Promoting perennial pastures
They call the soil of the coastal sand plains of the Northern Agricultural Region of Western Australia “gutless” and “glass beads”. Farmers here coax extraordinary harvests but periodic droughts are an ever-present threat to their farming systems. How can this cycle be broken?
Local innovators, concerned about unproductive soils, droughts and wind erosion trialled the use of deep-rooted perennial grasses which flourish in summer when there is little other land cover. They found it worked, turning paddocks that they couldn’t crop or pasture and tended to “blow” in the strong winds into summer feed for sheep. The grasses offered a solution to stopping the raise in the water table, reducing erosion and improving soil quality as well as diversifying farm income.
But in a risky business like farming, how do you encourage adoption? Outcomes-based funding can encourage landowners to make changes by reducing the costs and increasing the likelihood of success.
Did it work?
The Northern Agricultural Catchments Council (NACC) partnered with the innovators and, with funding from the Australian government, developed a strategy to increase adoption of perennial pastures. The strategy started in one sub-region in 2006-07 and expanded throughout the Northern Agricultural region in 2009-10. The program offered farmers an “incentive” to introduce perennial grasses equalling approximately 30 per cent of total costs. The package of support included consultation by an agronomist and advice on seeding, establishment and livestock management. Farmers who elected to participate signed a management agreement. They received a payment to cover some of their costs after the pasture wasestablished,fenced and water points installed.The program was winding down at the end of 2012. Anecdotally the view was that the program had triggered been widespread adoption resulting in landscape change.
In 2013 NACC contracted Social Dimensions to collect evidence to verify that change. In particular we set out to calculate how many hectares were in perennial pastures and what had been the role of NACC incentives in making that change.
Social Dimensions went to all of the agricultural shows in the 2013 season to survey farmers. We asked 153 farmers from around the Northern Agricultural Region if they had perennial grasses on their farm, how many hectares were established, when they first planted them and if they had planted any in subsequent years. We also asked them if they had received an incentive payment. We combined that information with NACC data on the timing, location and amount of perennial pastures planted through the incentive scheme to estimate how many hectares of perennial pastures had been planted and where they were located.
Our survey found that one-third of farmers in the region had at least one paddock in perennial pasture. About one-half had received an incentive payment. Those farmers who had an incentive established their pastures earlier and were more likely to have planted in successive years. In 2013 farmers who had incentives had four times more area in perennial pasture than the amount in their original agreements.
By extrapolating those figures to all farmers with perennial pasture agreements and estimating that by 2013 a neighbouring farmer without an incentive also established perennial pastures, we estimated that 348 properties with perennial pastures totalling 43000 hectares. Almost all of the properties were situated on the coastal sand plain as seen on the map.
Incentives are a powerful tool to promote proven agricultural innovations in areas where current use is low. The NACC program was effective because it reduced the financial risk to farmers of introducing a novel practice and provided the education and technical advice that increased the probability of successful establishment. The incentive program also accelerated the rate of adoption by creating a critical mass of successful pastures which led other farmers to adopt perennials, albeit at a slower rate.