A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


On the land, and staring down the barrel of climate change

Farmers are at the front line of a changing planet. As impacts hit hard, many more are tuning into the science. But some, it’s still all about the weather, not the climate, and scientists tread carefully. Anthony Marsico reports.

On the land, and staring down the barrel of climate change

Picture: Jack Banister

Words by Anthony Marsico

Robert Rowley is quick to interrupt unknown callers: “I’m not interested in whatever you’re selling, so bugger off.”

Fortunately, he remains on the line long enough to hear that The Citizen is investigating the agricultural impacts of climate change in Victoria’s south-west. On this, the 74-year-old dairy farmer has much to say.

Farmer Ken Rowley and his musical toilet, on which he performs his songs on issues including the plight of the planet and climate change.

Farmer Ken Rowley and his musical toilet, on which he performs his songs on issues including the plight of the planet and climate change.

Rowley has undergone something of a metamorphosis in the past decade, exploring organic and sustainable models after a lifetime of industrial-style agriculture, and is deeply concerned about the looming climate risks. While Australian farmers are increasingly engaging with climate science, Rowley’s passion is still a little unusual in a landscape where scepticism is easy to find, and scientists trying to build understanding tread warily.

“It’s like getting into religion,” says the farmer. “There are about 240-odd different religions, and you know damn well it’s a can of worms.”

Rowley’s farm is in Dennington, a couple of kilometres beyond Warrnambool. It’s prime dairy country – the south west region of Victoria produces one quarter of Australia’s milk. The property is a short drive from the century-old Dennington dairy factory run by Fonterra, a New Zealand company and the world’s biggest dairy co-operative, with annual sales revenue exceeding NZ$20.4b. Despite its success, the milk producer has struggled to adapt to what it describes as “the new norm of continued drought in Australia”.

Fonterra has announced it will close the Dennington plant in November, at a cost of 98 local jobs. Soon afterwards, the company flagged an expected annual loss of NZ$590m-675m.

The entrance to Rowley’s farm is signposted with a wagon plastered with the words ‘GM-free zone’. In his makeshift office behind the dairy, Rowley launches into song, accompanied by an unusual musical instrument – an old toilet painted green and threaded with guitar strings.

He has a repertoire of songs – about the erosion of soil, the loss of the sustainable farming practices of First Nations people, the plight of the planet and the science of climate change.

Rowley cheerfully admits he used to be one of those farmers who didn’t think twice about using whatever additives and practices might deliver better yields in the moment, with little thought about the consequences.

These days, in his unvarnished way, he refers to the people using such practices as “moron farmers”, and compares reliance on chemical additives to alcoholism: “It’s like giving a bloke a shot of whisky. If I give you a shot today, you’ll want two tomorrow. You become an alcoholic to the chemicals and, in the end, your body collapses.”

The scale of the challenges facing agriculture globally were recently spelled out in a landmark report on land use by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report found land clearing and farming contribute one third of the world’s greenhouse gases. Agricultural practices are also blamed for degrading soil, lowering water quality, excessive water use and overuse of chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides.

These challenges underscore increasing efforts by scientists to engage with farmers in ways that are useful and productive.

There has been increasing visibility and activism from some people on the land, notably with the rise of groups like Farmers for Climate Action. Nonetheless Graeme Anderson, a climate specialist at Agriculture Victoria who has been trying to get the science into the hands of farmers for the past 15 years, observes that there’s still substantial disengagement with the issues.

Anderson attributes much of that to the reality that farmers are constantly dealing with seasonal variability, and have either lived through or inherited stories from their forebears of extreme weather events. That recognition informs the way he presents information to farmers.

“What we’ve found to be a pretty successful approach is talking through the big drivers in the region that have been behind those big floods and droughts and other events in the past,” he says.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

The climate drivers he refers to include the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, the Indian Ocean Dipole, the Australian monsoon and the Southern Annular Mode. Rising temperatures have increased the impacts of these drivers, particularly in regions like south-west Victoria.

Anderson has found that framing talk of climate science and climate change around these phenomena, which are all well recognised by farmers in their impacts if not their genesis, often provides a useful way to begin to unpack the science more broadly.

Hayden Ballinger runs a 450-cow dairy farm at Naringal, about 20km east of Warrnambool. He says he accepts the growing threat of climate change but also understands the doubts some farmers have.

“I think it’s true to say a lot of farmers feel that people who don’t understand the industry have a very idealistic way of how the world should run, that probably isn’t living in reality, because those same people are unlikely to want to pay more for products either.

“There’s obviously a whole spectrum out there, but I think there are probably more pressing things for a lot of farmers to focus on, and they possibly don’t have the financial resources to put a lot of those idealist principles into play.”

As part of a Federal Government program to help farmers better understand and manage environmental risks, climate specialists Dr Leanne Webb from CSIRO and Dr Luke Shelly from the Bureau of Meteorology have spent the past several weeks talking to farmers around Victoria.

Webb says she is these days encountering less resistance to the scientific messages as farmers on the frontline confront the effects of climate change.

“There’s more and more evidence of, for example, warmer weather impacting the way they’re growing or producing their crops and stock,” says Webb.

“I think compared to 10 years ago it’s a whole other scene, where farmers are actually in some cases leading the argument.”

In talking to agricultural communities in Warrnambool and elsewhere, both Webb and Shelly say that the most immediate threats concerning farmers are those from extreme weather events, excessive rainfall and rising temperatures.

But one of the sticking points in communicating the science on these is the difficulty of determining whether a particular weather event is a consequence of natural variability, or is in some way super-charged by climate change. Determining this is the task of specialists looking at attribution – a significant and evolving scientific undertaking. It may take years to determine for certain whether a particular event can be blamed on climate change, by which time farmers will be likely dealing with the next problem.

Shelly says it “takes a lot of data and a lot of work … and in a lot of ways it’s almost like saying, ‘Well, come and ask me that question again in 10 years and I’ll tell you the answer’.” For many people on the land, this has only underscored confusion and frustration.

In their conversations with farming communities, scientists like Shelly and Webb say they give careful thought to the language they enlist, striving for accuracy and not hyperbole. Gaining traction from these conversations is critical, given around 13 per cent of Australia’s emissions come from agriculture.

The semantics of the science are a hot topic on many fronts, with media organisations like The Guardian announcing a shift to terms that “more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world” – among them climate emergency rather than climate change, and global heating rather than global warming.

In farming contexts, “we have seen that if you come in with an alarmist attitude there tends to be a defensive response, and that’s certainly not helpful,” Shelly says. “It’s not productive to try and communicate that way.”

But Geoff Rollinson, a co-ordinator with the Heytesbury District Landcare Network, which covers farming country west of Warrnambool, argues that the language needs to reflect the scientific understanding. Rollinson is leading the push for regional councils to declare a climate emergency – something only 34 of Australia’s 537 councils have done to date.

The campaign has not struck the level of resistance he anticipated, Rollinson says, which may betray something of a groundswell shift in attitudes. Regardless, he says many farmers are still scared to say, “I believe that climate change is here, it is happening rapidly and I’m personally doing something about it”.

Rollinson argues that sidestepping the language of alarm only reinforces a cautious approach.

“If you actually want to affect change, even with farmers you have to press the emergency button.”

This story is part of the University of Melbourne Centre for Advancing Journalism’s contribution, via The Junction, to the Covering Climate Now initiative, a global collaboration of more than 220 news organisations worldwide.

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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