FFN Opinion: Mixing agriculture with energy

Future Farmers Network directors regularly give their opinion on the latest news, events and issues in agriculture for an article for Australian Community Media. Here’s the most recent yarn from FFN Director Caitlin McConnel.

Since I was a child, my parents were firm in their opinion that I should obtain off-farm experiences or qualifications before they’d entertain the idea of me stepping back on the land. They, like all primary producers, have lived through the physical, mental, and financial tolls inflicted by natural disasters and fluctuating commodity prices, not to mention the ever-increasing costs associated with energy usage. As a result, I am a lawyer by trade, and a grazier by choice. In recent years, I have endeavoured to ensure my qualifications and experiences gained in the legal industry will benefit me on-farm, long term.

Whilst the off-farm exposure I have obtained in law are now filtering into some of our business decisions; my knowledge of the energy sector has only ever been as a result of the broken record that was (and sometimes still is) my father’s trials and tribulations with energy retailers.

Like many of my contemporaries, my exposure to energy usage throughout my childhood was limited to Dad’s favourite soundtrack: “Turn off the lights when you’re not in the room, money doesn’t grow on trees”. And the travesty that was unleaded petrol cracking the $1/L mark is also still firmly engrained in my memory. Interestingly, from 2010 the narrative shifted to “don’t use any electricity during daylight hours”, as my father became one of the first primary producers to take advantage of Government incentives to install large-scale solar trackers.

I am well aware that the requirement to determine appropriate energy sources for agribusinesses is mandatory, however I’d never given any thought to our energy usage at the farm – particularly when it comes to cost/efficiency/environmental considerations. Thanks to Dad, the lights turned on, there was water in the tank, and I knew we were generating good income from pumping solar back into the grid. We now have over 100KW of solar on our farm, for not only our heating and lighting needs, but also for powering irrigation, and importantly contributing to our balance sheet through income generation.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, and I think it’s been the ‘broken record’ that is Dad’s difficulties with energy retailers that had put me off learning about the role energy plays in agriculture (sorry, Dad). It wasn’t until last month when I was asked by my employer to go on secondment to one of our clients - a major energy provider – that I was forced to think about the law behind energy.

To my (and my Dad’s) delight, I am now fortunate enough to be learning about petroleum extraction and processing – including the reuse of treated water for primary production, the National Electricity Market and most significantly, the critical developments in decarbonisation strategies, and alternate, renewable energies including solar, wind, hydrogen and ammonia.

I guess the age-old adage that you never really listen to your parents rings true in my case. But now, I have no doubt that the off-farm experience in the energy sector I’m gaining will only continue to boost our productivity, and bottom line. It might also help Dad is his most recent electricity concern – being the introduction of smart meters on-farm and its interaction between monitoring electricity usage, and solar generation. Watch this space.