For farmers who have taken up renewable technology, it doesn't matter if it is Barnaby Joyce or Michael McCormack in the top job - the federal Nationals have been letting them down in their aggressive and futile attack on renewables.
A week doesn't go by when farming groups like the National Farmers Federation or the Queensland Farmers Federation aren't calling for the federal government to adopt a clear plan for emissions reduction. Public warnings to the Prime Minister from senior federal Nationals last week showed how big a role they play in holding the Australian government back.
By contrast, the NSW government, with the support of the NSW Nationals, is embarking upon an ambitious journey to establish five Renewable Energy Zones (REZs). REZs will attract numerous solar, wind and storage projects to these five regions, and in turn, these projects will bring jobs, industry and innovation.
The Central-West will host the pilot REZ. That's my backyard, where we've installed a hybrid solar-diesel irrigation system which is reducing our diesel costs by 45 per cent. Over the past several months I've been meeting with other farmers and community members to learn about the opportunities they want to see come out of REZs.
If REZs are done right, the opportunities to value-add to agriculture and to contribute to regional renewal are almost endless. The growing field of agrisolar - co-locating and co-producing solar energy alongside agriculture - is generating innovative practices across the globe, supporting farmers to save money and reduce emissions. Tom Warren, a Dubbo farmer, successfully grazes his merino sheep between solar panels, and believes the addition of panels to the paddock has increased the carrying capacity of the land.
Farmers who lease part of their land to host wind or solar farms have described it as "drought-proofing" their farms - for now, and for their children's future. We've just been through yet another drought. The worsening climate crisis will undoubtedly see more on the way. Farming in Australia is already a tough industry to be in, and in times of drought all most of us can do is try to ride it out without going bust. Annual lease payments for hosting wind turbines or solar on their farm can make or break the balance sheets for some farmers.
With wind and solar farms often come benefits for the broader community, not just those hosting the infrastructure on their land. RE-Alliance, an organisation that formerly helped the wind industry to better provide for our regions, has been advocating for neighbour benefits, community and regional enhancement funds, co-investment and co-ownership models, training and employment programs and a range of other benefits that could seriously bolster the future of regional Australia.
But for all of these opportunities to materialise into reality, there needs to be people and organisations championing outcomes for regional Australia. It has been great to see NSW Nationals, and MPs such as Adam Marshall in particular, stepping up to the plate to advocate for these opportunities and benefits.
But their federal counterparts need to step up too. Their failure to recognise decarbonisation as an immense opportunity for regional Australia demonstrates just how out of touch with farmers they have become.
Barnaby Joyce has vowed to fight the New England Renewable Energy Zone currently being rolled out in his electorate, despite the steady work of the NSW government to deliver an REZ that will bring many benefits to his constituents, including jobs in the renewables, manufacturing and construction industries.
Joyce's rhetoric is becoming increasingly marginal. The vast majority of Australians want to see our government support renewables, and this includes regional Australians. If Scott Morrison and the federal Liberals are going to let the Nationals dictate our energy policy, they are going to face mounting pressure at the polls.
Farmers and regional communities will be looking to Joyce to ensure the renewables boom delivers meaningful benefits for them. By doing so he can improve employment opportunities, secure funding for local community groups, provide income security for farmers and ensure there is a thriving energy industry in New England for decades to come.
- Karin Stark is a food and fibre farmer in Narromine, NSW, and community engagement manager for RE-Alliance.