Food For Thought

Farmers who take stock of what works on their land, rather than forcing crops upon it, could improve productivity. The millions of microbes living on plants could help ensure the future of farming.

A cattle farmer scouring records of his property before Australia was colonised found descriptions of swamplands and natural creeks that disappeared because farming practices channelled the water away. Deciding to let nature take its course, Peter Andrews removed obstacles to these sources and now water flows slowly across the land, meaning the soil can retain it for longer. 

Inspirational stories such as these are being gathered and shared by Western Sydney University researcher, Dr Gerda Roelvink, who wants to learn about Australian farmers who have made big changes to their farming practices and broken away from intensive agriculture. 

Learning to look at the land in new ways could help the country’s farmers restore damaged ecosystems and ensure agricultural productivity for years to come, according to Roelvink.

Many farmers fixate on maximising production of a single crop on a vast scale, regardless of natural soil and environmental conditions. But as climatic conditions become less conducive, cracks begin to appear in this intensive approach, just as they appear across the parched farmland. Around the world, pockets of alternative agricultural practices are emerging that could improve our use of the land and even restore lost habitats. But convincing traditional farmers to change their farming patterns is difficult.

Roelvink, from Western’s School of Social Sciences and Psychology, works with the Community Economies Collective (CEC), an international research group that aims to reframe how we think about the economy, placing a greater emphasis on ethics and responsiveness to environmental issues. “Environmental degradation is one of our most pressing challenges,” she says, “so I’ve been exploring our consideration of the environment, and other species, as we create ethical economic alternatives.” Roelvink suggests that societies growing more sensitive to the non-human world around them, could help change attitudes to agriculture, a notion first described by the anthropologist Bruno Latour.

Roelvink’s interest in farmers’ approaches revealed varied outcomes. “I was really interested in what sparked these changes,” she says, “what it takes for a farmer to change in response to these incredible environmental challenges, and why they don’t just leave the land or try out new fertilisers or farming technologies.” Most of the farmers she spoke to, it seemed, had experienced a revelation while surveying their land that led them to reconsider their relationship with it. 

Need to know

  • Land degradation is threatening the future of food production
  • Focussing on maximum productivity could prove fatal to farming
  • Letting nature back in could help create healthier ecosystems

For John Weatherstone, a livestock farmer, the revelation came while photographing his farmland at Lyndfield Park, south-west of Sydney, after a particularly severe drought. He noticed that weeds were thriving in the neglected borders of the land, untouched by chemicals and fertilisers, explains Roelvink, “while, before his eyes, the topsoil on the rest of his farm blew away in the winds”. Weatherstone saw an opportunity for change. He reduced sheep numbers, planted and began producing seeds of local trees and shrubs, such as acacia and eucalyptus, for wholesale, eventually transforming the land into a lush oasis amidst monocultures on neighbouring farms. The highlight for Weatherstone was seeing native birds return to his land. 

Associate Professor Jenny Cameron at the University of Newcastle, inspired by Roelvink’s findings, used the same approach in her research on community gardens, demonstrating how it applies at different scales. Cameron found that, by learning to be affected like Roelvink’s observant farmers, “community gardeners were becoming sensitised to environmental changes in the world around them as they went about caring for plants, seedlings, compost, soil and insects”.

The challenge now lies in connecting these isolated scenarios and ensuring new approaches are recognised as credible alternatives to traditional farming, for example by enlisting the support of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists. Roelvink and her colleagues also gather at international conferences and local meetings to discuss the progress of current projects, and the CEC shares its work proudly online and at public events. “We hope that by making these stories more publicly known, we can inspire other farmers to break away from intensive approaches” says Roelvink. “There’s an expectation on farmers to feed the world, but we need them to recognise that they are also custodians of the land.” 

Meet the Academic | Dr Gerda Roelvink

Gerda Roelvink is a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences and Psychology at the University of Western Sydney. Her research expertise is in the field of diverse economies, focusing in particular on collective action and economic transformation. Her book on this topic is Building Dignified Worlds: Geographies of Collective Action (University of Minnesota Press). She is also the coeditor of the book Making Other Worlds Possible: Performing Diverse Economies (University of Minnesota Press) on diverse economies research. Gerda has conducted research on the affective dimensions of collective action and is the co-editor of special issues of Angelaki and Emotion, Space and Society on posthumanism and affect. She has published research in various scholarly books and journals including Antipode, the Journal of Cultural Economy, Emotion, Space and Society, and Rethinking Marxism.

Credit

© Marianne Purdie/Road to Alpurrurulam, Northern Territory, Australia/Getty Images
Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.