Recent Bushfires will Hurt Australian Agriculture

Four months ago, Australians were met with another bushfire season, one they’d expected to see–only not so early. After the blazes began, however, citizens and firefighters quickly realized that this bushfire season would be unlike any they’d seen before. Since the fires began, they have destroyed at least 1,516 homes; killed at least 25 people; and devastated over 500 million wildlife and 6.3 million hectares of land.

Australia hasn’t seen damage like this since the 2008-2009 bushfires that destroyed 2,060 houses; killed 173 people; and burned 450,000 hectares of land.

While the country has managed to keep its human mortality rate relatively low, the same cannot be said for its wildlife and land. And with record-breaking heat and increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere, Australia’s agriculture sector isn’t looking so good.

How will Recent Bushfires Hurt Australian Agriculture?

Australian agriculture depends heavily on livestock. In fact–beside the wheat sector–the beef, dairy, and sheep sectors dominate much of Australia’s agricultural industry.

The Australian beef industry alone contributes to 17% of total Australian exports, with beef farms totaling 43,736. Australian dairy farms total 8,594 with more than 9 million liters of whole milk produced annually. And with 10,705 sheep farms, Australia produces 368,300 tonnes of wool annually.

But with bushfires scorching the land and polluting the air, farmers are facing devastating livestock losses.

And that is precisely how recent bushfires will hurt Australian agriculture. 

Half a million animals have already died in the four-month blaze, thousands of which belonging to farms. According to Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie, this year’s bushfire crisis will devastate the national herd. And it isn’t just the fire that’s killing them; many vets have been sent to euthanize livestock amid a biosecurity emergency. In one week, 3,872 animals have been euthanized, and now Australia’s Defense Force is struggling to bury the bodies of dead animals before a biosecurity hazard arises.

Farmers are facing various issues, including having to repair burned, broken, or lost structures; euthanize their stock; fight farm fires; maintain produce; and keep their livestock fed. State farming organizations are requesting fodder for livestock, but introducing hay, which is extremely flammable, to these communities poses a fire risk.

And in the Dairy Industry…

Dairy farmers are worried that a milk shortage is likely to come as fires continue to scorch dairy land and kill livestock. One New South Wales dairy farmer, Robert Miller, describes his losses as emotional and stressful. Since the bushfires reached his farm, they’ve scorched 160 hectares of his land and killed 200 dairy cows. Now, he’s out of fodder and is struggling to feed his livestock.

While the fires have not yet impacted fresh milk supplies, grocery stores are likely to see a shortage due to livestock deaths and power outages that have prevented farmers from milking their cows.

Ironically, aboriginals used fire as a land-management tool for thousands of years, and much of Australia’s plant species rely on fire to germinate. So why is fire now working against Australia instead of with it?

Settlers Come to Australia

I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that this is mostly the fault of European settlers.

Isn’t it always?

Before settlers arrived in the 1700s and kicked the aboriginals off their land, Australian natives used fire to their advantage. They burned grass and bush to make trails, promote germination, and even to lure animals toward them to hunt and kill. Aboriginals found that frequent, controlled burning reduced each fire’s intensity.

When the settlers arrived, controlled burning ceased because Europeans weren’t used to using fire–they were afraid of it.

They did, at first, use fire to clear land for their crops, cattle, and buildings. But uncontrolled fires spread, taking lives and devastating property. In the late 1700s, bushfires began to spread with increased intensity, as there were no longer any aboriginals to practice controlled burning. And since then, Australia’s seasonal bushfires have continued to sweep through the country.

Once this season’s bushfires end and all damages are assessed, there might be some light at the end of the tunnel for Australian farmers and citizens.

And that light will come from traditional controlled fires.

Aboriginal Methods Truly Work

The aboriginals’ controlled burning methods truly did work–and we have proof.

Phil Sheppard, an aboriginal elder and owner of a cultural camp near Cessnock, recently discussed his bewilderment and joy after a bushfire engulfed his property–but left hardly any damage.

Three weeks ago, a fire devoured his camp. Yet, when he returned, he was amazed to find his structures still intact–all but one. And the one structure to be consumed by the flames was the one structure that hadn’t been protected by controlled burning.

In 2016, controlled burning was conducted on Sheppard’s land, and now the flames of recent bushfires have illuminated its effect. It protected Sheppard’s structures.

Traditional, controlled burning is conducted by using a lit match to burn knee-high flames in a circular pattern. The timing and frequency of burns depends on the surrounding ecosystem, and every aspect of that ecosystem must be considered, including soil type; geology; plant species, etc.

You can read more about Sheppard’s story here.

Could Aboriginal Burning Methods Save the Ag Industry?

As it stands, bushfires will hurt Australian agriculture. But fire doesn’t have to be the enemy.

Because controlled burning accounts for the environment and ensures that all animals in the ecosystem are safe, this method of land management could very well save the agricultural industry from heavy losses. But it can’t do it alone.

Controlled burning methods used in conjunction with stricter legislation and regenerative agriculture could very well save Australia’s farmland. Two major factors contributing to the intensity of the bushfires is increased CO2 levels and dry soil caused by extreme drought. Using the four regenerative agriculture principles, Australia could replenish its soil, limit water waste, and cut carbon emissions. Practiced in conjunction with controlled burning, the agricultural industry could thrive.

But wait–what is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture refers to farming practices that reverse climate change, support soil fertility and health, limit water waste and pollution, and increase biodiversity. By rebuilding soil organic matter, farmers practicing regenerative agriculture can lower carbon emissions and improve the water cycle. These farmers participate in one or more of the following four practices:

  • Minimum or no Tillage
  • Building Biological Ecosystem Diversity
  • Well-managed Grazing Practices
  • Increasing Soil Fertility

Conventional European farming practices (we’re going to blame the settlers again) have damaged much of the Earth’s soil. In fact, one-third of it is now infertile. When Europeans settled in Australia in the 1700s, their agricultural practices–which included land-clearing, the introduction of invasive species, and irresponsible livestock grazing (which degraded soil and disrupted water resources)–changed the landscape. Later on, excessive fertilizer use continued to degrade the soil. Due to Australia’s climate, which includes prolonged droughts, flooding, bushfires, and intense heatwaves, its soil is weathered and nutrient deficient.

Regenerative agriculture practices are already taking shape in the United States, reversing the negative effects of European agriculture on our land. Introducing these practices to Australia would benefit its environment and economy. And groups like Regenerative Australian Farmers are already jumping at the opportunity to improve Australia’s soil health.

So what do you think? Will recent bushfires hurt Australian agriculture? And can combining regenerative agriculture practices with controlled burning help? Comment on our social media feeds and join the conversation!



Facts About Australia

ADF in Seven-day Race to Help Bury Hundreds of Thousands of Farm Animals Killed in Bushfires, Amid Biosecurity Fears

Milk Shortage Fears Amid Australian Bushfires as Dairy Farmer Fears Devastation from Animal Deaths

Black Saturday Bushfires