Sustainable Farms: bringing people together to support healthy farms, farmers and profits

Michelle Young & Suzannah Macbeth (Australian National University)

Since European settlement, over 90% of box gum grassy woodland has been cleared from agricultural regions in south-eastern Australia. This has had disastrous impacts on a number of threatened species in this area whose prime habitat is within the agricultural zone. Examples include the squirrel glider, southern bell frog and superb parrot. 

For more than three decades, farmers in this agricultural region have been working with organisations such as Landcare groups, Local Land Services, Catchment Management Authorities and Greening Australia to address habitat loss (and other problems such as salinity). These partnerships have resulted in considerable investments on farms in the box gum grassy woodlands through tree planting programs and protecting riparian areas and rocky outcrops. This has resulted in substantial increases in native vegetation cover in some regions. Alongside this on-ground work by a range of groups and individuals, Professor David Lindenmayer and his team at ANU have been conducting on-farm research for more than 20 years, monitoring biodiversity and ecological values from northern Victoria through to south-east Queensland. 

This long term monitoring at ANU has created a unique dataset that demonstrates changes in biodiversity outcomes over two decades on agricultural land. In doing so, this research has also been able to demonstrate the impact of planting design on biodiversity, with plantings that support the most bird species, including birds of conservation concern, being larger in size, block-shaped, connected to other plantings or have patches of remnant vegetation nearby, located in gullies, and established around large old paddock trees. 

An unimproved dam (a) versus an improved dam (b). Improved dams are fenced and livestock can get to the dam via a single access point. This allows for the regeneration of fringing vegetation, which helps to filter nutrients from paddock run-off, shade the water and increase biodiversity. Sustainable Farms is currently undertaking research to investigate the biodiversity and productivity benefits of improving farm dams. Credit: Bindi Vanzella (image A) and Helen Fitzgerald (image B).

The field ecologists engaged in this work have had thousands of conversations with hundreds of farmers which, over time, revealed something else: not only does farm management influence biodiversity, but farmers who worked to protect natural assets on their farm noticed a positive impact on productivity. And for many, healthy biodiversity on farms appeared to correlate with good mental health, wellbeing and resilience during tough times. 

From 20 years of solid ecological data, as well as these vital seeds of observation and experience from farmers, Sustainable Farms was born: a multi-disciplinary project where three key areas overlap – healthy farms (ecology research), healthy farmers (mental health research) and healthy profits (finance research).

Burnbank Farm, near Wagga Wagga and owned by Rick and Pam Martin, is a prime example. Following a fire 35 years ago there was hardly any native vegetation on the farm, with less than 2% treed. The farm had major problems with soil erosion, salinity, rising water tables, low productivity pastures and poor crop yields. 

When Rick and Pam took over management of the property, they started a revegetation program, adding woodlots and replanting vegetation shelterbelts throughout the property. They also enhanced habitat features like rocky outcrops. ANU researchers have now been monitoring the farm for nearly 20 years throughout the period that Rick and Pam have undertaken this work, and have documented transformative landscape-scale changes. 

Trees now covers about 14% of the property. As the planted vegetation at Burnbank has matured, biodiversity levels have steadily increased. The ecological monitoring work undertaken shows that plantings at Burnbank now support over 90 species of woodland birds. Some of these species are breeding on the property, despite being in decline in the surrounding region.  Other benefits that Rick and Pam have observed include reduced salinity and increased in farm productivity. The family has great satisfaction in what they have achieved and derive many positive well-being benefits from experiencing the ever-increasing natural values on their property. 

And it’s these links between enhanced natural assets and other benefits – productivity and wellbeing – that Sustainable Farms aims to explore. The links between healthy farms, healthy farmers and healthy profits has huge potential for the ability of rural communities and wider society to work together to maintain and support natural assets on farms. 

One of the great strengths of the Sustainable Farms initiative is that the team’s field-based ecologists live and work in regional towns and are part of those communities. Recently, the team expanded to include engagement staff, also regionally based, who work directly with farmers and the Landcare network. 

Rick and Pam Martin have undertaken significant planting at their property, Burnbank, which now supports over 90 species of woodland birds. This fenced established planting area has provided drought refuge for yellow-faced honeyeaters, which visited from more arid western parts of the state in winter 2018. Credit: Clare Crane

The engagement team strengthens the connection between farmers and researchers, ensuring that farmers’ questions are addressed through the interdisciplinary research that Sustainable Farms undertakes. In turn, the engagement team enables the dissemination of research outcomes to the local community, by supporting a network of farmers, creating new tools and resources, organising field days and setting up peer-to-peer training. 
A new Sustainable Farms research project is comparing improved and unimproved farm dams. Improved dams are fenced to limit stock access to one location, avoiding fouling of the dam, and banks are planted with a wide band of grass, trees and other vegetation to filter paddock run-off, shade the water, increase aquatic plants to enhance water quality, and improve biodiversity both within and surrounding the dam. This interdisciplinary research will look at the biodiversity outcomes of improved farm dams, but also whether they improve water quality and subsequently livestock health – a key question for many farmers. 

With growing climate volatility and other pressures on the agricultural sector, it is increasingly important for people to work together across sectors, disciplines and regions, and this is what the Sustainable Farms initiative is about. 

For further information, contact Suzannah here:

This article was first published in the ESA Bulletin March 2021. 

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