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Looking into Australia’s interior to see how science can better support farmer resilience


Sharlene King
11 November 2019
Hanabeth Luke

Southern Cross University researcher Dr Hanabeth Luke cut her research teeth on better understanding the diversity of attitudes around the polarizing issue of unconventional gas development in New South Wales and Queensland.

Hanabeth is deeply motivated by helping regional communities and farmers to become more resilient, bringing communities to science, and vice versa.

Being a woman in a STEM career, she had been extremely lucky to have a supportive husband who did “the lion’s share of the parenting”.

Southern Cross University had also been very supportive of her research journey as she became both a mother and Doctor of Philosophy.

“There’s so many different academic pathways for young women,” Dr Luke said. “It’s a really exciting career I feel very fortunate to be in, and I really do love my work.”

Dr Hanabeth Luke is profiled in the RUN Women in Science, Technology and Engineering in Regional Australia booklet.

Hanabeth’s research focuses where society, land, industry and community intersect, especially on the idea of ‘social license to operate’, or levels of community acceptance for a project or land use.

“I am concerned about ways to better engage people in decision-making, including mechanisms we can use to better understand community acceptance or support for a project or activity. Industries can be more in touch with community aspirations, while the man and woman on the street can have more input into decisions that will affect their local communities.”

With Australia regarded as one of the countries most at risk from global warming, and the world turning its attention to how we respond to changing weather patterns and reduced water availability1, farmers are at the front-line of questions about innovation and adaptation.

Hanabeth says the Soil CRC wants to better understand social dimensions of farming over time, especially barriers to the uptake of new scientific innovation and technology. Her background is in environmental science, but she turned to the tools of social psychology and rural sociology “because I could see so much fantastic science being ignored.”

“I’m working with top rural sociologists to survey farmers across ultimately six farming regions of Australia to find out what farmers are doing: what their practices are, how they manage their farms, and what they need from the organisations that support them. Importantly, what do they need from scientists?”

The survey questions will be co-developed with local farmers and natural resource managers, and spatially referenced so the social data can be cross-referenced with other spatial data from the area, such as soil type, rainfall type and local topography.

Australian farmers had a well-deserved reputation for flexibility in dealing with the characteristically variable and harsh conditions of Australian climate, and an ‘extremely good’ understanding of their soils, but their famed resilience is being increasingly tested.

“Farmers have been used to dealing with unpredictable weather patterns for a long time. But there’s additional stress now that these droughts are lasting longer. You’re seeing evidence of a shift in the seasons and shorter wet seasons and all the things that go with that, including significantly increased fire risk, like we’re seeing in the Northern Rivers.

“‘Farmers are on the forefront of that change and farms cover half this country. Working with farmers is critical in having a more... I wouldn’t use the word sustainable, I’d use resilient landscape and resilient Australian population, supporting healthier systems.”

She has secured funding to oversee two new PhDs, funded by the Soil CRC and fellow RUN member, Charles Sturt University. These researchers will investigate how farming systems are working, farmer responses to climate change, and regenerative agriculture approaches, from no-till farming to permaculture.

Spracklen et al. reported in Nature (2012) that ‘for more than 60 per cent of the tropical land surface, air that has passed over extensive vegetation in the preceding few days produces at least twice as much rain as air that has passed over little vegetation.’2

Our work is about asking simple questions that can be of use to policymakers right now, says Hanabeth, such as ‘Why are farmers still clearing trees at the rate that they are when there’s clear evidence that land-clearing actually decreases rainfall?’

1 Palutikof, J. P. (2010). The view from the front line: adapting Australia to climate change. Global Environmental Change, 2(20), 218-219

2 Spracklen, Arnold, Taylor (2012) Observations of increased tropical rainfall preceded by air passage over forests. Nature 489:282–286