How can a pumpkin competition increase climate change resilience? By building the kinds of community-based networks and communication that underpins successfully navigating change, according to director of the Regional Change Agency Narelle Martin.
Martin says there are enormous opportunities in the regions for climate change adaptation and mitigation.
“The energy space in particular is huge.”
There are already community-driven examples emerging, such as Totally Renewable Yackandandah, a community group pushing for a 100 per cent renewable town, which has seen solar panels sprouting across roofs of the town’s business and homes.
The push to renewables creates “huge business opportunities” for both towns and for farmers, Martin says.
Farming sunlight and energy
“We perhaps need to think about refining the definition of agriculture from being about farming food and fibre to a definition that is based on farming sunlight and energy.”
After all, she points out, growing crops for humans or animals is also about harvesting the sun via plant photosynthesis.
Adding solar PV into the mix makes sense. For one thing there are a vast number of farms that have sheds with north-facing roofs for installing PV panels.
One of the big challenges is regional communities is having access to renewables at a reasonable cost – and getting a reasonable rate of return for what is generated.
“We are looking at ways of reducing the barriers,” Martin says.
Meanwhile, high energy prices including the high cost of diesel to power generators is seeing some of the vast cattle stations in the Top End eyeing solar as a replacement.
“Those [stations] are depending on importing diesel. That is a prime opportunity to look at solar and wind.”
Communities and stations taking up more renewables as price of solar and storage decreases improves resilience, as well as contributing to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Yackandandah is not alone in its pursuit of a new energy paradigm. Martin says communities including Benalla, Wodonga and Wangaratta are also installing solar capacity.
However, a lack of policy certainty is affecting the momentum, she says. It makes it “difficult to make investment decisions”.
There are some initiatives regional communities are mostly missing out on, such as the federal government’s Carbon Farming Initiative.
The majority of regional projects focus on avoided land clearing – positive carbon farming initiatives such as aggregated soil sequestration and rehabilitation projects have not been successful in their bids.
The auctions to be part of state government renewable projects may also prove troublesome.
“They are designed with big lumpy processes,” Martin says.
The strength of regional communities is the ability to uptake and implement smaller, distributed energy approaches.
Economic realities focus attention on sustainability
Martin says those dependent on the land for their incomes are “paying attention” to sustainability more broadly, including climate change impacts.
Groups such as Australian Farmers for Climate Action are leading the charge, as are producers such as Victorian dairy farmers and winemaker Brown Brothers.
There are “practical consequences” from climate change that people are having to wrestle with, she says.
Despite the “highly politicised disinformation process” that surrounds the topic of climate change, the “economic realities will focus people’s attention”.
“It is difficult in urban areas for people to make those connections.”
Some whole towns are taking things into their own hands, she says, such as the Transition Towns. These are community-led approaches that are somewhat “under the radar”.
Martin maintains that we need to be asking “in whose interests is it to ignore this issue [of climate change]?
“It is not [actually] in the interests of anyone not to be prepared.”
Attracting the city folk
In terms of the economies of regional towns, Martin says that local economic development workers that are tasked with creating jobs in their towns have been getting a “reality check”.
“There are people in Melbourne who call [the local council], and want to move to that place, and one of the first questions they asks is, ‘What is the telecommunications like? What are the internet speeds?’”
The answer would often kill that individual’s enthusiasm for the shift.
However, there remains strong interest among many people in relocating from the city and telecommuting, Martin says.
That’s where the National Broadband Network could be a fabulous thing for Australia, she says.
Martin herself is based in regional Victoria, and works regularly with a colleague based in Beechworth, Victoria and another in Tasmania.
“With telecommunications, it can absolutely work,” she says.
Do we want a regional Australia?
One of the things the nation as a whole needs to ask, she says, is, “Do we want a regional Australia?”
“We haven’t had that discussion.
“How do we take advantage of the opportunities with changes in technology such as electric vehicles and driverless cars with the regions?”
She says some councils, such as Shepparton, are already across how installing a recharge station for EVs can put their town on the map.
People coming up from urban areas in EVs will have cause to stop and recharge.
High speed rail between Melbourne and Sydney is also an idea that we just need to get on with, Martin says.
Another obvious opportunity for the regions is immigration. In 2015-16 over 180,000 people entered Australia as immigrants.
“That means we have to build a city a year [to house them]. Are we doing that thinking?” she asks.
Policies that actively encouraged people into the regions could be part of the answer.
It’s about having a “community conversation”.
Where there are towns with vacant houses, there could be value in supporting people coming into that community to build up the numbers at the school, and enrich the community with their skills and different ways of looking at the world.
“I don’t think we are exploring that enough.”
One of the things regional communities need to develop as new people come in is ways to network with and support each other, Martin says.
Now back to pumpkins
In her area, she started the Giant Pumpkin Competition and Harvest Festival as a way of building resilience to climate change impacts.
By bringing people together, it then means they feel comfortable calling on each other during an extreme event. It also raises money, and the community decides what purpose those funds will serve.
As part of a wider communications and community-building program, “Nanna Technology” workshops are held on topics such as marmalade making and salami making.
This learning about food and food preparation is actually happening under the auspices of the local Landcare group.
Martin says city-dwellers making policy for the regions should potentially be sent out to stay for a short time as an intern at a farm stay, for example. Then they would gain an understanding of the “different rhythms”.
“If you are making policy and don’t understand the implications of it in rural and regional areas then you have failed.”
Climate change is something people can despair about, she says.
“But when you see what’s happening – there’s fabulous work being done all over the place.”