How do we engage farmers in the conservation conversation?

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Much of Australia’s environment is degraded to some extent. With the loss of 28 mammal species since colonisation, and continued land clearance and an MCG-sized area being cleared every two minutes, it can feel like little is being done to reverse these effects.

So who owns much of our landscape? The answer is farmers!

51 percent of Australia’s land mass is farmland, that’s over 350 Million hectares. Of this, 21 million hectares is not even being used for any kind of agricultural production, compare that to the meagre area of a little under 12 million that has been set aside for conservation.

The loss of biodiversity in agricultural landscape is particularly problemtic and we know that ecological function falls when the amount of native vegetation in a landscape drops below 30% .

So how do we halt this trend of biodiversity loss and why isn’t more being done in our agricultural landscapes -especially land that is not being used for production?

Introducing famer Dave

Let’s meet a hypothetical “average” Australian farmer. His name is Dave and he’s 58 years old. Dave owns 2,000 hectares of land on the Yorke Peninsula, South Australia and grows canola. 35 hectares of his land is not used for production, but he is not participating in any conservation activities. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to – he’s heard that there are many benefits to conserving biodiversity – but he’s not clear on exactly what to do or how to implement these types of activities.

One of the most obvious reasons is that he is not participating is simply that conservation is expensive. In one conservation project in the Adelaide Hills, the true cost of restoring native bush to a reasonable standard was $30,000 per hectare over a 10 year period of activity. The variable nature of farming and differing profits from year to year mean that often he simply doesn’t have the disposable income to put towards conservation, although David has heard that some of these costs can be recouped through the ecosystem services that re-vegetation can provide. 

But let’s say Dave does have some spare income and wants to do some conservation. Where does he go next?

In South Australia and New South Wales there are central bodies that manage land and assist farmers and land holders with a wide variety of services, which range from disease identification, baiting for invasive species and assisting in conservation projects. Maybe there is an information session or event that he could attend, but it’s a 4 hours drive to the nearest city and he simply does not have the time to go. So where else can Dave find the information he needs to start a conservation project. He has a look online but has difficulty finding the information that he needs. Eventually he manages to make contact with Natural Resources Management for the Northern and Yorke region, part of the South Australian Landscape Board. Even then his options are still limited as he would have to wait for projects aimed at farms like his to be organized. They are available but few and far between. Understandably, for someone as busy as Dave, there is only so much time he will be able to spend on this before he has to get back to work on the farm.

So how can we help dismantle these barriers that land holders come up against? 

This farmer isn’t named Dave, but I think our average farmer would look something like this!

Lets consider ecosystem services

One of the most important things that can help to dismantle these barriers and encourage engagement is improved recognition of the benefits, not just the costs, of conservation. Understanding how conservation, especially revegetation can provide benefits and what steps to take, can really help motivate landowners.

The direct benefits that can come from revegetation and/or the conservation of remnant vegetation are known as ecosystem services. These include things like carbon sequestration, water filtration, pollination services and more.

An important service provided by revegetation that is relevant to farmers is the creation of shelter belts to protect lambs from wind chill. These shelter belts can reduce the mortality of lamb by up to 70%. Targeted revegetation can also improve water quality when planted along riparian zones.

Now lets focus in one of the most important farm-relevant ecosystem services – pollination services – vital for pollination-dependent crops. Revegetation can help to improve the amount and quality pollination services, by providing nesting habitat and food for native pollinators such as bees.

Fortunately a user friendly pollination service benefit calculator has been developed by scientists at the University of Adelaide called pollin8. By putting in the numbers, Dave can see that if he were to convert 1.5 percent, or 30 hectares, of his land to pollinator friendly revegetation this year (2022), he can expect to see an increase in yield of around 3 percent by 2032 and 6.5 percent by 2047. These increases in yield could also help to offset the potential effects of climate change in coming years.

output from

Lets link action to the market 

Whilst increasing profits provides incentives for farmers to revegetate their land, it is not the only solution, and will need to be paired with other forces as oftne a meager increase in profits is not worth the time and energy required. Market based instruments can provide a solution to this and dismantle the financial barriers between the land holder and conservation.

One market-based instrument for conservation is the emissions reduction fund in which participants can earn Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) for every tonne of emissions reduced or stored through a project. These carbon credits can be bought, sold, traded. Dave could earn credits by planting native vegetation, the more hectares of revegetation, the more carbon credits Dave could earn. This process is known as carbon farming.  

Carbon pricing can help to kickstart some revegetation however, land holders will often just plant plants that will give them the most credits often without considering the potential ecological benefits of a more diverse planting. There are also issues with how financially viable carbon farming is, even when combined with the ecosystem service benefits. The cost of carbon credits is currently too low to make it profitable for farmers to farm carbon. These prices could rise however they would need to rise significantly to make carbon farming more appealing to land holders.

