Feeling the heat: producers and consumers facing up to climate change


By Rochelle Dutton

Produce retailer Charles Pattison says a warmer, drier climate will mean less choice of farm produce.

Charles Pattison sees the effects of a warming climate everywhere he drives each Wednesday. And then he hears the first-hand accounts of how rising temperatures are affecting local farmers as they tell him about lost crops and starving livestock.

Mr Pattison runs the farmers’ outlet Choku Bai Jo and each week he travels around the Canberra region to collect produce from the farm gate to sell at his two Canberra stores.

“Our apple grower, he said it’s the worst he’s seen it, he’s got no water in his dams,” Mr Pattison said.

“We usually have beautiful blackberries, and [the farm] had no rain whatsoever for a long time. Then he got rain, but it was thunderstorms [and] hail, and so when he finally got rain, the hail destroyed all his crops.”

Mr Pattison says the explanation he provides customers about the availability of certain produce is helping people understand the impact of the warmer and drier climate.

Those tales of dried up dams and unpredictable, severe weather events are forecast to become more common over the next 30 years.

The Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute (CCI) recently released data breaking down the expected temperature increases by electorate based on a current emissions scenario.

Two of Canberra’s three electorates are in the top 20 most affected across Australia, out of 151 electorates.

The CCI’s data shows that by 2050 Canberra will be, on average, 3.8 degrees warmer than the long-term average.

This represents a major acceleration in warming, with the climate record showing temperatures have so far risen by just over one degree.

A change in temperature so dramatic will have a significant impact on the local agriculture industry, and in turn the produce available to Canberrans who want to shop local.

Frank van de Loo is the winemaker at Mount Majura Vineyard. The vineyard only uses grapes grown on site from vines in Canberra’s north-east for their wines.

Already, they have stopped making the pinot noir because that variety of grape is more heat sensitive.

“Four degrees is massive,” Mr van de Loo says. “That’s going to have dramatic effects, not just in this region but in regions that are already warmer.

“You’ve got early ripening [grape] varieties, like chardonnay, where we used to pick late March, now we’re picking mid-February. It’d be harder and harder to justify growing those.”

Sitting in the vineyard’s shed, filled with barrels and chillers, Mr van de Loo explains a graph he’s printed which maps out the first picking day of chardonnay wines over the last three decades.

It shows that since their first vintage in 1990 chardonnay grapes are ripening earlier each year at an average of one-and-a-half days sooner than the season before.

“We’ve just finished our 30th vintage, that’s 45 days [earlier than 1990]. That’s crazy, that’s a lot of time,” Mr van de Loo says.

Vines at Mt Majura Vineyard.

Tracking these changes and learning how to manage the impact of a changing climate for local producers is big business.

Australia Bureau of Statistics data from April shows that the agriculture industry in the ACT is worth over $10.5 million dollars per year.

CCI Climate Scientist Dr Steven Crimp, who worked on the Australian electorate forecasts, says the risk, and therefore the cost, to agriculture-based business is increasing in a number of ways because of climate change.

He says traditionally the cold winter temperatures controlled pests and diseases that can’t survive in harsh conditions. However, as winters become more mild they will survive. This means that producers need to spend money on controlling pests and diseases over winter to avoid crop-damage.

The Canberra region is also receiving less rain. The trend shows that there is about 20-30 millimetres less rain each decade. When combined with warmer temperatures that makes for thirstier crops, increasing the amount spent on irrigation.

“Growing crops is becoming a much more challenging practice in the Canberra region,” Dr Crimp says.

Frank van de Loo from Mount Majura Vineyard is conscious of the impact climate change could have on his industry, saying that it could become less sustainable in the future.

“It’s going to get more expensive. You’ve got almost the same amount of input but you get less crop back. It’s going to get more expensive to grow those grapes.

“Vines don’t survive frosts… so potentially, if we have a warmer winter, the vines will leaf out earlier, but then there can still be a frost event, so we run more risk from getting damage from frosts.

“From a business point of view, those extremes are risks, and so our risk profiles are going up.”

Mr van de Loo points out that suddenly expecting customers to pay a lot more for wine isn’t realistic, but he says customers will see changes.

“We have to find ways to produce good wine in a different way. So, we change variety or people will buy more grapes from another region.

“At the moment, we have a couple of varieties like riesling and shiraz that are clearly the standout varieties for the region. And every region in Australia is like that.

“But as the climate gets warmer and warmer, you’re going to have to change those perceptions.”

Each week Choku Bai Jo owner Charles Pattison hears stories like this from farmers as he sources from more than 80 local growers for his two retail produce stores in Canberra.

Mr Pattison was buying organic beef from Bungendore but the suppliers did not have enough feed for the livestock to continue supplying Choku Bai Jo with the local meat.

“The last couple of years have been hard with weather for the growers. There are a few sad stories at the moment.

Mr Pattison says customers care about the people behind their food which helps to sustain the local produce industry.

“A big thing is people knowing that the money is paid direct to the grower, it’s helping another family stay on the land

“You’re cutting out the stages of the wholesale, the market, the transport – it works our better for everyone.”

Dr Crimp says consumers can also help when it comes to climate action by thinking about ‘food miles’. That is, the distance travelled by the food you are eating, and therefore the emissions associated with the transport by air and road.

“People don’t realise there’s inherent emission by sourcing from wherever.”

Dr Crimp says eating foods that are in season is another step people can take to lessen their climate impact.

“We have to accept that we can’t have all of the foods that we might like to have all year round.”

Labels at Choku Bai Jo show customers how many kilometres it is to the farm where the food was grown.

Temperature increases and more extreme weather events are forecast to notably change the Canberra region.

Local agriculture producers are going to have to adapt their businesses to ensure their viability.

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And consumers will also need to give more thought about the food they are eating, and how it has been sourced.

Mr Pattison says taking small steps like shopping local can have a big impact on the community.

“There are more and more people wanting to support Australian growers,” Mr Pattison says.

He says sourcing as much produce as direct from the grower will negate some, but not all, of the effects of a warmer, drier climate.

“You’ve got the whole story about the family that’s growing it, it’s nice to be able to keep them farming.”