What’s the connection between land management, biodiversity and mental health?
This is the question that a new 5-year project led by the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society seeks to investigate. The project – Sustainable Farms Initiative: Healthy Farmers Healthy Farms Healthy Profits – aims to translate 20 years of sustainable farming research into information and tools that farmers can use to better manage their farms’ natural capital assets.
“We aim to provide evidence that a farm that is better managed environmentally, is better off financially which in turn substantially contributes to improving the farmer’s mental health and wellbeing.” Professor David Lindenmayer, ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society
These three elements: environmental considerations, farm viability and farmer mental health are inexorably entwined and considering all three factors is a unique and ambitious element of this project.
When first considering this project, ANU had an initial discussion with The Ian Potter Foundation. Land management has been a key focus for The Ian Potter Foundation for many years. A $1m grant for the Potter Farmland Plan in 1982 led to the creation of Australia’s Landcare movement. However, a key differentiator between this ANU project and the Potter Farmland plan is the consideration of farm viability as a core part of the original project design (a critical factor given the national importance of intergenerational transfer of our farms) and the added consideration of farmer mental health and wellbeing.
“With a growing population, the demand and pressure to increase food and fibre production has never been stronger. Yet the challenges to meet such demand weigh heavily on our farmers. These challenges impact the mental health and wellbeing of an already ageing workforce of farmers, with significant implications for the rural communities in which they live.” Professor David Lindenmayer
Biodiversity is also now a key focus for the Foundation’s environment and conservation funding. Approximately two-thirds of Australia’s land mass is arable, under crops or pasture. To impact and influence biodiversity outcomes on a scale that might ‘move the dial’ nationally requires a trusted and capable group of like-minded organisations and individuals with real capacity to achieve on-the-ground access and influence with this farming community.
The research capacity of three research centres at ANU – the Fenner School of Environment and Society, the Research School of Economics and the Centre for Mental Health Research – will ensure academic rigour is applied to this project. Importantly, partnering with Holbrook Land Care and NSW Local Land Services, initially in the Murray and Riverina regions, provides a great opportunity to achieve ‘farm gate access’ across a large cohort of farmers, as well as some strong partners to assist with a coordinated dissemination strategy for the benefit of farmers and policy makers.
Professor Lindenmayer and his team at ANU have been involved with a range of farm-based projects over the last twenty years, from which this present project has emerged. This work has culminated in a significant data set which allows for evidence-based recommendations and decision making that we believe will flow from this project.
The trust that the ANU team have developed with farming communities over many years is also critical to achieving the ‘farm gate’ access required in this project, additional to the access that University partners (Local Land Services and Landcare) provide. Professor Lindenmayer has a particular skill in recruiting people, often farmers themselves or scientists from farming families, to work alongside him, building very successful teams. His style of leadership is to work with the farming community, to listen to them and to act as an advisor and collaborator. In this sense David and his ANU team mirror the style of the Potter Farmland Plan; promoting changes that the farmers themselves realize have to be made to achieve farm sustainability.
For The Ian Potter Foundation, it is particularly pleasing, 25 years on from The Potter Farmland Plan, to be a partner once again in reinvigorating farming communities, and build on something the Foundation was able to achieve so long ago.