Growing up on an outback sheep and cattle station, Dr Ellen Litchfield has observed how a green paradise can transform into swathes of bare ground and billowing dust at the whim of Mother Nature.
This “station kid”, who grew up to become a veterinarian, has seen the financial and emotional toll of droughts that seem to linger longer and longer each time they hit. But they say knowledge is power, and it’s that very attitude compelling Ellen to take on climate change, not just at ground level, but she is helping drive change across Australia’s entire agriculture industry.
Ellen is a third-generation pastoralist in her family business, Litchfield Pastoral. Encompassing three stations - Wilpoorinna, Mundowdna and Mt Lyndhurst – the family are the custodians for 608,000 hectares of arid rangelands in South Australia, producing organic lamb and beef on native pastures.
A desire to improve resilience and better understand the impacts of climate change in this unique environment saw Ellen awarded a Nuffield scholarship in 2019, opening the door to action and education ever since.
“Out here drought and climate extremes are a constant pressure. We have the highest rainfall volatility in Australia, if not the world.
“The idea that this could become even more volatile through climate change is really important. With the way we farm on the rangeland, that land stewardship role we have, we need to be ecologically engaged as our stock only graze on native vegetation.
“I wanted to see how other farmers do in harsh climates in other parts of the world. I think it's important as farmers we all work together, which is a lot more efficient way of finding solutions.”
Inspired and equipped with further understanding from the Nuffield journey, Ellen was introduced to Farmers for Climate Action (FCA), a national charity organisation that now has 6000 farmer members across every state and territory, plus about 30,000 people on its database. Not having a presence in her home state, Ellen became the first South Australian state coordinator and has already held one webinar and a conference is coming up.
“With the Nuffield and looking at the effects of climate change, one of the things farmers are really worried about is over regulation and policy not being fit for purpose for their production system,” Ellen said.
“One of the most important ways you can influence this is by advocacy and sharing your story. That’s why it's important for organisations like FCA to support farmers, who are at the coalface of climate change, to get their story out there at a political level, showing how producers are adapting and mitigating climate change.
“There are very simple, small solutions to implement on a farm; it’s very much about being aware of these things and making sure you are a voice for your production system.
“We’ve got everyone from a large-scale rangeland pastoral property through to strawberry growers in Victoria, and we all need a voice on how policy can be shaped.
“There’s a lot of farmers using renewable energy like solar or wind. They are also taking a lot more notice of how much carbon they are sequestering into their soil, introducing cover crops, maintaining good ground cover, as well as revegetating land and creating shelter belts.
“I think that’s one of the exciting things about the climate smart ag, there are lots of co benefits that come with it, such as sequestering carbon can reduce salinity and improve biodiversity.”
While climate action and emissions targets are now becoming part of mainstream discourse - and this month FCA is releasing a report commissioned by Ernst & Young on how agriculture in Australia can achieve net zero emissions - Ellen sees FCA as having a role to not only as an advocate, but also to give producers the opportunity to learn more.
“People are open to this, even if they’re not impacted by climate change in an environmental way, they are going to be affected through trade, such as carbon tariffs.
“Australia has this clean and green image, but we need to work hard to maintain that.”
“To be clean and green, you have to account for your carbon emissions – it’s not just about high health standards and animal welfare.”
“Our ag industry is an exporting industry, our big export markets are setting emissions targets and we need to be a part of that so that we aren’t penalised for something we can work on and make sure we are leading in as well.”
FFCA regularly holds online and face-to-face seminars and conferences across Australia. For more information: https://farmersforclimateaction.org.au/