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Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture

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Published: 8 Mar 2019

When temperatures rocketed above 35 degrees last weekend, where did your thoughts turn?

Did you head for the beach or an air-conditioned cinema? Make sure the dog had a bit more water for the day? Slather the kids with more sunscreen?

Odds are you didn’t immediately picture wilting crops or heat-stressed lambs and cows. Odds are you didn’t wonder if your family will soon have less food on their plates, or if it will cost twice as much to put it there.

As extreme weather events turn into an increasingly common reality, the associated stresses on our food producers’ livelihoods are also on the rise.

Longer droughts and unpredictable floods, raging fires and harsher frosts. These are no longer once-in-a-generation emergencies. They are becoming our new normal; as much a part of the agricultural industry as planning for pests or diseases.

And while fundraisers and public support for our impacted farmers flash across our newsfeeds, we know that like so many other issues they will soon be eclipsed by The Next Big Important Headline.

It’s good that we band together during a crisis—it’s one of the best bits that defines us—but we also need to learn from tragedy. What do we do after the fundraisers?

What if we could help farmers prepare for climate change, not just respond to it?

Janine Chang-Fung-Martel is working on an answer to that question. Watch this video about her work.

A PhD candidate at the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture (TIA), Ms Chang-Fung-Martel is finalising a three-year project on the impact of extreme weather events on Australia’s dairy industry. Her findings may hold the keys to what’s best for the people that feed us.

“Australian dairy farmers are already losing up to 20% of their production during heat events.

“Some farmers are able to hold off those losses with temporary fixes like sprinklers to keep their animals cool, but are these viable tactics in the long term?”

There is no question that extreme events make farming a lot more challenging. To best meet those challenges, solutions must be tailored to our unique Australian market, said Ms Chang-Fung-Martel.

“We want to help Australian farmers find the strategies that work best for their families, for their businesses. We’re talking about where the people who grow our food invest their precious resources, so we need to be sure they work within our landscape.

“That may be lower tech solutions like putting more tress back in paddocks or adjusting milking times to avoid peak heat. Or it could be as complex as developing new breeds that handle stress better.”

While her current work is with the dairy industry, the lessons Janine learns will likely apply to other agricultural sectors as well. In the past we built food industries that relied on increasing efficiency and maximising production, now we may have to build businesses that are sustainable in unpredictable climates. That means focussing on preparation, not reaction.

Janine’s research is funded by Dairy Australia, the Australian Sustainable Agriculture Scholarship and the federal Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry department as part of its Carbon Farming Futures Filling the Research Gap Program.

A short video on Janine's work is available at http://bit.ly/DairyAndClimate

Pictured: Janine Chang-Fung-Martel wants to help farmers build their businesses to manage the effects of climate change.

This article appeared in the Tasmanian Country on 8 March 2019.