Story Ken Eastwood
For most of Charlie Prell’s life, climate change has not been a conversation topic. As a fourth-generation sheep farmer at Crookwell on the NSW Southern Tablelands, the major shifts in the world’s temperatures, rainfall and extreme weather events just didn’t rate a mention, even though on their farm, Gundowringa, the weather played such an important role in day-to-day stresses and successes.
And rainfall has decreased by about 50mm over the past 120 years.
“There was no awareness within my family or within the community generally about climate change,” Charlie says. “That’s changed a lot in the past 20 years.”
It was the Millennium Drought which brought about a huge change in Charlie himself, initially ideologically, and then through an ever-expanding understanding of the science of climate change.
In 2016 he joined others to form “Farmers for Climate Action,” and although he dreams of retiring he has been the group’s chair since October 2020, dedicating almost all of his time to advocating for change in rural communities.
“We’re all about promoting the opportunities that comes from recognising climate change and doing something about it. The transition to renewable energy is the most obvious.”
Now with a huge and growing social media presence, a million-dollar-plus annual budget, a YouTube channel, the ear of politicians and farmers’ groups, 10 paid employees and a support base of more than 7,500 farming families and businesses, Farmers for Climate Action has a substantial influence on climate policy and the ongoing debates in rural communities.
“There’s a really big shift happening right now in rural communities as a consequence of the past five or six years,” Charlie says. “There were floods on a scale never seen before. And we had three of them within 12 months of that same magnitude. We had an intense drought from 2015 to 2019, then the catastrophic Black Summer fires, and now the seemingly never-ending rain and more floods. This has woken many people up.”
During the Millennium Drought, like many farmers, Charlie and his wife Kris slumped into depression. They staved off bankruptcy by selling a third of their farm, reducing it to the 800 hectares it is today.
After all the rain over the past three years, Gundowringa is looking green and healthy as it sustains some 2,000 Corriedale sheep, grown for meat and wool, and some 300 agisted cattle. But in the drought, things became critical.
“We were really desperate.”
Still, in selling off land, he didn’t want the property size to slip below something that was viable to produce food and fibre.
When a wind farm company proposed a development of 28 large wind turbines for the area, Charlie began to see a way forward. Thirteen of the turbines would be built on his farm, generating a passive income and allowing the farm to be more sustainable. Yet, there were strong objections about wind farms from so many in rural communities, including Crookwell.
“There was a well-organised campaign against wind turbines, based on misinformation, fear and behind-the-scenes support from the fossil fuel industry,” Charlie says. “I thought, there’s a massive opportunity here if we can see through the fear. Unfortunately, my campaign fell on deaf ears. But the more that people attacked me, the more I researched the data, getting really good knowledge about climate change and the renewable technology.”
It would take until 2018 for the wind turbines to be built and commissioned, but from 2010, the wind farm developer began paying Charlie and Kris. “It was a way to reshape our future. We wouldn’t be here without the wind turbines,” he says.
This advocacy for the Crookwell wind farm and others, led to Charlie becoming the NSW regional organiser for the Australian Wind Alliance, a position he held for five years. As a result, he was approached by 40 farmers who were meeting in 2015 to discuss the lack of climate action in rural communities.
“It was probably at the height of the climate wars, and we said, ‘Is there anything we can do about this?’” Charlie says. “Farmers are generally a very trusted voice in Australia. When farmers speak up, people tend to listen. That’s where we started.”
As a result of the meeting the non-partisan Farmers for Climate Action group was formed, and Charlie was on the original steering committee. He says that in the early days, the group was more activist in nature, speaking at a lot of rallies.
“There’s a place for activism and there’s a place for advocacy and that’s a fine line we’ve crossed because politicians don’t really like talking to activists,” he says.
“We spend a lot of time speaking to politicians and that’s important. The way we work is to then go back into our membership base and say, ‘We were in Canberra last week, and we were saying this, so you go to your local members and use the same language because they’ll listen to you’.
“We’ve had a really big impact on the whole debate about climate change in this country. I know we’ve had an influence with the National Farmers Federation and some state farmer’s groups. The National Farmers Federation now has a renewable energy policy and a climate policy, and so do most of the state groups.”
Although he believes that most Australian farmers now believe in human-caused climate change, Charlie says there are still farmers who parrot the voices of conservative politicians such as Tony Abbott and other leaders who politicised the issue.
“It’s unfortunate that climate change has been politicised in Australia and in the US. I hope that changes,” he says. “There are still people who are ideologically stuck and they’re really hard to shift, because if you challenge their ideology, you challenge their whole being. But those people are now in the minority.”
One strategy Farmers for Climate Action has taken is to try to avoid arguing with people who are ideologically opposed and instead focus on positive action and opportunities that farmers and rural communities can take to address climate change. “We’re not having an argument, we’re sidestepping that and saying, ‘The climate is changing, and this is what we can do to address it’.”
“What we need to do is shut down the fossil fuel industry and that’s really frightening for many people. The fossil fuel industry has done an amazing job in giving us the living standards we have today. But there’s a better way to do it now and it’s cheaper. We need to shift to 100% renewables as quickly as we can. Farmers will host most of that infrastructure and we need to provide assistance to communities disenfranchised by that change, and that includes mining.”
Charlie says Farmers for Climate Action certainly won’t be hanging up their overalls any time soon. “I thought, initially, we’d be here for a while and then we wouldn’t be needed anymore. Either we’d fail and go away with our tail between our legs, or we’d be so successful that we weren’t needed.
“But I think it’s turned out that there’s so much change that has to happen – not just for famers but whole communities. We’ll be needed for some time yet.”