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Down to earth

Hannabeth Luke in a field with cows


25 May 2023

The spirit of transformation runs deep in Dr Hanabeth Luke. As Australian agriculture grapples with its future, she is an inspired scientist and educator. More personally, her understanding of transformation is ingrained in personal experience.

Hanabeth Luke

Down to earth

If anyone understands transformation, it is Dr Hanabeth Luke. Coordinator for Southern Cross University's Regenerative Agriculture program, Hanabeth has spent years working with Australia's farmers, policymakers, environmental and industry groups to amass a store of data that offers "big picture" possibility to a sector long beset by challenges.

Put simply, Regenerative Agriculture (RA) is an holistic approach to farming. Based on agroecological principles, RA supports natural processes to improve the health of soils, landscapes and people. Southern Cross University has identified RA as a key to sustaining Australia's farming in the era of climate change, soil degradation and ecosystem loss. It is also leading the education imperative to ensure that coming generations of land managers know how and why to regenerate soil and build farm resilience.

"Half of the usable land surface of the Earth, and half of Australia, is covered by farms," says Hanabeth. "Inappropriate extractive industries like coal seam gas (CSG), with their potential to severely alter the social and economic structures of a place, are more likely to be stopped in their tracks if rural communities are flourishing. That is what I want to support – the regeneration of our soils, landscapes and rural communities."

“More than ever there is a need to equip graduates with the skills and knowledge to help farmers lead the way in building resilience across our farming systems.”

Since launching the world-first Bachelor of Science (Regenerative Agriculture) in 2020, Southern Cross University has steadily progressed its RA agenda. A Graduate Certificate introduced in 2021 attracted around 350 students. It is now accompanied by a Graduate Diploma.

"These students are among the most engaged and inspiring students I have ever taught," says Hanabeth. "The mix is about two-thirds farmers, who are living and working in argiculture, while the rest is mostly young students who do not have an agricultural background at all, but who are enlivened by it."

All benefit from Hanabeth's experience in merging science and rural sociology through research that seeks to understand landholder decision-making in Australian farming systems.

"More than ever there is a need to equip graduates with the skills and knowledge to help farmers lead the way in building resilience across our farming systems," she says. "Not that RA should be seen as a silver bullet to fix climate change, but it can have an enormous impact."

Hanabeth knows plenty about impact. And it is here that the conversation turns.

The Bali Bombings – 20 years on

October 2022 marks the 20th anniversary of the Bali Bombings, an event from which Hanabeth would emerge as a survivor and much more: as a beacon. Though she would never apply such a description to herself, the fact remains that when people looked for hope and clarity amid the senselessness of Bali, they found Hanabeth.

“That’s Marc’s longboard,” says Hanabeth, a life-long surfer whose first waves were caught as a child off the cold and character-building coast of her native Cornwall in the UK. Today, on a balmy Northern NSW late summer day, she points to the board she rides once a year – every October – to honour her then-boyfriend, Marc Gajardo, who that night 20 years ago refused to dance to Cher and instead walked outside the Sari Club and right into the blast.

Amid the ensuing chaos, a hastily snapped photograph showed Hanabeth leading 17-year-old Australian Tom Singer out of the flames. The media promptly christened her “The Angel of Bali”. Hanabeth went viral before it was a thing. Tom Singer passed away a month later.

The bombings occurred midway through Hanabeth’s undergraduate studies in Applied Science at Southern Cross University. Coming back was brave and challenging.

“The support I received was amazing. I forged such strong friendships, although it was clear to many – if not to me – that I was suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was just getting through each day.”

And get through she did, graduating in 2005. The following year Hanabeth returned to the UK and gained a Professional Graduate Certificate in Education from the University of Plymouth: “My grandmother became unwell, so to get through the Cornish winter I accepted a teaching training bursary and fell in love with teaching. Even so, I kept thinking about Southern Cross University and the Northern Rivers. I knew that here was where I wanted to be.”

Accepted into Honours and then a PhD, Hanabeth's studies focused on social dynamics within the growing social movement around CSG in eastern Australia. She worked with the community and industry to develop the question on CSG for the 2012 Lismore City Council poll. She also ran an exit-survey, with results demonstrating the strength of community opposition to the industry. Then in 2013, she conducted a comparative survey in the neighbouring Richmond Valley, interviewing residents of the Queensland gasfields over the boom-bust cycle.

Yet despite all this work and time, Bali was still with her.

"It always will be," she says. "I specifically remember the tenth anniversary of the bombings in 2012. I knew I needed to do something. So, in between my research, I wrote and published my book, Shock Waves. It helped me to move on. Returning to Bali for that anniversary helped too. Afterwards, I felt I could go on without being defined by the bombings. I could look ahead with renewed vision. I also met my husband that year."

A future from the ground up

Call it transformed, call it regenerated, but Hanabeth embraced it with gusto – especially through her research.

She worked with Dr Kerrie Stimpson and Dr David Lloyd on a study that informed the Australian Macadamia Society's five-year strategic plan, before next undertaking a project related to regenerating drained acid sulfate soils at East Trinity, off Cairns. This was followed by a farmer survey project in conjunction with the Soil CRC, Charles Sturt University and local agricultural groups. Conducted across six regions, farmers were asked about why they farm and their challenges and aspirations – the aim being to better understand current and future issues.

Each project speaks to the concept of transformation and the theme continues to describe Hanabeth personally and professionally. Connectivity is important to her, bringing the conversation back to RA, where connectivity is everything.

"At its heart, RA needs a more holistic view across the entire farm, from grasses and crops to insects and pests and ground cover and grazing management," says Hanabeth. "It's about the whole connectivity of the system, about the crucial aim to build the soil, not mine it.

"After all, if there is a place to improve practices, to work better with nature, and to holistically improve the health and wellbeing of Australian landscapes, farmers and communities, then surely it is agriculture."