As more ‘frequent and intense’ droughts are predicted for Australia, the next generation of farmers are thinking ahead.
Anika Molesworth is excited about her future in farming.
“Agriculture is a dynamic place to be in,” she said.
“We’re using the latest technology, from drones to monitor crop health, to soil sensors to monitor the moisture levels in our soils."
As the current drought conditions take their toll, she said the next generations of Australian farmers should ask how they can equip themselves for the potential of extreme weather conditions in the future.
“We have to be prepared and engaged... so that the future food producers in our country have the best chance to feed our communities.”
Molesworth is no stranger to the harsh realities of life on the land. Her passion for farming grew out of tough conditions.
Her family bought a 10,000-acre sheep station at Broken Hill in far west New South Wales at the start of the decade-long millennium drought.
Anika was 12 when they made the move from Melbourne.
“It is really difficult seeing drought outside your kitchen window every day and not knowing when it is going to end,” Molesworth said.
An agricultural researcher, Molesworth was named NSW farmer of the year in 2015 and is doing a PHD at Deakin University's Centre for Regional and Rural Futures in the NSW Riverina.
Now 30, Molesworth's enthusiasm for agriculture prospered from her family’s drought experiences.
“Wanting to take over the farm one day I realised the predictions are it is going to become hotter and drier out there with more frequent and intense droughts.”
“That sparked my interest in agricultural and climate sciences... How am I going to equip myself as a young farmer to tackle some of those challenges?”
One hundred per cent of New South Wales has been drought affected since August and almost 60 per cent of Queensland is experiencing drought conditions.
“It is really bad, the landscape is really desolate, we’re selling off sheep at the moment, so de-stocking to the bare minimum numbers,” Molesworth said.
Weather forecasts show no relief in sight with the Bureau of Meteorology expecting drought conditions to intensify into the spring.
Young farmers feeling drought stress
Research from the Medical Journal of Australia released this year found young farmers are more vulnerable to drought-related stress and experience greater financial hardship.
Rachel Nicholl is a part of the NSW Farmers’ Associations Young Farmer Council and her family runs a 160 acre free range egg farm at Hampton in central west New South Wales.
“We’ve seen an increase in the uncertainty, the anxiety and the stress around our youth and that is dramatically rising,” Nicholl said.
Those under the age of 30 now make up around seven per cent of all farmers.
According to the latest ABS census, the ageing farming workforce has declined by more than 30,000 people over the past decade.
Nicholl said young farmers dealing with the financial and farming challenges of drought need support, including investment in telecommunications so farmers can stay connected.
“With each successive drought we want to make sure that we are increasingly prepared and that we’re learning from experience.”
James Cleaver is a Rural Support Worker for NSW Department of Primary Industries, whose services are on the front line helping those worst affected by drought.
He said young farmers can be impacted on a business and emotional level, and rural financial counseling, farm practice advice and mental health support is available.
“The ones that are coming in we need to support to make sure we have an industry in years to come."
Preparing for the tough times
Queensland agronomist, Paul McIntosh, has 40 years’ experience in the field.
He said the current drought would prove a steep learning curve for many young farmers.
“If they're coming in right now they're really getting hammered by it, you’ll always remember the big droughts,” he said.
McIntosh said preparing in the good years is essential for drought preparation, by taking steps to secure water and feed security.
"In the meantime we have to battle on and do what you see fit on your property to keep your livestock or crops going,” McIntosh said.
He said bores, dams, water streams or quality soil that holds moisture helps improve water security - but moving that water to drier paddocks is one of the toughest challenges.
“That is not always easy in Australia because it is a really dry country... poly piping to connect water points is an Australian blessing.”
He said feed storages, often stored underground for preservation can help too, but again this is also hardest to source in times of drought.
“What can you do on your particular place to secure the feed and water you so desperately need?”
Exciting time to be in farming
Dr Lee Hickey is a senior researcher for Queensland’s Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation.
His research team is developing drought resistant crops through using genetics to grow crops with stronger and longer root systems, science Dr Lee said is being adopted by Australian companies.
“We can improve the odds for our farmers by deploying and adopting new technology and science,” Dr Hickey said.
He said new innovations must keep working to support farmers coping with hostile conditions.
“It’s an exciting time to be in farming. I think the next generations of farmers should be excited.”