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Speaking out: young grazier takes on the stereotypes

A cook book triggered Josh Gilbert’s light bulb moment about the benefit of a public alliance between environment and agriculture.

The conviction brought him to a high -profile showdown in January when he resigned as chair of NSW Young Farmers in protest against the NSW Coalition government’s plans to gut the Native Vegetation Act of 2003. Its replacement is imminent before state parliament, bowing to parent organisation NSW Farmers and the National Party.

Josh Gilbert with broadcaster Stan Grant and Professor David Suzuki at the ceremony naming Gilbert Australian Geographic Young Conservationist of the Year.
Josh Gilbert with broadcaster Stan Grant and Professor David Suzuki at the ceremony naming Gilbert Australian Geographic Young Conservationist of the Year.

As a grazier and consultant to Indigenous corporations, Gilbert, who was just honoured by Australian Geographic as Young Conservationist of the Year, was already adhering to sustainable farming principles in his own work and thinking, while chalking up an impressive list of professional recognition and achievements.

But the 24-year-old credits the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) 2015 Earth Hour cook book project for the realisation that a negative impression of farmers “was as bad as it was” and that something needed to be done. He has become a public face for blending modern Australian agriculture with knowledge from environmental science and an Indigenous perspective.

(The cookbook campaign brought together 50 farmers, environmental scientists and leading Australian chefs.  The idea was to explore with the agriculturalists the environmental issues in farming and grazing, including looming climate change, while providing gourmet recipes based on their farm products.)

Now working as a consultant out of Canberra to Indigenous corporations and communities, Gilbert grew up in Boorowa with family connections to a dairy property on the mid north coast near Forster.  His parents eventually bought a portion of that family farm and established a Braford cattle stud at Nabiac.

Along with the influence from family roots in the central coast Indigenous Warimi community, his ideas were formed by the experience of growing up with sheep grazing and then establishing the cattle stud with his parents, He developed his dedication to integrating modern farming methods with knowledge about the land’s ecology, the values of vegetation and native animals and also stock animal welfare.

Overcoming stereotypes

Gilbert says he is not unusual as a farmer pursuing these avenues but that a popular urban image of farmers as environment-destroying rednecks tends to predominate – not helped by the loud lobbying of the NSW Farmers organisation for the current state agenda to overturn regulations safeguarding native vegetation and animals.

The image hurts Australia’s farming brand as clean and green among other negatives, says Gilbert.

When he resigned as chair of the young farmer arm of NSW Farmers over these very issues, The Land reported that he was threatened by a member of the parent organisation. “Mr Gilbert alleged that he had been contacted by a high-ranking non-staff member from NSW Farmers who warned that opposing the reforms would result in personal attacks.”  Gilbert confirmed to the Bulletin his allegation that this had occurred and spurred his resignation.

Two years ago as a commerce and law student while working at the family cattle stud he described his ideas for a Meat and Livestock website, Target 100.

Developing superior stud cattle bloodlines that “can efficiently turn quality pasture into meat” is the objective. Increased efficiency “can reduce greenhouse gas emissions per kg of beef produced”.

“We also have a strong focus on low-stress stock handling. Successful handling of livestock requires an understanding of their natural behaviour….by regularly handling our cattle and exposing them to cattle yards, we can ensure our cattle and our team work safely together.”

He wrote about looking after the soil and pasture with regular rotations, mulching paddocks for better pastures, erosion control and recycling nutrients. Farming near a river, the family fenced off the riparian zone with cattle watering via dams.

Sound farming underpinned by natural systems

“Our family is acutely aware that the long term viability of beef cattle production relies on the adoption of environmentally sound farming methods while ensuring animals’ well-being at the highest level,” he wrote.

Sound farming methods include understanding the value of natural systems, he told the Bulletin, which is the crux of the argument with the proponents of the new clearing and wildlife removal proposals (largely to favour cropping machinery and because of anti-regulatory ideology).

Whether existing trees provide shade and shelter for stock, erosion control, habitat for beneficial birds, insects and reptiles, or the fact that trees capture greenhouse gas emissions, there is still more to be learned and fixed up in the interaction of the natural environment and agricultural landscapes, says Gilbert.

On other fronts, he believes that wind and solar installations will be a saviour for many family farms.  He is also concerned about the ability of younger people to choose farming if they don’t inherit a property, or even if they do. Economies of scale that dictate costs and current lending practices don’t help.

“Young farmers should be able to get finance just as much, on the same terms, as a person buying a café,” he argues.

More info about the NSW Young Farmers organisation.

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