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Few people are better qualified to help CeRRF fulfil all its goals and ambitions than the two latest recruits, Victor Sposito and Robert Faggian.
That’s the considered, if not entirely unbiased view, of the head of Deakin’s Centre for Regional and Rural Futures, Professor Andrew Parratt.
“After just one look at Victor and Robert’s CVs, and some of the excellent work they have been doing in regional Victoria, particularly in Gippsland, I knew we had to get them to Deakin,” Professor Parratt said.
“As more and more land is being turned over to the suburban spread, and as climate change impacts on the available land in rural Australia, we need to know exactly where to go to get the best out of our land.
“Victor and Rob have developed a world-class system for identifying land use that provides the best outcomes in terms of yield, profitability and sustainability.
“Equally important, they have a proven track record of working with farmers and other land-users, of bringing them along with them, rather than preaching to them from an ivory tower in the centre of Melbourne.
“As a farmer myself, I know how irritating that can be.”
Softly spoken, but with quite a determination to help create better outcomes in regional Australia, Victor Sposito came to Australia from Uruguay, via Scotland (Edinburgh) and the USA (Texas).
Trained as a town and regional planner, he has worked at the highest levels of planning in Victoria, alongside former Premiers like Lindsay Thompson, John Cain, and Jeff Kennett, and Planning Minister Evan Walker, and on landmark projects such as the National Tennis Centre, Southbank, two metropolitan strategies in Melbourne, and several regional strategies in Regional Victoria.
It was then that he moved to the former Department of Natural Resources and Environment (Primary Industries) where he teamed up with Robert Faggian. Robert was a talented young researcher who had gained prominence in DPI as a broad and lateral thinker, and as a scientific leader. He was appointed the inaugural Centre Leader of DPI’s Parkville research centre in 2007 and, soon after, forged a friendship with the like-minded Victor. In 2012, both Victor and Rob moved to the University of Melbourne in order to carry out more complex, regional-scale research.
One of their first major collaborations is regarded as an exemplar for regional communities around Australia that are looking to cope with a constantly changing environment.
“A consortium of local councils in Gippsland wanted to understand the impact of climate change and associated matters on regional development,” Robert said.
“We were able to develop a well-resourced, four-year project with the councils and a range of other regional stakeholders. It finishes in November this year and has been very, very well received.
“That level of commitment from the region has really enabled us to do the job properly, to bring in a range of specialists, including soil and climate scientists and other experts.
“Local government in general has shown great interest in what we are doing because it has been at the coal face of climate change.
“But it’s not just about the problems. There are also opportunities, and for us that has been the primary driver.
“In some areas a warmer climate offers new agricultural opportunities that were not possible in the past.”
Rob and Victor use the average maximum temperature predicted for Victoria in 2050 as a conversation starter.
“The impact will be spatial in nature and, if you’re in south east Victoria, or Gippsland, the impact of climate change is not all doom and gloom,” Victor said.
“In the north west, however, the prognosis is not great, so that provides different challenges for us, and for the land-users.
“It is going to be a lot hotter and drier, but overall, we are focussing on opportunities for agriculture, rather than just coping with climate change.”
Victor and Rob have developed a detailed methodology for assessing the impacts of climate change on a regional scale.
They say that it is a unique system that is attrracting global interest.
“We gather soil and land information, then progressively apply climatic overlays that include various climate change projections,” Rob said.
“We also incorporate crop irrigation requirements and look at water availability. For that we have to make assumptions, but we base those assumptions on scientific information and expert opinion.”
High among those experts are the farmers themselves and that has been a key part of their success.
Victor says a lot of farmers and producers are sceptical of not just climate change, but change generally.
However, by listening to their advice, gained from years of working on the land, they found their own credibility growing as fast as some of the new crops they have recommended.
“When we started out, we found there was a group of around 10 per cent who were very open to new ideas,” said Victor.
“They are quick to adapt their businesses, based on the information that we can provide them, and, as a result, they increase the yield from their land and the profitability of their businesses.
“Others take longer to win over, but because of the way we work in consultation with all the land users, and because they can see for themselves what some of their competitors are achieving, we are winning them over.
“That 10 per cent has grown and this is having benefits for everyone in the community ... more productivity, more infrastructure and more jobs.”
Rob and Victor’s arrival at CeRRF could not have come at a better time for Professor Parratt, with his own keen interest in ensuring rural and regional Australia continues to play a pre-eminent part in the national economy.
“Climate change is a reality that we have to deal with in both urban and regional Australia,” he said.
“Where I live, close to Geelong, I can see the urban spread growing on a daily basis on land that was once used for agriculture.
“While it is important that we all have houses in which to live, it is equally important that we have food to eat and water to drink and irrigate our crops with.
“So all of us, but particularly our primary producers, need to be agile in adapting to the changes going on.
“They could do it by trial and error, but that is a pretty inefficient way of going about it.
“In contrast, they can have access to high quality research and fast track the whole process.
That’s where Rob and Victor are way ahead of the game, says Professor Parratt.
“I have no doubt that what they have done in Gippsland and other parts of regional Victoria can be applied all over Australia and overseas, in countries such as Mexico and Chile, and that’s the level where CeRRF sees itself working," Professor Parratt said.
“We can apply Rob and Victor’s strategies all over the country, providing detailed information that will ensure that producers are planting the right crops, putting in place the right infrastructure and creating a range of new jobs.
“It’s about maintaining and improving the quality of life that Australians can, too easily, take for granted.
“Rob and Victor are a reminder that that won’t be done by accident, but rather by good research, honest communication and hard work.
“Without a doubt, they are incredibly well qualified to fit right in with the rest of our teams at CeRRF.”