What life is really like for Australian farmers as they deal with a changing climate.
On that glorious morning, whether she knew it or not, she was supposed to be doing her bit to combat the impacts of climate change by planting trees on the farm. Instead, she’d recruited her little brother to campaign for a handsome bounty in exchange for their services. Perched high up on a trailer bristling with 1700 seedlings, the pair demanded a dollar per tree.
“Actually,” I began, “these trees are really being planted to benefit you guys, not me. So, if it’s a dollar a tree then get ready to pay up big time.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, incredulous.
Making grass angels in the lush spring pasture, we watched puffy clouds overhead as I told her how much they had changed since I was a little girl.
Back then, trees were decorative. Mum’s planting extended beyond her magnificent garden on rare and special occasions, like the time I brought home a seedling wrapped in paperbark from school.
The whole family took a picnic lunch down to the gully to plant it where it stands now, 30-years later, tall, twisted and alone.
The story left my girl astonished. “You planted it all by itself?” she said, wrinkling up her face. After all, this September, the kids and a handful of Landcare friends planted 1000 trees before we took a well-deserved rest and had a barbie.
“So why are we planting so many trees?” she asked.
Simply, I explained, because it helps us – and our cows – ride out the worst of what an increasingly cranky climate dishes up on our farm. I explained how winters had become warmer, spring times shorter, summers longer and the quenching rains of autumn less reliable.
In the race to adapt, everything is changing here on the farm. In our little girl’s lifetime, we’ve sown different pasture species, planted kilometres of shelterbelts, upgraded the water system and installed shade sails in the dairy yard. Goodness, even the time of year the calves are born has shifted to match the moving seasons. We’re embarking on irrigation infrastructure, too, in a bid to make the farm more resilient to the longer dry spells.
The weather has a huge impact on daily farm life. On a hot day, we milk earlier in the mornings and later in the evening to let the herd spend the afternoon resting in the shade. The cows are fed less fibre to minimise heat created by digestion and sprinkled with water as they enter and exit the dairy. Even so, milk production can drop by as much as 25 per cent as the number of hot days in Victoria is predicted to increase.
We’re adapting fast, but we’re doing nothing special because plenty of farmers are doing all these and more. It doesn’t stop on the farm, either. Research funded by the dairy community has just delivered a breakthrough that could slash the amount of methane produced by our cows by a third.
It’s heartening news.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull this week attended COP21, announcing Australia’s new commitments to addressing climate change.
What frightens me, however, is that science also tells us what Australian farmers are already experiencing is only the beginning: the pace of change is going to quicken. That means my little girl will find it so much harder to follow in my footsteps than I have found it to follow in my mother’s. And, if that happens, one thing’s for sure: fresh milk will no longer be cheaper than water.
Farmers are famously self-reliant but this is one problem we can’t, and shouldn’t, battle on our own. I hope now that the world has gathered in Paris for climate change talks, they’re as pragmatic as my own paddock talks with our little girl.
Nature doesn’t play by the rules of political games and this is one game we can’t afford to lose. So, please, urge your local politician to speak as plainly as a farmer. We’re all in it together.
Marian Macdonald is a Gippsland (Victoria) based dairy farmer, mum and blogger who is passionate about climate action. Visit Marian’s blog here: milkmaidmarian.com.