Press conference in Cairns, QLD

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE
CAIRNS
WEDNESDAY, 17 MAY 2023 

SUBJECTS: Climate smart agriculture funding, Natural Heritage Trust Budget measure, carbon offsets, soils, workforce shortages, disaster funding for producers, banana plastic credit scheme

MURRAY WATT: Well, thanks, everyone, for coming along today, and can I particularly thank Mark Savino, a cane grower here just outside Cairns who has welcomed us to his cane fields today. He was telling me his family has been on this property since, was it 1937?

MARK SAVINO: Yep.

MURRAY WATT: And he's been taking it from strength to strength and we'll talk a bit about that in a minute. Can I also thank Jorg and Sally from the locally-based - here in Cairns - NRM group who do such terrific work working with farmers and working with other community members about restoring the environmental health of farmlands, rivers, and the wider environment.

The reason we're on Mark's farm is that this is a particularly good example of what can be done when governments work with farmers to help them lift the environmental sustainability of their production which also helps them reduce their costs, improve the health of their products, and in the end, make more money for farmers, while also improving the environment. And that's exactly the kind of thing that the Albanese Government is serious about getting behind.

You will have seen since we came to power nearly 12 months ago, the Albanese Government has had a much stronger focus on climate adaptation and sustainability than what we've seen from our Federal Government in the past. And agriculture is a core part of that because the reality is that agriculture does cause emissions, but it also can be one of the major ways that we can reduce our environmental harm, reducing emissions, and keep producing high-quality food and fibre for our country and the world while reducing our environmental footprint.

And that's why I was so pleased in the Federal Budget, launched last week, that we were able to commit $302 million for a brand-new climate-smart agriculture package that will be spread out right across the country from up here in Cairns, down to Tasmania, and all the way west to Western Australia as well. And what we want to use that funding to do is more of what we're seeing here on Mark's farm, is working with farmers to help them become even more sustainable than they are, to reduce their environmental footprint, reduce their emissions, but help them produce high-quality food and reap the financial rewards of doing so well into the future.

Now, in terms of what's in this package, we will continue to fund some of the terrific work that is done by our land care groups, our NRM groups right across the country, doing projects like what is happening here on Mark's farm, but also a lot of work around pest and weed removal, restoring the natural capital and biodiversity on our farms right across the country. But also there's a big shift in this next five-year funding package compared to what we saw under the former government and that is that what we want to be doing is having much more of a shift towards climate adaptation.

We've now got a government in Canberra that accepts that climate change is real, that we need to do something about it and the best way to do it is by working in partnership with farmers and local groups like the Terrain NRM. So included in the $302 million funding is a new program worth about $40 million that is specifically set up to fund trusted partners to work with farmers around how they can help adapt to climate change, take on more renewable energy, reduce their emissions on their farms, participate in the carbon and biodiversity markets. All of those kinds of things that farmers can use to develop new income streams, to reduce their costs while also making a really positive contribution to reducing our emissions and restoring the environmental health of our land.

That's a first, that we have funding for that sustainable agricultural facilitators program, and it's come from some of the feedback that I've had on farms right across the country and we were talking about it with Mark before as well. There are so many farmers out there that have already done amazing things around environmental sustainability, and there are even more who want to do something in that space but they're not quite sure what to do, they're not quite sure who they can trust when they're getting that advice and that's what these facilitators will do. It's basically about building on the success of projects like this one where you've got those trusted partnerships between government-funded organisations and farmers who have been doing great work to restore soil health, other environmental improvements, and apply that model to how we can become even more climate-smart, reduce our emissions on farms and help farmers make more money while contributing to the environment. 

I will hand over to Mark in a minute so he can tell you a bit about what's been happening here and Jorg will talk to you as well about the role of the NRM groups as well that will continue under this next five-year plan. But one of the interesting things about what Mark was telling me is that he's been doing some fascinating work around using Biologics to help restore the soil health in his farm here. It's a little bit like a massive compost heap, if you think about it in those terms, but much more advanced than that. And what Mark was telling me is it's not only improved the health of his sugar that he's producing, but it's really reducing his nitrogen costs as well.

So we know that farmers are under pressure with the cost of fertiliser and other inputs rising, and this is a great way that farmers can help reduce their costs by becoming more climate-smart and more environmentally sustainable. But Mark knows it a lot better than me so I will hand over to him to tell you a bit more. Thanks a lot, Mark.

