Australian Geographic - 09.2019 - 10.2019

(Axel Boer) #1
the responsibility and opportunity to restore our degraded land-
scapes is in the hands of our farmers,” says Kate Smolski, CEO
of the NSW-based Nature Conservation Council. “We need
legislation that supports landowners to protect and restore for-
ests and bushlands, not encourages them to clear it. In addition
to strong laws protecting forests and bushland, landholders
should be supported financially to protect and restore areas.”
Bush Heritage also sees farmers as critical to addressing
Australia’s deforestation. “There’s already 54 per cent of Australia
under grazing...making it a sector that conservationists can’t
ignore,” Rebecca says. She explains she’s increasingly coming
across farmers looking to find alternative ways of working.
Importantly, they’re wanting to source methods that are
better suited to local conditions and not based on the higher,
more reliable, rainfall and nutrient-rich soils seen in Scotland
and England, upon which much of Australian agriculture has
been traditionally based.
“We are now looking at more innovative strategies, work-
ing with agriculture to find a new way forward so people can
have productive, prof itable land, working hand in hand with
conservation rather than the two sectors being in competition,”
Rebecca explains.
She stresses that she’s not advocating the total de-stocking of
Australia. “But I think there really is a middle ground; I think
there is a way we can have productive animals on the country
but do it in a way that is regenerative and make sure that we’re
preserving biodiversity values at the same time,” she says.
And that’s exactly what a landmark pilot study recently run
in NSW has found.


HE TITLE OF THE FINAL REPORT into the study released
this year leaves little doubt as to what it was all about:
Graziers with better profitability, biodiversity and wellbeing:
Exploring the potential for improving environmental, social and economic
outcomes in agriculture. And what it found is good news for Aus-
tralian forests as well as farmers – that there could be huge
gains, including financial, for farmers working their land in a
way that supports biodiversity.
Supported by funding from the federal government’s
National Environmental Science Program, the project looked
at grazing in a region that once supported large tracts of box
gum grassy woodlands, a type of habitat that has been listed
nat iona l ly a s th reatened since 2010. Once w idespread th roug h-
out south-eastern Australia, less than 8 per cent of the area
originally covered by this type of woodland survives: much of
it has been cleared for cropping or grazing or modified due to
the addition of fertiliser to grow pasture for livestock.
The report compared outcomes for traditional farmers with
those who identified as ‘regenerative farmers’, who’d chosen to
retain box gum woodland on their farms and work around it.

The idea for the project came initially from Sue Ogilvy, a former
physics graduate and IT expert who is undertaking a PhD in
env iron ment a l- econom ic account ing at the Fen ner School of
Environment and Society at the Australian National University.
She was intrigued by the fact that although a huge range of
quality statistics and facts were collected around farming in
Australia, the importance of natural resources to agriculture
appeared to have been overlooked.
She joined forces with Mark Gardner who’s been an agri-
cultural consultant for more than 20 years in the Dubbo area,
working with farmers in the sheep and wheat belt of western
NSW. Between them, Mark and Sue enlisted an expert team
of ecologists and economists. This included: economists with
the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage; CSIRO’s
Dr Sue McIntyre, the leading expert on Australia’s grassy
woodlands; the University of Queensland’s Dr Thilak
Mallawaarachchi, a leading agricultural economist in the
Asia-Pacific; and Dr Jacki Schirmer from the University of
Canberra who has been running a long-term wellbeing study
in regional Australia.
Ma rk says m a ny fa r mer s wa nt to look a f ter their la nd for f ut ure
generations in a way that supports the natural environment. But
they often don’t know how to do it. “It’s the how-tos, the tech-
niques, that require some examination, particularly in light of a
more variable climate,” Mark explains. “The sorts of questions
farmers are asking are: ‘Is there another way that we can achieve
this desire of looking after our land and potentially handing it
on?’ And it’s just that sort of question that our project has helped
in a very small way provide some information for.”
Sue agrees it’s widely understood that natural resources are
a very important part of agricultural production. “But we have
not equipped our agricultural economic scientists with the
resources to characterise them as a factor of agricultural pro-
ductivity,” she explains. “So we had no statistics to tell us
whether farms that had preserved grassy woodlands in good
condition were more or less profitable than farms that had
cleared them and converted them to exotic pastures.”
Particularly telling in the report was this statement: “We con-
clude that regenerative grazing can be at least as profitable, and
at times more profitable, than other methods whilst maintaining
and enhancing grassy woodland biodiversity on their properties.”
In short, not cutting down the woodlands made for a better farm.
Mark says every farmer wants to leave their land in the best
condition possible. Not so long ago that would, without question,
have meant more introduced pastures and few trees. Now there’s
a growing movement among farmers that means a farm with
native trees, grasses and birds, as well as a profitable business.
“I think revolution is a strong word,” Mark says. “But I do
think that there’s an absolute sea-swell of change in the farming

September. October 85


In short, not cutting down the woodlands

made for a better farm.

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