Mr Wiley—I am a development officer with the Department of Agriculture and Food based in Geraldton in Western Australia, so the very northern part of the Western Australian wheat belt cleared agricultural areas. Unfortunately, it looks like we are the first and perhaps the worst to be really hammered by climate change. The coastal regions of southern Western Australia had the most reliable rainfall in the country, which meant our farmers could have high input-output systems because they knew it was going to rain. Unfortunately, things have changed. From 1970 to 2000, rainfall declined by about one to two millimetres per year, which is not a lot, but over 30 years that adds up. It now appears that we may have had a second climate shift in 2000. This is still very contentious amongst the climate scientists and… eight years is not a lot of data. But the shift appears to be so great that the evidence is suggesting we are actually into a completely different climate from last century. So far this decade, our rainfall for the very northern agricultural wheat belt has fallen by 25 per cent compared with last
century. If that really is the case, we are in a totally new ball game.
In our region particularly—we are a bit biased—we have a very adaptable agricultural sector: good farmers, good resources and good agribusiness. While rainfall declined over that 30-year period, wheat yields actually went up—by about four per cent per year over a two decade period. That is a pretty remarkable achievement. They are now dropping. So you cannot adapt if you have had this significant change in climate, if this turns out to be correct. We have had this big drop, but in 2006 we had the mother of all droughts. You are talking about places like Northampton that have never had a drought before. The Binnu bin did not open that season because there was not one grain to be delivered—not one grain. Eighty per cent of the stock had to leave the district. All the lambs had to be put down that season and the stock remaining had to be hand fed. Because it is mostly sand plain, the degradation meant it was like the beach for about 10 months. Unfortunately, we are 500 kilometres north of Perth, so not too many of the experts or decision makers in Perth got up there and saw it, but it was a disaster.
"There could be whole districts where they will have to walk off the farm."
In terms of the economics, the banks are not saying too much at the moment. There have been very few sales so officially we have not had a collapse in land values, but I cannot see how we will avoid it. If land values collapse, equity collapses. Earlier this year, probably 25 per cent of the farmers had been told they would not get finance to put the crop in this year, but we had a bit of summer rain in the north and record wheat prices early in the year, so most of them did get finance. It is on a knife edge back there at the moment, depending on the rain. I have been away for two weeks. If it rains, we might get a crop. If it does not rain, there could be whole districts where they will have to walk off the farm. It has got to that point and, unfortunately, we are the first. But one of the farmers, Chris King, who chairs NACC, the Northern Agricultural Catchments Council, said a couple of weeks ago, ‘Australian agriculture is lucky because if anyone can deal with it, we will be able to’—because it is an area of innovation. We had a project that started in 2006 in the Binnu area, the worst affected area, where we got the farmers to record the actual stock movements so we could work out exactly how much each paddock carried for a 12-month period. We picked farmers who were just starting to put in the perennials—the first innovators. It turned out to be the mother of all droughts. What that data said was that it did not matter what we did, any traditional annual pasture would not have grown enough to prevent the wind erosion we saw over the 10-month period. Even I was surprised how good the perennials were. We were actually carrying four to six sheep per hectare equivalents and had ground cover and had no erosion. So these innovations carried more stock in the worst drought ever than those farmers carried on annual pastures in a normal year. That gives us hope for the farmers but even for me. The only thing that kept us sane during that drought was to go out and see those patches of green.
One of the other innovations we did only last year was to do with approaches to cropping. There is a farmer over here doing pasture cropping and growing wheat over these summer-growing perennial pastures. [Col Seis of Gugong] Bob and I came over and saw it last year and we went back and put a trial in and, remarkably, we found that the wheat on certain perennials out-yielded the wheat on annual pastures. It was one trial, one year, one season. We are at the point where there is a bit of light at the end of a very dark tunnel. We do not have a lot of hard evidence in terms of scientific data—we have a limited amount—but it looks like there could be some solutions.
We are talking about a complete revolution in the way we farm. In the last six months farmers’ attitudes have changed. I guess you have heard comments about climate change like, ‘We are probably just in a dry spell and it will come good again.’ The farmers in the north-east are no longer thinking that way. They now accept that this is the future and the question for them is: will they be on the farm next year and beyond?
"What does look promising is storing carbon. [The figures we have been getting] are in the range of five to 10 tonnes CO2 equivalent."
We see some hope and systems that could work in the future. The problem is finance—the equity is shot; the banks’ nerves are shot. So if these things work, how do we actually redevelop agriculture? How do we fund it? I cannot see that government would pay the bill for what is required to totally redevelop agriculture even in our little part of the world. What does look promising is storing carbon. [The figures we have been getting] are in the range of five to 10 tonnes CO2 equivalent. The older trial data on annuals, the old farming system, had a maximum of three and probably at best about one tonne. We are talking about a quantum difference, if it is right. I am not totally certain that it is right, and at the moment we are taking more samples to see if this is real. If it is, then it could be the thing that finances the change in agriculture to more sustainable systems. I have extrapolated from the numbers that we do have to the Western Australian examples I know pretty well, because I was curious to find just how big this is. My extrapolation is … that we could soak up all the Western Australian emissions on cleared agricultural land in WA with those sorts of systems. You must be careful about how you take those figures. This is an extrapolation—it is my best guess at the moment. We really need to work out if that is possible or not.
Senator HEFFERNAN—The CSIRO’s is only a guess too.
Mr Wiley—It looks promising. We are drawn between the positions: this is disaster and this decade is the future in our part of the world. The old game is over. It is time to stop talking about it; it is now time to take action. It will need to be radical action if agriculture in our part of the world is to keep going. But there is hope.