Seeing and doing

While our famer Dave was aware that conservation would benefit him, many are not. So how can we get more farmers and land holders on board and start conversations about conservation? 

While it doesn’t exist yet, a great resource for landholders and farmers wanting to participate in conservation would be a central information hub which compiles all the various incentives and assistance for conservation and revegetation an revegetation projects. This could exist both online and also have an in person presence through the existing infrastructure and outreach of landscape management organisations. A resource like this could provide information on vegetation and what species are both good for maximising the number of carbon credits the farmer can receive but also help to promote biodiversity of both flora and fauna amongst other things.

One project aiming to engage landholders like Dave is the Forktree project. The Forktree Project is a demonstrator project that is attempting to restore 133 acres of degraded former pastoral farm on the Fleurieu Peninsula to as close as possible to the way it was before it was cleared for pastoral use.

The Forktree project is aimed at engaging small to medium sized farms like the one David has. Small to medium farms make 10% of agricultural land and can make an important contribution to halting biodiversity loss. The fork tree project is “Trialling easier ways to calculate carbon sequestration in order to improve access by owners of small/medium sized properties to carbon funding,” 

One thing that stands out about the Forktree project is the high production quality of their website. The inclusion of a cinematographer on the team who are working on the forktree project helps to create impactful visuals that keep viewers engaged. Their website also features a journal that shows the progress on the project. Projects with websites like these are really important for engaging people and demonstrating that change can be made even on degraded land. 

So what’s next for Dave?

There is a lot of work to be done to figure out how to make conservation and revegetation financially viable as well as biodiverse for landholders like Dave, we appear to be moving in the right direction.  With the continued degradation of our landscapes here has never been a better or more important time to engage land holders in conservation to work towards a future in which they feel empowered and knowledgeable about the steps they can take to improve their land. 

Fortunately for Dave he has just discovered that he is eligible to take part in a pilot project as part of the The Agriculture Stewardship Package, a federally funded program aims to kickstart private investment in biodiversity on agricultural lands. This program will financially reward David for beginning and maintaining biodiverse plantings and will include other co benefits such as pollination and water quality. 

Dave is looking forward with a sense of optimism knowing that the future of biodiversity on his land is now in safe hands. 

Article by Jemma Wellens, with editorial input from Colette Blyth and Andrew Lowe

References and resources

2018. Australian canola farmer Andrew Weidemann. Available at: [Accessed 13 January 2022].

2021. Agriculture Biodiversity Stewardship Package. Available at: [Accessed 13 January 2022].

Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2020. Agricultural Commodities, Australia, 2018-19 financial year. at: [Accessed 12 January 2022].

Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. 2021. Emissions Reduction Fund. Available at: [Accessed 12 January 2022].

Landscape Boards SA. 2021. Landscape Boards SA | Home. Available at: [Accessed 12 January 2022]. 2022. Local Land Services – What We Do. Available at: [Accessed 12 January 2022].

Mappin, B., Ward, A., Hughes, L., Watson, J., Cosier, P. and Possingham, H., 2021. The costs and benefits of restoring a continent’s terrestrial ecosystems. Journal of Applied Ecology,.

Morán-Ordóñez, A., Whitehead, A., Luck, G., Cook, G., Maggini, R., Fitzsimons, J. and Wintle, B., 2016. Analysis of Trade-Offs Between Biodiversity, Carbon Farming and Agricultural Development in Northern Australia Reveals the Benefits of Strategic Planning. Conservation Letters, 10(1), pp.94-104. n.d. Pollin8. Available at: [Accessed 12 January 2022].

Prowse, T., 2021. Conservation Biology III Lectures. Univerity of Adelaide 20/08/21.

Rader, R., Latty, T., Cunningham, S. and Hogendoorn, K., n.d. A guide to Australian crop pollinating insects. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 January 2022].

Summers, D., Regan, C., Settre, C., Connor, J., O’Connor, P., Abbott, H., Frizenschaf, J., Linden, L., Lowe, A., Hogendoorn, K., Groom, S. and Cavagnaro, T., 2021. Current carbon prices do not stack up to much land use change, despite bundled ecosystem service co‐benefits. Global Change Biology, 27(12), pp.2744-2762.

The Forktree Project. n.d. About Us — The Forktree Project. Available at: [Accessed 13 January 2022].

Wilderness Society. 2021. 10 facts about deforestation in Australia. Available at: [Accessed 12 January 2022].

Woinarski, J., Burbidge, A. and Harrison, P., 2015. Ongoing unraveling of a continental fauna: Decline and extinction of Australian mammals since European settlement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(15), pp.4531-4540.

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