MARK SAVINO: Okay, yeah, so what I'm basically - it's a journey of about 14 years that I started off Terrain, started off with actually Northern Gulf before Terrain, even, and then we've gone along and what Terrain's offered me is mentoring to help me - I played with compost, found out that was too dear to use, even though I was getting it free nearly. But it was just the spreading costs. So I've gone to liquid biology to give my soil the kick-along.

And we fell in a heap there a little bit. We got too complacent when fertiliser prices went down to $500 and $600 a tonne, so we just said, well, put fertiliser on and let's not go further with it. But we've gone back to visit where I was again, trying to get our soils increasing. So I'm working with a few people to try and track the biology in the soil through from fallow, mixed-species fallow through to planting and then return cane right through the end. So we want to track the biology to see how we can get that to make a healthier plant. I'm more chasing the healthier plant and then healthier soils will come with that.

MURRAY WATT: Anyone have any questions for Mark and then we can hear from Jorg.

JOURNALIST: I guess, how did these measures differ from what you've done previously and why are they so important to your farm ensuring the longevity of it?

MARK SAVINO: The main reason is that, yeah, I can say when the price of fertiliser went to $500 a tonne I went back to fertiliser because it's easier. It's a lot easier. I can do the work - I don't have to do much work, but for biology you have to brew it up, then apply it and then retest it. You know that fertiliser will work. But what I'm trying to find is another way of doing it without the great amount of fertiliser costs. 

JOURNALIST: The Minister said that part of the project's funding is going specifically to places like Terrain NRM to help do projects like these. For you specifically working with NRM, what difference has that made for you implementing these kind of changes, instead of just doing it yourself or talking to your neighbours?

MARK SAVINO: They keep you motivated. Like, I've been through a few facilitators over the 13 years, and it was really good, and you build up friendships and I've got friendships with one of the ex-workers there and we ring her and we talk. And that's what it is – it’s keeping you motivated to keep doing it. That's what you need. It's easier to say, no, mate, the fertiliser costs are $500 I'll go with fertiliser. It's too easy to say that to yourself. 

JOURNALIST: I guess that soil health, has that had any impact or benefit to the plants themselves? Have you seen increasing growth, anything like that?

MARK SAVINO: Not so much yet and it's a slow period. It's not going to happen overnight. I think the soils are a lot healthier and we basically drop the rotary hoe out of our farming system, which I think that is a major benefit to soil structure. So it's just the matter of little changes and going slowly. Because when it all boils down to it, we can't lose the end dollars. If we lose dollars, we get ourselves into strife. 

JOURNALIST:  How long have you been implementing this new strategy?

MARK SAVINO: Well, as I say, I started with compost from SITA in 2010 and we were spreading that, but then we found little issues with that, so we stopped that one. And then we had a break for a little while and then I worked in 2015, I was very fortunate to be able to work with a bloke called Wilham Lander. He was a microbiologist and we were doing brewing. But then he left and then I fell in a heap again, and so now we've got a re-gen group of farmers that we get together, and they've motivated me to go back to where I am now. 

JOURNALIST: But if you're not seeing results yet, is it still worth sticking with?

MARK SAVINO: Yes, it is still worth sticking with because I’ll see – I'm working with a JCU researcher at the moment and he's going to come back with metagen data, which is DNA data on what's in that soil. So this way will be a better way of tracking. Plus, I've got a lady up in [INDISTINCT] who is helping me with – with actually microscope work to try and see where we're happening, where are we losing it?

My father grew better cane than I grew. Whether it's the varieties or what it is, and everyone's trying to do it. They're doing research trying to find out what happened in Mulgrave. We're losing sugar, we're losing tonnage – why? This is probably just a little chink in the wall. One little brick in the wall and we'll make a full wall eventually. 

JOURNALIST: Mark, can we grab your full name and spell it for us, if you don't mind?

MARK SAVINO: Mark - Mark's alright but it’s Savino. S-a-v-i-n-o. 

JOURNALIST: Thank you.  Tell us about your role in this whole project.

JORG EDSEN: Yeah, Terrain NRM is the natural resource management organisation up here in the wet tropics region from Ingham to the Daintree, up the range, over the Tablelands to Mount Garnet. And our main aim is to work in partnership with the communities, with landholders and farmers and the First Nations group to improve the natural capital of the wet tropics, meaning we try to maintain and improve the forests, the waterways, the land on which agriculture is done, as well as the reef.

