Ep 44: Karin Stark and Jon Elder (responding to climate risk)

Jon Elder and Karin Stark, cotton farmers in central west New South Wales, are on the forefront of sustainable farming practices: Jon and Karin have installed Australia’s largest hybrid solar-diesel irrigation system. The 1500 solar panels cover almost one hectare (2.5 acres) of land on their 2,428 hectare (6,000 acres) cotton and wheat farm. Producing 500 kilowatts of power, their system has helped them to lower input costs and reduce the environmental impacts of cotton farming. 

In this episode, Jon and Karin share the story behind adopting the pump and some key  insights into how they are responding to climate risk.  

This episode is the second in the theme, responding to climate risk, brought to you in partnership with Australian Farm Institute, an independent organisation conducting research into the strategic issues facing Australian farmers and the agriculture sector. Find them on social media @AustFarmInstitu and online at http://www.farminstitute.org.au/

Building a business case for climate resilience

Facing a continual rise in on-farm energy costs, Karin and Jon were motivated to take action to reduce their on farm emissions while improving the bottom line. They saw the potential for a hybrid solar-diesel pump to make lasting change on farm, as well as have a positive impact on the community and ecosystem around them.

“Cutting costs builds resilience, resilience benefits rural communities”

-Karin Stark 

Jon explains that regardless of where one stands in the environmental debate, given that the costs to fueling farms are increasing, innovation is necessary. Their solar powered system has reduced their carbon emissions by 500 tonnes per year, equivalent to the average annual emissions of forty Australian households. 

But environmental impact doesn’t pay the bills. Despite the financial benefits that Jon and Karin are seeing, they had government support as well. Jon and Karin were able to apply for a $250k low-interest loan from the NSW Government Rural Assistance Authority to get their innovation underway. The farm was using 350,000 L of diesel in pumping water each year and the savings made in diesel consumption have allowed Karin and Jon to pay off the system in 5 years.

Tackling climate risk and the barriers to adoption

Jon believes that many producers are interested in implementing more on-farm innovation, but the lack of transparency and information from suppliers, government, peak bodies, and other farmers is hindering uptake. One solution that Jon and Karin believe in is chatting with like-minded farmers. Karin says that interacting with other producers through workshops and field days have been the pivotal point to instrumenting the on-farm change for them and for other farmers she’s worked with. 

Both Karin and Jon believe that the main issue surrounding the uptake of innovative technology designed to tackle climate risk is trust. Another producer succeeding is not a sign of your failure, and the industry must band together to promote further innovation and investment.

From little things, big things grow

Building their resilience to increased climate risk has not required too many changes to how Karin and Jon manage their property. But the changes they have made have been beneficial. Jon says that to get started, it’s important to identify what needs to change.

In previous years Jon would pump 24/7 from the bores to fill reservoirs prior to cotton season, placing huge pressure on the environment and running costs. The new hybrid system has allowed Jon and Karin to greatly reduce these pressures. The pumps now only run during daylight hours and the reservoirs fill over 9 months.

By harnessing the power of the sun, Jon estimates they have halved their annual on-farm costs, saving of up to $180,000. The system is now at a point where it is able to feed power back into the grid, adding an additional income stream of approximately $120,000 per year.

Helping other farmers get started

Jon and Karin are strong advocates for building strong foundations for future success, and have taken action to help other farmers adopt similar innovations. Karin, for example, is organizing a conference and exhibition focused on renewables in agriculture and is also getting the message out through her recognition as a finalist for the 2019 AgriFutures Rural Women’s awards.

They have a few tips for other farmers, like seeking out credible sources of information for who to contact in regards to what technology is right for your production system. Jon says that with plenty of suppliers offering the world, it’s important to do your due diligence and make decisions built on clear goals. Running the numbers is also critical. 

Ultimately, though, Karin and Jon challenge others to consider the opportunity cost of not acting. imply leaning over the fence and seeking out the knowledge and experiences of others can be the first step in building your response to climate risk**.**

Relevant links for further research:


This episode is the second in the theme, responding to climate risk, brought to you in partnership with Australian Farm Institute, an independent organisation conducting research into the strategic issues facing Australian farmers and the agriculture sector. Find them on social media @AustFarmInstitu and online at http://www.farminstitute.org.au/.


Key takeaways