Member presentation

Christine Forster presented at FACETS 2012 (24 August 2012); her topic being:

Ecosystem services

FACETS stands for Food, Agriculture, Climate, Energy, Topsoil and Sustainability. It was establised in 2011 following a successful TEDx event in Dubbo. Christine presented at the Satellite meeting in Horsham. Working notes for her presentation follow.

I am a farmer with interests in regional development and in keeping people in the rural landscape. I also have a background in environmental science.

In 1997 I became a member of the Victorian Catchment Management Council and was appointed chair in 2000.  One of the doing jobs of that organisation was to produce a report on the condition and management of Victoria’s 10 water catchments.  The first report was in 1997. Even though Victoria is a relatively small state the nature and condition of the catchments vary markedly from east to west, reflecting geology and importantly rainfall.
When it came to producing the 2002 report on the land and water resources of Victoria we were just beginning to feel the effects of the millennium drought and prediction of the impacts of climate change were becoming more certain.  We were able to bring together data on demographic trends, farm profitability, land use and valuation, threats to soil and water resources and biodiversity. We found that, even though the State Government, together with the Federal Government, was spending a considerable amount on protecting and enhancing our land and water resources, we were going backwards.

We noted that, with a changing climate, declining terms of trade and rural depopulation, there was likely to be in the future large tracts of land that were marginal which could no longer be used for productive and financially viable agriculture.  This raised the question of how the land was to be managed in the future, especially in respect of managing pest plants and animals.

We realised that this land, while marginal for traditional agriculture, was capable of producing other commodities and services which were of value to the community, clean water, clean air, salinity mitigation, pollination services and biodiversity.  The trouble was that these services and commodities were not included in the traditional economic assessment of land productivity.  They were external to the valuation system.
We had recently been exposed the concept of natural capital and the role of ecosystem services developed through the Rocky Mountain Institute (Lovins) and EO Wilson. This made a lot of sense to us and offered us a pathway to mange land which might become unviable from an agricultural perspective. It fired me with passion to have these ecosystem services recognised and valued and internalised into the accounts systems.

If we explore the issues which are going to shape our future and significantly influence the ecosystem services produced on-farm the following stand out:

  • Victorian settlement patterns and farm demographic changes (see Neil Barr’s House on the Hill)
  • Rivers, poor health, and water supply limitations
  • Climate change
  • Salinity
  • Biodiversity loss

Both Federal and State governments have developed market based instruments to achieve improvements in the management of land and water resources. Examples are:

  • Carbon Farming Initiative
  • Bush Tender
  • Bush Broker
  • Salinity management in the River Murray

The Federal Treasury is developing a system of natural accounts that will evaluate the natural capital of Australia alongside the financial health of the nation. The Wentworth Group of Scientists have been testing these environmental accounts in a number of catchments across Australia.

One of the challenges is that the raw data for many of these accounts is patchy and sometimes absent altogether. We can only manage what we can measure.  We measure the things that are important to us.  There is good data on our water resources, their quantity and quality.  It is a scarce resource that we all value and pay for in our homes and on our farms.  Data about our soils is more skimpy.  In Victoria we are getting a handle on the extent and threats to our biodiversity but much more information is required to work out management plans for the future.

Back home on the farm (800 ha) Peter and I decided to put some of these ideas into practice. With hindsight and increasing understanding we had to conclude that a lot of our early actions were ill informed. But we have learnt along the way. We came to the farm 30 years ago with a simplistic idea that trees were good, any trees. Very early on in the piece we had a farming disaster, losing 200 pregnant ewes shearing on an early march day where the temperature went from 35◦C overnight to 8◦C the next morning.  It isn’t the cold that affects sheep it is the rapid change in temperature.  You know the sort of days the met Bureau issues a sheep farmers weather alert. So we paid homage to those poor dead girls by planting shelter belts of pines and cypresses on our volcanic grasslands. 
Peter had always been a birdo but we didn’t have many on the farm except chats and raptors living on mice and rabbits. We started to absorb the messages about native plantations to encourage birdlife and planted native trees, native to WA and NSW that is. We also absorbed the permaculture message about fodder trees after the 1982 drought and planted tree lucerne along the creek - only to discover a few years later that it was an environmental weed. Gradually our knowledge expanded and in the last 20 years we have spent time repairing some of the damage. More importantly, we have been building-up our ecosystem services. We have 25% of the farm doing this job.  All waterways have been fenced and revegetated. We recently bought 500 acres of rocks and rabbits to expand our ecosystem empire, specialising in biodiversity, salinity mitigation and carbon sequestration.  We have signed up for the Carbon Farming Initiative and are recreating 55 acres of granitic hills grassy woodland EVC. We expect to get a moderate flow of revenue from this marginal land to enable us to manage it in perpetuity.

So, back to our VCMC findings in 2002. Valuing our ecosystem services and internalising our natural capital costs into our economic structure will provide an opportunity to manage these marginal lands for an uncertain future. It will also provide jobs in regional areas and keep people in our rural landscapes.

I do have a vision for that future.  We will be managing our rural landscapes, not only for the production of food and fibre, but also for the production of the ecosystem services essential if we are to prosper on this delicately balanced biosphere we inhabit.

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