Over the last decade, several projects have been working with farmers to change land management practices to improve water quality flowing to the Great Barrier Reef, and during this time farmers have consistently asked the same question: “How do I know it’s coming off my farm?”
It’s a valid question.
The end-of-catchment data captured for the Report Cards, from the Paddock to Reef Integrated Monitoring, Modelling and Reporting (P2R) Program, covers an enormous area and aggregates data across the entire catchment. So, while P2R is a world-class monitoring program providing essential information to help us track progress towards the Reef 2050 targets, the sheer scale of the program makes it less relevant to individual farmers and their particular patch.
Farmers have always said “Show me it’s my N and I’ll fix it” and consistently lobbied for locally relevant information. However, the cost and logistics of local-scale or farm-scale monitoring, at least until now, has not made this possible.
In 2017, the Queensland Government provided funding for two pilot projects – one in the Wet Tropics and one in the Burdekin. The Wet Tropics project was focused on two catchments – the Tully and the Johnstone, both recognised as nutrient hotspots. And, for the first time, the Government provided the funding but took a different approach to the design of the project by handing over the reins to the community. After 6 months of consultation that garnered over 500 ideas, local knowledge was combined with the latest science to design an innovative new project.
The Wet Tropics Major Integrated Project (MIP) is huge and complex but at its core, it’s a social change project. Farmers have not only been involved at every stage of the project – they are more actively engaged in it and helping to shape it.
They are now being provided with the local scale monitoring they’ve been asking for but also supported to explore possible solutions for reducing runoff that suit their particular landscapes. Some of these solutions include testing new catchment repair systems such as bioreactors, high efficiency sediment basins and artificial constructed wetlands.
Water quality leader Alicia Buckle says the monitoring program is customised to what farmers need and the key questions they most often ask:
1. Show me it’s my N
2. Is what I’m doing making a difference?
3. What else can I do?
Routine grab, rain event sampling and understanding land use implications and timing patterns is helping farmers to understand what’s running off their paddocks.
Collection of baseline data at sub-catchment scale through routine grab, event and real-time sampling is helping determine whether what they’re doing is making a difference.
Demonstration sites, showcasing different farming practice that improve runoff, shows them what else is possible.
The monitoring results are fed back directly to the farmers in ‘shed meetings’ where they are able to discuss them, get feedback and begin the process of working out possible solutions with the support of the project team. This combination of local scale monitoring with support for farming practice changes and the trial of new catchment repair mechanisms is what makes this project unique and could become a blueprint for future programs.
Science is a critical part of the project but it is playing a supporting role to the farmers who are leading the change and doing the work on the ground.