NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (Adapt NSW 2015) Keynote Address

I feel the land. I embrace its presence. And I thrive at the joy in farming it. For the past 40,000 years my ancestors have farmed the same land that I farm with my parents today and when my ancestors talk to me about the climate changes over this time, I listen. It is, therefore, only relevant that we start our climate story today by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet. I would like to pay my respects to the Elders past, present and future and acknowledge all my Brothers and Sisters here today.

Good morning ladies and gentlemen.

Almost 10 years ago, I recall sitting at my Great Grandmother’s dining table at the farm with my Grandpa and my Dad. To be honest, things were pretty rough… The drought was settling in over the once flourishing paddocks and there became a time several years before that prevented this gorgeous little farm from providing our family with all the opportunity they could have dreamed about. There became a time, when despite my Great Grandparent’s enthusiasm for raising their children on the land, that it was no longer feasible to do so.

There became a time when we realised that the world’s population would increase by 2.3 billion people in the next 35 years and that we need to double food supply just to feed them.

There was a time we realised that we will need to produce more food in the next 40 years than we have in the past 8,000.

And there will become a time, possibly next year that for the first time, Australia will have to import wheat.

Now is our time to make a difference. Now is our time to act. Now is our time to adapt.

Despite a rich agricultural past and living in regional NSW most of my life, the fact that my family were farmers seemed trivial until my early 20’s. It wasn’t until one weekend with NSW Young Farmers that my mind began to race and I suddenly found pride in the fact that my family had bred the same type of cattle for 4 generations. I have since become the Chair of Young Farmers and from the start of the year I am proud to share that our membership has increased by 70%.

Through my role with NSW Farmers and as a Consultant for PwC’s Indigenous Consulting, I have spent a lot of time travelling and talking to people from different backgrounds, with the goal of challenging and changing community perceptions in relation to farming and climate change.

I am not an expert in either of these fields, rather a concerned young person who wants nothing more than the opportunity for my descendants to boast about another 40,000 years of agricultural history. I am just one of the millions of young people from around the world who don’t want to worry about the ability to have children or where and how we will find food. And I am a part of just one of the 135,000 farming families in Australia who want to continue our family’s tradition.

From my colleagues who faced Cyclone Yasi and lost their banana crops, to our friends crippled by drought in Western NSW, we know farmers are on the front lines of the impacts of climate change. But not only do we see the impacts on our farms, we know we are part of a bigger system that sees the effects on the communities around us. A changing climate makes farmers re-think the way they’ve been farming for generations.

12 months ago I was asked to be part of the Earth Hour Planet to Plate Cookbook, alongside over 50 farmers from around Australia who happily talked about the impact of climate chance on their farms. While many were secretly fearful of the perception of working with the panda, a small contingent started to murmur about what this could mean for our industry. An agricultural climate movement was born.

After a successful launch of the cookbook, we then ensured our voices were heard in Parliament House with the largest farmer contingent to talk about climate change. This was later reinforced with a farmer letter to demonstrate that farmers wanted active policy and a committed government in this space.

While I have been involved in some ground breaking initiatives this year, my proudest achievement was moving the motion, as a young farmer council, to amend the climate change policy at the NSW Farmers Annual Conference. Until this year, our climate change policy in NSW called for a Royal Commission into the science behind climate change and doubted whether climate variability was influenced by human activities. We are now the leading farming organisation in Australia in the climate change space, recognising that farmers are at the frontlines and that renewable energy will play a critical role in meeting the energy needs of Australia into the future.

But what the changes of words within policy fails to share is what happened next. For the first time, I overheard conversations in the streets of Sydney about how proactive farmers were, we saw agriculture invited to opportunities that were never imagined and as an industry we stood together and said something, in terms of our outlook on climate change, needs to change. Farmers no longer appear to be the enemy in this situation, rather the optimistic, forward thinking industry who have adapted well to the impacts of climate change til now. And it’s true, while conservative farmers may not make the connection of climate change to the varying weather on their farms, they have adapted extremely well.

Since our motion, our voices have been considered and trusted wider than ever before;

  • We have been involved from the start to help organise the Peoples’ Climate March in Sydney to coincide with COP21.
  • We joined with a Christian group called Common Grace to give solar panels to farmers on the Liverpool Plains. This demonstrated our unity in an attempt to stop the Shenhua Mine.
  • And I have recently just finished filming a documentary for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project that will be released next weekend.

Having spoken to climate campaigners and farmers from right around the world, I became proud to learn that Australian farmers are renowned for adapting every day to the various conditions. So what does adaption look like?

On my own farm, my family breed a type of drought hardy cattle called the Braford. Typical to what you may see up north, you could imagine the stock agents surprise when we took 4 top bulls to the local sale at Gloucester. I recall his words distinctly after the sale- ‘you will never sell anything like that in this area’. 3 years later, the same agent calls every week to see if we have any cattle available, seeing the durability of the cattle during the hard seasons. We see the impacts of a variable climate across the fence and in our area. Breeding durable cattle and promoting them to farmers who are experiencing drought is just one small part of the solution. 

One of the integral parts for us to adapt as an industry right around the world is by sharing the stories as to what we are doing on farm. Creating a network of likeminded people is the key solution to ensure farmers can continue to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

A great example of this collaboration is the Hepburn wind project in Victoria, where farmers and the rural community have got together to build wind turbines to power the valley. This is a start of a movement around Australia, with more farmers investigating this model to implement something similar on their farm. We are moving to a people driven model where Australian farmers won’t just be providing us with food and fibre, but where they will power and empower us too.

Not only does a scheme like this provide the local community with a green, renewable power source, it also provides the farmer with an alternative cash flow, crucial to times of weather hardship. By supporting renewables over fossil fuels we are investing in and safeguarding our future, tackling one of society’s greatest challenges.

Climate change is impacting farming right now. Whether you read about it in the paper or you see the impact directly on your farm, it’s hard to ignore the issue. We know climate change is happening now and we need to continue to act. 

As farmers, we know our land intimately, and up until know, we have been adapting pretty well. But there will become a time when we can no longer change farming practices just to get by. This is an issue for people and government led change.

The Climate Council’s Feeding a Hungry Nation Report, emphasises that Australian agriculture is on the frontline when it comes to climate change. For a country that has an international reputation for a safe, affordable and healthy food, the lack of strong government policies and targets presents us with a significant risk.

Throughout my travels, I have discovered that climate change threatens living life as we know it today. We know the science is strong and the impacts devastating for culture, health and lifestyles. Farmers are just one of the frontline communities and that is why our voice is so important. That is why I will be travelling to Paris in 2 weeks to be that strong voice and advocate for Australian farmers. This is first time that we will have a presence, let alone a voice heard at an international climate change convention.

Attending this convention is only the first step. This is our industries opportunity to learn from likeminded farmers around the world and bring further innovative ideas back to implement. It is also our chance to show that farmers are leading the way in the climate action space and encourage government to follow this path. Farmers must be part of the climate change solution.

I believe the future is overwhelmingly bright provided we take the steps now to adopt new practices, to embrace renewable energy and to unite behind a positive vision for our industry. After all, farmers have always looked at a problem and solved it. It’s what we do. This is our opportunity to create a difference.

If you’d like to follow my adventures in Paris and my work you can find me on Twitter @GilbertJoshuaM or listen to my TractorTalks podcast via iTunes.

If you are under the age of 28, you have never lived a month on this earth with “average” weather. My generation is the first generation to feel and see the effects of climate change and the last generation to do something about it. This is our opportunity to take charge, create a leading precedent and show we can adapt to not only the changes in the weather, but also to the changes in attitudes of the people.