So we are working in partnership and that is one of our mainstays because without partners we wouldn't be anything. So we're working - we have been working, funded through the Department of Agriculture for the last eight years, implementing the Regional Land Partnership Program. One of the projects we had was the Healthy Farming Futures or what we call Digging Deeper, and here we have been working with farmers, with landholders to really build their capacity, build their knowledge, and support them in implementing land management practice change on their farms.

So we have been working with Mark for the last - or he has been first intake in 2015, 2014 and since then we had two programs addressing sustainable agriculture and land management practice change on farms here in the wet tropics.

So this has been a great opportunity to foster and support our strategy, which is the soil health strategy, because we think that the soil is the most important natural capital for farmers and, as the Minister said, to really produce food, to produce livestock and so forth in the region.

So we are very pleased that we have been able to work with farmers, to work in partnership with them, and to really build up their knowledge and really try to achieve on-ground change, on-ground change, in the soil, on-ground, in-ground, and try to improve this important natural capital.

So we are pleased also to hear there is another round of funding, there's another round of regional land partnership funding coming up as well as the funding that the Minister has just announced, so we are really keen to really work with the Department and put projects forward that actually support the agriculture here in the wet tropics. In particular, to support it to become sustainable and resilient, as the Minister said, to climate change and, yeah, improve sort of the triple bottom line, or quadruple bottom line of farmers, foster the economy, foster climate resilience, foster on the social benefits and foster on the environmental benefits and biodiversity benefits for agriculture. So we are pleased to see that additional funding and we are looking forward to collaborate with the Department on that. Thank you. 

JOURNALIST: And how does that work feed into the carbon market?

JORG EDSEN: We are in the beginning and that is one of the aims of this additional funding, as the Minister said, to foster more on environmental markets, on natural capital markets, and on the carbon markets. We are trying to combine sort of the sustainable agriculture aspect with climate and carbon - with the carbon markets and potentially producing further income streams for the landholders, the traditional income stream through the agriculture produce they produce, but also potentially getting income streams from carbon markets. And sort of, we're trying to combine this and I guess that is one of the aims of the additional funding announced that we actually foster on climate resilience, foster on emissions production, and foster on building or advising and supporting farmers to become part of the carbon market in the region. 

JOURNALIST: Why did Mark's dad grow better cane sugar than Mark does?

JORG EDSEN: Excuse me?

JOURNALIST: Why did Mark's dad grow better cane sugar than Mark does?

JORG EDSEN: I have no idea, whether it was better cane sugar or not. It was a different way of doing it. 

MARK SAVINO: There's a lot of different things impacting it, compaction, better cane varieties, because in those days a little 188, which is probably a 5-tonne tractor, was the normal tractor we used in those days. Whereas now we've got - we thought we got smarter, but we didn't. So we went - we said we'll go smarter, we can do this, we can do what Dad did, we'll just do it quicker. And in Dad’s day we had three people on this farm, right? I've got three people running five times the size of this farm, just three people. So we had to get more economic but in doing so we lost the sight of where we should be. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, just a question for yourself. This funding has been announced, when are we going to see it start to roll out? Is it already being rolled out? What's the timeline?

MURRAY WATT: So this funding that we're announcing today will be spread over the next five years, starting from the 1st of July this year. But as Jorg said, we've actually already started tender processes about who the partners we're going to work with are and we want to start getting that money rolling out as quickly as we can after the 1st of July.

I might just add something to that last question about carbon markets as well because that is one of the big shifts in this next round of the Natural Heritage Trust funding. As you've seen here today, there's been some excellent partnerships built around how we can restore soil health, the environmental productivity of land, but up until now there hasn't really been any serious federal funding to support farmers participate in carbon markets and biodiversity markets. Those markets are up and running but the reality is they're pretty complicated, farmers are busy people, and we need to have some trusted people working with government and farmers to make it easy for farmers to participate in those markets, which actually allows them to generate more money and which is, of course, a very attractive reason for farmers to get involved in it. 

JOURNALIST: I do have a follow-up question on that, if that's okay, Minister?

MURRAY WATT: Sure. 

