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Hickman's Farm looking south, central NSW, Wiradjuri Country. By Bee Stephens.
Hickman's Farm looking south, central NSW, Wiradjuri Country. By Bee Stephens.

A natural link

Words by: Eliza Herbert
Location: Across the country
Published 11 Jan 2024

Preliminary results are in from Macdoch Foundation’s Farming for the Future research project and they indicate a positive link between biodiversity and prosperity.

Imogen Semmler often jokes that she deserves an advanced degree in ‘gate-opening’. For the last two years, she's been trekking across farms in New South Wales. Using GPS coordinates to navigate to remote plots, she’s driven in and out of countless fields, hiked up hills, hacked through thistles, herded cows, and battled temperatures exceeding 30 degrees.

Farmers opened their paddocks to her so she could conduct ecological surveys as part of Farming for the Future – a public good research and change activation program that's building the first national scale evidence base of the relationship between on-farm natural capital and farm business performance on Australian farms.

Agro-ecologist Imogen Semmler surveys the native 
grasses on a farm in central NSW, Wiradjuri Country. 
By Bee Stephens

“We’re drawing a relationship between natural capital and profitability to understand whether farms with lots of natural resources, such as native biodiversity, clean riparian systems, ground cover and healthy soil, are as productive and profitable as farms with low levels of natural resources. We aim to present this data at a national level,” says Imogen.

Preliminary findings were presented recently at the National Farmer’s Federation and Farming for the Future Natural Capital Summit in Canberra. They show that it's possible to establish the relationship between a farm’s natural capital and productivity. In addition, these preliminary findings indicate that while high levels of productivity are possible on both farms with lower and higher natural capital, those with higher natural capital are typically more financially profitable and resilient.

“It’s not that farmers don’t want to have healthy natural resources, it’s just that they’ve never had the data to show the economic benefits that come with them."

“We’re hoping to provide them with tangible evidence that animals can be healthier, and expenses can be saved on things like pest management, sowing crops, and erosion control.”

The findings suggest that there are different benefit pathways through which natural capital can support businesses, such as improving productivity and reducing input costs. In addition, they indicate the relationships between natural capital and business performance were positive and linear.

Cattle on Hickman's Farm, central NSW, Wiradjuri Country. By Bee Stephens.

Imogen was hired as an agro-ecologist for Bush Heritage to work on the project. She came to the field with a growing awareness that while we have to eat to live, our food production processes can harm the very land that gives us life.

“If you think about landscapes all over the world, farming is where we’ve really modified those landscapes. We’ve cleared land, grown crops, put in different exotic pasture species and created constant disturbances that move us further away from native biodiversity.”

With close to 60% of the continent managed for agriculture, how it's managed matters not just for Imogen, or farmers, or the greater conservation sector, but for everyone who calls this country home. As Imogen says, “We can’t grow food in degraded landscapes. We’re focusing on the health of ground cover, native diversity and riparian systems, and how this benefits the farm and surrounding ecosystems.”

In 2021, Farming for the Future was initiated by the Macdoch Foundation to create a more financially prosperous, climate-resilient and carbon-efficient agricultural sector in Australia.

Around the same time, we launched our 2030 Strategy with a commitment to expand our work to enhance biodiversity across 10 million hectares of agricultural land before the end of the decade. This was borne from the understanding that the wider health of the planet depends on the health of all other interdependent ecosystems and land.

We realised the need to look beyond our reserve boundaries and lean deeper into landscape-scale conservation. Bringing over 30 years of experience, Bush Heritage supported Farming for the Future with on-ground field work and survey methods to help collect data from 130 farms across Australia, with an initial focus on livestock operations.

This research is a world first and the findings are expected to provide guidance and a tangible incentive for farmers to boost biodiversity through their management of land.

“We've now proven that relating natural capital to farm business performance is possible,” says Dr Sue Ogilvy, Program Director, Farming for the Future.

“By working hand in hand with farmers and their advisors during the research to understand what information would be useful, we can start to develop the tools and benchmarks to inform decisions about investment in a farm’s natural capital,” adds Sue.

Agro-ecologist Imogen Semmler (centre) observes the farm’s boundaries with farmers Gus and Anna Hickman, Wiradjuri Country, NSW. By Bee Stephens

“The aim is to ultimately empower farmers to assure healthy productive landscapes and resilient rural communities that are ready to face future challenges from emerging markets and a changing climate.”

By delivering insights across a broader range of focus regions and enterprise types – which are planned to be completed in the program’s next phase – there’s potential to drive large-scale industry adoption of improved natural capital management.

This is what could be called a ‘win-win’; productivity can remain while biodiversity is improved.

Imogen has had the chance to meet many farmers during her surveys – some who are doing it tough and others who are experiencing more than financial gains from boosting biodiversity, such as improved health and well-being.

“You meet farmers who are really happy to be on the farm. The birds are singing and they can learn to identify all the native grasses. They’re excited when they find a species that hasn’t been seen for years, and they're connected with the land.”

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