Farmers on the front line of climate change

Not long after leaving school, I followed the well-trodden path of many farm girls and boys; packing my bags and joining a shearing team. Through 40-plus degree days of skirting fleeces and grinding blades (hot tip, this is not a good way to cool down) on the edge of the pastoral country during a Western Australian summer as a 17-year-old, I had no idea the suffocating heat was rapidly becoming a defining feature of our changing climate. Fast forward more than a decade and as I write this, in Crookwell, NSW it’s 38 degrees and a local sheep farmer has come in from an early morning start – forced to muster his lambs before the inescapable heat stresses livestock, and farmers. Shaking his head as the sweat drips down, he wonders how to adjust to temperatures 14 degrees above average.

For most urban dwellers, summer means time by the pool and flocking to the nearest shopping centre when the heat becomes too much. For Australian farmers, summer means something very different.

A heatwave means never-ending water runs, relishing the chance to clean out troughs in the hope that wet jeans will keep you cool for at least a few minutes.

It’s the sight of working dogs collapsed in the shade of the field bin – seeking just a short reprieve from the inescapable heat. It’s the constant fear of header fires; when everything is bone-dry and the slightest spark from overheated machinery can create a raging inferno; endangering lives and wiping out crops, pastures and infrastructure.

According to CSIRO and BOM data from 1950-2013, heatwaves are more frequent over much of Australia. The first heatwave of each season is occurring earlier, virtually everywhere, and the hottest days of heatwaves are becoming even hotter. Like most farmers, I’m a big fan of our sunburnt country, our land of drought and flooding rains. What I’m less fond of is the flow-on impacts of the increased number and intensity of heatwaves which are rapidly becoming a defining feature of climate change. Fruit, vegetables, grains, and grapes all struggle to cope under hot conditions. Fruit wilts in the paddock and grapes ferment before your eyes; tempers fray as the stress of maintaining farm productivity under unprecedented conditions takes its toll.

For livestock producers, the burden is immense with heatwaves dramatically impacting on the well-being and productivity of beef and dairy cattle, with many struggling to ever return to pre-heatwave productivity levels. Sheep farmers are no better off, with studies demonstrating a drop in ram fertility as a result of heatwave conditions.

What does this mean for productivity on farm, and what can our farmers do to adjust? Many are already leading the way by integrating sprinkler systems into feedlots, going off the grid to ensure reliable energy supplies as our coal-fired power stations melt down in the heat – a heat which they’ve helped to perpetuate. Others are turning to vegetation and even shade cloth for some degree of protection. Meanwhile, our scientists work against time to expand the reach of heat and drought-tolerant crop varieties.  

While farmers are sweltering in the paddocks and crops are literally sizzling on the stalks, our federal government has comprehensively failed to develop a credible and cohesive climate and energy policy framework to alter Australia’s climate trajectory. In the air-conditioned halls of Parliament, our leaders are cushioned from the realities of climate change. Our farmers are not.

Verity Morgan-Schmidt is chief executive of Australian Farmers for Climate Action.