Survey reveals true colours of Australia’s farmers

Published 09 June 2009

treesThe preliminary results from the first comprehensive national survey of farmers’ attitudes and approaches to managing the farm environment have been released. These results show that farmers are a lot “greener” than they’ve been given credit for, and that most of them have expert knowledge of – and a personal connection with – their  local environment.

The survey was conducted by the Institute for Rural Futures at the University  of New England. The Institute’s Dr Elaine Barclay  said the project had produced an accurate representation of farmers’ practices and views regarding environmental management – with a number of surprising revelations.

Funded by the Commonwealth Environment Facilities Fund, the project surveyed 5,000 farmers across Australia. Dr Barclay said that the first indicator of the strength of farmers’ commitment to the environment was the response rate to the survey. “Despite the fact that it was a very large survey, we had a 41 per cent response,” she said. “It gave us a really good cross-section of Australia’s farmers.”

“Through our national survey we found that 57 per cent of farmers have an area on their land that they preserve, purely for its environmental benefits,” she continued. “These could be fenced-off remnant vegetation areas, dams, or wetland areas. They talk about the species of birds or wildlife that frequent these areas, and even make them a permanent habitat.

“On-farm conservation areas generally exist to conserve native flora and habitats for native fauna. They also exist for a farmer’s own personal enjoyment, such as aesthetic enhancement or as a bird sanctuary.”

Dr Barclay said that barriers to environmental farm management included “lack of money, lack of time, and the successive years of drought”. “Some farmers said they were too old or didn’t have enough support and labour for certain environmental activities,” she added. “According to our farmers, the main problems they are facing are the drought, weeds and pest animals.”

The survey responses detailed how external human activities can have an impact on a farmer’s environmental management. “Farmers’ conservation work can be affected by trespassers and illegal hunters, chemical spray drift, and the dumping of rubbish, weeds and feral animals (including dogs and cats), which can all have a negative impact on productivity and environmental management on a farm,” Dr Barclay said.

She hopes that the results of the survey will help to educate government policy makers and the public about the problems that farmers face in trying to manage the environment on their properties. “We want to raise awareness of the good that our farmers do and the environmental awareness that they have,” she said. “The Federal Government is particularly interested in getting an across-the-board look at environmental conservation on farms.”

The next stage of the project will involve field work in Queensland, NSW and Victoria. Farmers will be interviewed about environmental laws and regulations, with researchers recording personal views on the impact they are seen to have on a farm and its productivity. “The survey gave us a general understanding that farmers do feel burdened by the time and cost required to conform to environmental laws and regulations,” Dr Barclay said.

A PHOTOGRAPH of Dr Elaine Barclay with the survey can be seen by clicking on the image displayed here.