Victorian farmers, like farmers everywhere, aim to maximise their outputs by being efficient with their inputs. Energy is key to this, and to help farmers stay resilient, productive and adaptable, the Victorian Government has developed the Agriculture Energy Investment Plan (AEIP) that works to assist and engage with the agricultural industry to improve production, investment, skills and promote new energy technologies developments.
Implementation of the plan, which is part of a broader suite of economy-wide energy transition initiatives, requires Agriculture Victoria to effectively engage and collaborate with a broad range of farmers and agricultural businesses. Agriculture Victoria therefore engaged BehaviourWorks Australia (BWA) to conduct a study with Victorian farmers to identify how they make decisions and what actions they have implemented to manage their energy use, costs and risks. These insights would then be used Agriculture Victoria to inform future engagement efforts.
We conducted an exploratory study where approximately 50 Victorian farmers were interviewed from the dairy, horticulture, and pig and poultry sectors. The interviews explored the importance of energy management across different Victorian farm contexts; identified a range of actions farmers have implemented to manage their energy use, costs and risks; unpacked the different influences that impact on their energy decision-making; and provided an opportunity for farmers to express what future support Agriculture Victoria can provide to help realise their ambitions related to energy.
The majority of farmer interviewees engaged in a highly deliberative decision-making process when it comes to managing their energy use, costs and risks, irrespective of the sector, location or whether they had engaged in the AEIP (through a previous energy audit or grant) or not.
For most interviewees, energy was an important part in their overall farm decision-making context, and could recount in detail what activities they think the most about when it comes to managing their energy.
Even if energy represented a relatively small part of their overall costs or turnover, interviewees placed considerable value on being efficient and reducing costs wherever they can.
When looking at the different actions that interviewees had implemented to manage their energy use, costs and risks, we observed differences between sectors and AEIP versus non-AEIP participants, highlighting the importance of context in shaping these decisions.
For dairy interviewees, there was an emphasis on equipment installations and upgrades to the dairy – milk vats, chillers, heat reclamation systems, variable speed drives (VSDs), solar panels, LEDs, back-up generators, and computer-controlled systems. Fuel efficient vehicle upgrades were also mentioned, as well as running equipment during the off-peak and using energy brokers to secure better deals. Many of these actions were common between AEIP and non-AEIP interviewees, although our impression (across all sectors) was that those who participated in the AEIP invested in more of these actions, particularly ones that were more expensive and ambitious in delivering energy savings.
Horticulture interviewees shared a number of common energy actions with their dairy counterparts. However, there was a significant emphasis on cool room/greenhouse upgrades and irrigation system transitions, where water and energy efficiency were intertwined.
For pig and poultry farmers, the main difference to their dairy and horticulture peers was the focus on creating comfortable and energy efficient conditions for their animals through insulation, ventilation, cooling and heating.
In terms of future actions, there were two noticeable additions to the actions that had already been mentioned - batteries and biogas generators. However, both were seen as needing further development in terms of the technology and/or were currently cost prohibitive.
When asked what factors motivated the implementation of energy actions, we found a similar pattern or hierarchy of influences across the different sectors.
While cost savings specific to energy were typically first and foremost (many interviewees were able to recount in detail the savings they had achieved, highlighting the level of attention and scrutiny that energy matters receive), maintaining animal welfare/productivity, improving product quality, creating more efficient production processes, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions were frequently recounted as additional motives.
Interviewees’ capability to make these decisions was typically accelerated through grants or rebates (either through the AEIP or other third parties). These decisions often coincided with opportunistic events, such as when equipment needed to be replaced once it had reached its end-of-life, when new structures or properties were being developed, or as part of whole farm planning processes. Such opportunities highlight that timing is an important factor in energy decision-making.
While “other farmers” were the most commonly mentioned trusted information source on energy matters, additional sources of information included Agriculture Victoria, local trades, industry associations (e.g., DairyAustralia, National Farmers Federation), online resources, energy/equipment retailers, milk companies, and overseas enterprises (specifically for horticulture farmers).
Interviewees suggested a number of activities and directions that Agriculture Victoria could consider to support farmers with their future energy-related ambitions. These included providing objective updates on the latest technology and trends (including local case studies), refining futureAEIP audit and funding schemes, performing an energy brokerage role to help secure better energy deals, delivering training and having a greater in-person presence with farmers and their networks, and supporting farmer ambitions that involve more innovative approaches to managing energy.
Reflecting on the results from the interviewees, we developed the following list of actionable and applied recommendations forAgriculture Victoria’s consideration:
The opinions and experiences of farmers from this study revealed that managing energy use, costs and risks is a critical part of farm decision-making. This was evident in the depth and breadth of actions that have been implemented, or are planned, and for reasons that are not confined to mandatory considerations around costs savings, but also because it is seen as good farm practice in terms of animal welfare/productivity, product quality, production efficiencies, and reducing greenhouse gases. However, these ambitions can be constrained (sometimes temporarily, while for others more indefinitely) by a combination of financial, technology and knowledge limitations. While the AEIP program has already helped to overcome some of these limitations, farmers can see further opportunities in the future to realise their ambitions, and see Agriculture Victoria playing a key role in delivering this support.
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