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Farmers walking off the land is not a vision for the future of agriculture

The big problem with the latest drought assistance package is that it lacks vision.

What we really need is a strategy to make the transition to a productive and sustainable agriculture in a changing and uncertain climate.

This means we need a better idea of what the projected impacts are for our agricultural regions and what the options are for improving the resilience of our farming systems and safely managing the risk of our farm enterprises.

The Coalition's latest ad hoc assistance package only seems to offer two choices - money to hang on and pray for rain, or money to get out while the getting is good.

Some media commentary has recently suggested that payouts to farmers to ‘exit with dignity' might be a small price to pay to curb the environmental damage caused by trying to farm nonviable land.

One big problem with farmer's walking off the land is it will mean large chunks of cleared agricultural land going unmanaged ... meaning that we may be facing another environmental disaster.

The main problems that arise when farm land is simply left untended are the spread of weeds, feral animals and soil erosion, the cost of which can be even greater than farm subsidies.

You don't have to spend too long in a country pub or at a local farming group meeting before you hear the frustration caused by unmanaged land, hobby farms or council verges - where the weeds and feral animals have been left to run riot.

To city-slickers, a few weeds might sound like a small price to pay but (before it was de-funded) the Weeds CRC estimated that the annual cost of weeds to Australian agriculture was $3.5 - $4.5 billion per year, not to mention the knock-on effects of weeds spreading to nearby remnant vegetation and bushland.

The economic impact of weeds in Australia - Weeds CRC Report

The other big problem caused by farmers leaving the land are the social and economic consequences for the viability of rural communities - as the amount of work and money in nearby towns drops and there aren't enough kids to support the local school, shoppers for the local store or players for the local footy team.

One of the things sorely missing from the Coalition's latest ad hoc drought assistance package is the support for the farmers who want to transition to climate resilient farming systems.

Australian farmers are among the best at adapting to a harsh climate, but they are hitting the limits of how far they can go alone. We need to put more resources into agricultural research and offer more support to farmers who want to transition to climate resilient farming systems.

Hope is not a strategy. If we keep relying on the stoicism of Australian farmers or the prayers of the Prime Minister then we do nothing to address the uncertainty of a changing climate. We are leaving our farmers in a permanent state of crisis.

Hanging on through a series of dry years doesn't just run down the productivity of the land, it also runs down the capital farmers need to change farming systems and establish new enterprises. Despite the billions being spent by this government there is still no plan to move on to a sustainable agriculture industry.

It is time the government stopped talking about ‘exceptional' circumstances and faced up to the exceptional challenge of climate change.

Yes, John, the rains will come - but that's a matter of probability not prayer.
Just how much rain might come and at what time is increasingly uncertain ... and our seasons are riskier and more unpredictable. In fact the only thing that is certain is that rainfall is going to become more uncertain ... our farming systems, and our politicians, must be able to cope.

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