Working paper

Where have the family farmers gone? Climate change and farm loss in the Western Australian wheatbelt

Climate change Farmers Agriculture Social change Western Australia

The Western Australian Wheatbelt has experienced the most abrupt and significant climate change in Australia. Since the 1970s, the regional climate has become drier and increasingly variable, with agricultural production and farm business profitability negatively impacted as a result. Running in parallel to these trends, the Wheatbelt has experienced a near three-fold decline in farm numbers over the same period, falling from 13,106 in 1970 to 4,941 in 2013. Typically, changes in the social make-up of Australia’s rural regions are attributed to changes in the economic or the policy environment. However, as a region highly dependent upon seasonal weather patterns, changes in the socio-economic structure of the Wheatbelt are also likely to be driven by climatic changes. To explore this assertion, a ‘resilience analysis’ is conducted to examine how climate change – both at a regional and a global scale – has interacted with other socio-ecological processes to drive farm loss in the Wheatbelt. This article demonstrates that climate change is exposing and exacerbating vulnerabilities within the structure of the Wheatbelt (conceived as a socio-ecological system) which, in turn, is undermining the viability of traditional modes of family farming and forcing many farmers out of the agricultural sector. Findings from this article suggest that governing for improved agricultural efficiencies may be maladaptive in the context of complex socio-ecological change, and that ‘transformational’ approaches to adaptation will be required if families are to remain the cornerstone of agriculture in the Western Australian Wheatbelt.

Keywords: climate change, resilience, adaptive cycle, Western Australia, Wheatbelt, family farming, agriculture

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