More certainty is needed to help farmers adapt to uncertain climates

December 30, 2021
written BY

Angus Muffatti

Whether you’re from a regional town or live in the big smoke, it’s plain to see that farming in Australia has been a rollercoaster over the last few years. With some of the worst droughts in living memory only just in the rearview mirror for many (if not ongoing), this season’s flooding rains have been both untimely and highly damaging.

These dramatic conditions, which some research indicates will get worse as a result of climate change, are causing a growing uncertainty amongst farmers on the reliability of future growing conditions. In recognition of this, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) published a report on 29 July 2021, which laid bare just how damaging climate change has been for Australian farms.

The report, titled ‘Climate change impacts and adaptation on Australian farms,’ authored by Neil Hughes and Peter Gooday, estimated that changes in seasonal conditions over 2001 to 2020 have reduced annual average farm profits by 23% (relative to 1950 to 2000). Astonishingly, that amounts to around $29,200 per farm.  

Additionally, according to ABARES modelling, there was nearly a doubling in the risk of ‘very low’ farm returns due to climate variability in the 20 years since 2000 (relative to 1950 to 2000). This increased from a 1 in 10 frequency to more than 1 in 5.

If you flick on the news, it’s easy to see why. In just a few short years, large portions of the country have swung from one climactic extreme to the next. With the confirmation of Australia now in a La Niña period, there may be some significant short-term challenges ahead. As climate change continues to impact the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, there is a growing ‘adaptation pressure’ on farms, regions, and sectors to remain productive and profitable.

Just last month, NSW went through an intense flooding period. The images below show some of the extent of the flood in the region to the northwest of Narrabri. Agtuary’s data team went to work to identify the extent of the damage on this year’s winter crop, estimating that a total of 110,000 hectares (wheat, barley, canola, chickpeas, and other major crops) were inundated across Northern NSW.

The calm before the storm. Sentinel-2 true colour image before the flooding on 27th of October.
Aftermath. The same area, as captured by Sentinel-2 on December 3rd several days after the initial flooding event.
Agtuary's analytics mapping the extent of the flood on that same December 3rd image.
Satellite imagery from ESA's Sentinel-2 satellite with water mask generated by Agtuary. The images above show the before, after, and extent of the flooding near Narrabri (2021).

This estimate is also a lower bound due to the timing of the imagery, and the actual total could range 10-20% higher. This estimate also does not include early summer crops that may have been affected.

Despite all this bad news, adaption responses are already being identified. Farmers are changing their practices to meet these challenges head-on and are aided by improvements in technology and management practices to increase farm productivity. For example, the cropping sector has seen increased adoption of various adaptive management practice changes in recent decades, such as conservation tillage and soil amelioration. These adaptive practices are focused on preserving soil moisture as a response to the mixed bag of growing season rainfall.

While these adaptive responses are examples of proactive management and preparation, the overwhelming uncertainty of future climates is perceived as a constraint to adaptation. For this reason, as the ABARES report notes, there is an imperative need to improve the quality and accuracy of climate information for our farmers. It is believed that farmers could adapt to climate change more decisively if they could access advanced short and long-term weather forecasting and climate change projections.

Farming is a tricky and ever-changing game, but it is clear that farmers, now and into the future, need to be more adaptive and informed than ever.

About Agtuary

Here at Agtuary, we believe in the power of data to provide a clearer picture across various agricultural and financial variables. We strive to create a platform that offers farmers and stakeholders the tools to act with greater certainty in an increasingly uncertain environment.

The Agtuary platform harnesses satellite and climate data to provide next-generation insights into agricultural production. We analyse farmland across production, climate, and natural hazards to inform lending, risk & investment, carbon, and biodiversity decision-making. We construct long-term data around farmland to look decades into the past and future of agricultural land from the paddock to continental scale. Leaders already trust our data in agribusiness to drive decision-making and improve efficiencies.

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