JOURNALIST: There has been a lot of controversy around the reliability of offsets and the amendment to the safeguard mechanism. What are your current thoughts on where the carbon market stands if you are, you know, feeding more money into helping farmers participate in it?

MURRAY WATT: So, I guess there's a couple of aspects to that question. There had been some very serious questions about the integrity of Australia's carbon market, as it had been established, and that's why our government commissioned a review from Professor Ian Chubb, a former chief scientist of Australia, to really have a good look at the carbon market and he has recommended a range of changes to really tighten the integrity of it. Because if people are investing in this carbon market, you want to make sure that it's actually delivering a return in the sense of reducing emissions. We don't want to see false emissions and dodgy emissions that aren't real, being captured in a carbon market. We want it to actually produce a genuine reduction in emissions.

But I guess the second issue is about the role of offsets and our view as a government is that what we need to do is to bring down emissions in this country. We've obviously passed legislation to set a much more ambitious target of 43% emissions reductions by 2030 and there's a range of ways that we need - things that we need to do to get there. Some of it is about working with farmers to reduce their emissions, the safeguards mechanism is particularly about how we can get big, heavy industry emitters to reduce their emissions, but there is going to be a role of offsets as well and we know that trees are one of the best things that we can do to take carbon out of the atmosphere. So having carbon markets established, that farmers and others can grow trees and grow other vegetation to capture that carbon, is a really important way of helping to reduce our emissions while we reduce them in heavy industry, agriculture and elsewhere. 

JOURNALIST: And are soil carbon measures part of the [INDISTINCT]? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, so soil carbon measures were looked at as well and soil carbon plays a big role as well and I think it's really exciting that you see the level of interest in soil carbon among Australian farmers. People like Mark are already on track to reap the benefits in terms of their own soil health, but it can also sequester carbon as well and that's good for the environment, for all of us. So I think – I mean, putting it simply, what we're announcing today and some of the other measures is good news for farmers, it's good news for the environment and it's good news for business as well. 

JOURNALIST: I guess across the board there's still some workforce shortages happening for cane producers. Is there any potential for more money to be invested in that, in helping build their workforce again?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, so addressing the workforce shortages in the agriculture industry has been one of my key priorities since I became the Minister. In the Government's Jobs and Skills Summit that we held last year in Canberra, we actually came out of that forming a working group that brought together, for the first time, some of the farm employer groups like the National Farmers' Federation and some of the farm unions working with government. And, let's face it, typically those groups haven't got along too well and haven't worked too well together and our government has actually brought them literally into the same room to solve some of these agricultural workforce shortages.

What that’s led to already is that our government has invested in about 13,000 new fee-free TAFE places for agriculture courses, because we do want to make sure that locals have opportunities to get the skills that are needed to work on farms which are becoming more technological. But, of course, what we've also done is bring in a record number of Pacific Island workers on our farms who play an important role right across the country. We do have migration numbers coming back post-COVID as well. So there's a range of things that our government is doing, along with making sure that farm workers are better protected and we've actually reached agreement with farm employers and unions on principles around how we better regulate the labour-hire schemes that a lot of farm workers are employed through. 

JOURNALIST: Going back to this specific funding that you're here talking about today, what input have farmers and grower bodies had in actually forming what this package looks like?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, so it's been very extensive consultation in the lead up to this announcement, conducted by my department with farm groups, again, the National Farmers' Federation, Farmers For Climate Action, who have a deep interest in these issues, along with the local NRM groups and Landcare organisations as well, and even individual farmers. So that's how we've arrived at this program and how we're cutting up that overall cake of $302 million to make sure that we can keep doing some of the things that are working, but also try and do some new things like this whole climate adaption piece.

Every farm I go to around the country I meet farmers, who are really keen to do more about sustainability. They can see the impacts of climate change on their crops. We've seen modelling from our own department, which shows that over the last 20 years, the average farm's profitability in Australia has fallen by nearly $30,000 because of climate change. So it's affecting people's bottom lines and we know also that consumers and our overseas markets are demanding higher and higher standards of sustainability. So it's in our farmers' interests that we start taking more action on this front and we're really excited to be able to work in partnership with them. 

JOURNALIST: And just another question as well. I think as well, you know, you're giving this money to all these different organisations, really strictly for farmers on the ground, what is this going to mean?

