friable topsoil with high nutrient status and water-holding capacity.”

Defining soil as “weathered rock in touch with roots”, Dr Jones explained that soil holds onto roots in the presence of healthy microbes, and that “this is where all the good work goes on”.

In contrast to the increasingly strident attacks on farmed livestock as greenhouse villains, Dr Jones reaffirmed that ruminant animals are one of our best tools for managing soil health. Rotationally grazed animals increase the rate of photosynthesis and the mass of actively growing green plants. She added that plant diversity is another factor in restoring soil carbon. “Grow anything. Animals love flowers.”

Dr Jones used a New Zealand trial to illustrate the potential speed of transformative recovery by increasing plant diversity and improving soil biology. The two hectare trial stopped the use of high-analysis artificial fertilisers and planted eight extra species from four different functional groups (grasses, flowers, tall herbs, salad greens). Within six months, there was a massive increase in the depth of carbon-absorbing topsoil.

Listening to her at this forum, I recalled a two-day grasslands conference I attended in the Clare Valley 20 year ago. Dr Jones was given an award for ‘the most paradigm-shifting presentation’. What’s changed, I thought.

Dr Siwan Lovett put all of this science into a social/community context. Dr Lovett is a social scientist who has been working in natural resource management for twenty years. As part of the not-for-profit Australian River Restoration Centre, she manages the successful Rivers of Carbon initiative to protect and restore riparian zones in this region.

She talked about how we must not forget to value and invest in ‘social capital’—ourselves, our relationships and our networks and groups.

Dr Lovett’s opening ‘salvo’ reflected on nearly two decades of potential climate change action ‘lost’ because of the higher value assigned to ‘rational thinking’ rather than the way people actually think about their decisions—emotion first, then whatever supporting facts we can find. This way, the issue can make sense to people. Information and understanding are not the same.

Her supportive approach to building collaborative networks is: “I don’t know. You might. Let’s work together.” This is much more likely to succeed than “I know. You don’t. So it’s my call.”

For our consideration, Dr Lovett shared ‘Siwan’s ten personal revelations’ about how she approaches the challenges of climate change. She supported each ‘revelation’ with insightful comments that, for space, can’t be included here.

  • Develop a new ‘language’ to use about climate change; no more ‘fighting’ negativity.
  • Accept uncertainty, but have ‘a happy place’ to go to ease anxiety.
  • Keep learning. Science plus experience promotes understanding.
  • Work with nature as it is, including in our highly modified systems.
  • Value both natural and social capital.
  • Empower and educate women and girls, and educate boys about this.
  • Share knowledge and experience.
  • Be the leader you want to follow.
  • Seek connection with people and place. Get invited.
  • Use stories to inspire hope. ‘Expert stories’ are 20% heart and 80% brain. But ‘memorable stories’ are 80% heart.

These four speakers, Drs Jones, Opdyke, Lovett and Massy, made the day by sharing their knowledge, experience and enthusiasm with an energetic adudience.

Following afternoon tea, when participants had one more opportunity to gather materials and talk with the wellpatronised stall holders, the MC moderated an energetic panel session, which served to reaffirm the sense of hope and empowerment that had grown throughout the day.

Days after the forum, the lead organiser, Linda Cavanagh from Boorowa Community Landcare, told me that the feedback forms had been overwhelmingly positive, with many personal commitments to take action. The students, stallholders and speakers were of similar mind.

The organisers believed the event showcased what landcare groups can achieve when well resourced and working together.

The ‘conversation’ has just begun. Follow-up ideas include smaller ‘how to’ workshops, and individual mentoring. Closer sub-regional cooperation and collaborative activities among the landcare groups is likely to be an ongoing benefit.

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