MURRAY WATT: What will it mean? Sure. What this will mean for farmers is that he will have real support from their Federal Government to become much more climate smart in their operations, to reduce their emissions, to reduce their energy costs, to potentially reduce some of their fertiliser usage and other costs that they're incurring and also to develop new income streams for our farmers.

One of the things about being a farmer, and I'm sure Mark can tell you this better than me, is that it's very volatile. Sometimes you get good prices in good crops, sometimes you don't. Sometimes you have a good livestock yield, sometimes you don't. And if we can be helping farmers build those new income streams through carbon markets and other things like that, that helps them stabilise their income while also generating real environmental benefits. 

JOURNALIST: Can you just talk me through the announcement for primary producers, and what criteria do they need to meet to be considered eligible?

MURRAY WATT: Sure. So, I'm very pleased also to announce that the Albanese Government has come to a partnership with the Andrews Government in Victoria to provide new concessional loans for primary producers in two Victorian councils, who suffered from very significant hail damage and other storm damage recently.

So the announcement we're making today is concessional loans of up to $250,000 for primary producers in the local government areas of Greater Shepparton and the Yarra Ranges which were both very badly hit by these storms. And, basically, to be eligible for those loans, farmers do have to demonstrate simply that they've suffered some significant damage and I encourage anyone who has done so to hop on the National Emergency Management Agency website to get more details about how they can apply. 

JOURNALIST: What's the benefit of this loan as opposed to producers going into their own bank?

MURRAY WATT: So the support that we're announcing today is on top of other assistance that's already been committed to primary producers, grants and other support as well. But what we know is that sometimes farmers who have suffered a very extreme loss, it will sometimes be about replacing their crops, it will sometimes be about replacing equipment that's been damaged and by providing concessional loans rather than through banks, it makes it easier for farmers to get back up on their feet. If you've lost a couple of hundred thousand dollars or even a million dollars’ worth of crops, that's a pretty big blow to your budget and these loans are offered a concessional rates of interest, usually with generous terms and conditions about repayment to help farmers get back on their feet.

JOURNALIST: Last question. A lot of growers are already in debt from a tough year, so – because many didn't qualify for the last round of loans, some producers have said that this process of applying is really tedious and what's your response to that?

MURRAY WATT: We've worked really hard since coming to government with the State governments to try to simplify the procedures that people need to go through in applying for this disaster support. But there's always ways we can improve and we're actually doing a big review of our disaster funding at the moment to try to make it even more streamlined still. But I'd certainly encourage anyone who has suffered losses from these recent storms to apply, and we can make arrangements to make it as simple as possible for people to get access to that money. 

JOURNALIST: I've got a question on the banana [INDISTINCT].

MURRAY WATT: Yes. 

JOURNALIST: So, Australia's first plastic credit scheme has been announced for the banana industry, it's particularly relevant here. For every tonne of banana baggage cleared away, they're going to get one plastic credit. Do you think this is a good idea, the scheme, or is it just brainwashing and avoiding the problem?

MURRAY WATT: Well, our government supports any initiative that offers the potential to assist farmers reduce their environmental footprint. And this scheme is an interesting one that I think deserves exploration and we are supportive of anything which would reduce plastic waste on banana farms. Just as we would support any program that's about reducing waste on farms or in the broader community. 

JOURNALIST: Just a follow-up as well. We've got carbon credits, reef credits, now plastic credits. It feels like the possibilities are endless. Would you like to see this kind of credit system expanded more broadly or is it, again, just kind of getting too far away from the problem?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think again, to bring it back to what we're announcing today, that's one of the points about these facilitators that we're funding, is to try to make these different arrangements as simple as possible for farmers. We don't want to set up, you know, an incredible number of different schemes for farmers to participate in. We want to make these things as simple as possible. But I think the fact that these sort of incentive programs are starting to emerge shows that people have worked out you've got to offer farmers financial incentives to do some of these things. Farmers obviously want to do the right thing by the environment, but if we can also offer them financial incentives through programs like that, I think you will see even bigger take up still. 

JOURNALIST: One last one. Do all of these things need to be regulated by State or Federal governments?

MURRAY WATT: We've obviously got strong regulations in place around the carbon market and the new and emerging nature repair market as well. And I'm happy to have a look at that scheme in a bit more detail to see whether it needs further regulation. We obviously want these things to have integrity and if further regulation is required then we would be happy to do that.