007 | 100
Charlie Prell
Regional renewables

29 min 33 sec

Charlie Prell is chair of Farmers for Climate Action. He is a vocal proponent of the shared benefit model for renewable energy projects in regional areas, whereby a fair share of profit are distributed widely and equitably within those local communities. Prell was previously the NSW regional organiser for the Australian Wind Alliance and has played a key role in promoting the benefits windfarms can bring to regional communities for more than 15 years. A fourth-generation family farmer from Crookwell in the southern tablelands of NSW, he owns one of four farms under the Crookwell 2 windfarm.

 

Gabrielle Chan is Guardian Australia’s rural and regional editor. She has been a journalist for more than 30 years previously writing for The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, Meanjin and Griffith Review. She also has personal experience of family farming. Chan’s first book, Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up was shortlisted for the 2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and the 2020 Walkley Awards. Her latest book, Why You Should Give a F**k About Farming was released in August 2021.

In the early 2000s fourth-generation farmer Charlie Prell was looking for ways to lessen the financial and mental burden of the millennium drought. He signed up to host Crookwell 2 windfarm on his property. He’s never looked back and now works to encourage other farmers to take up renewables as a secondary income.

We’ve been given this opportunity to create a future, not just for you and me, for our children and our grandchildren and the whole planet. If Australia get[s] it right, we’ll be the first country on the planet to have 100 per cent renewables by 2035, agriculture being carbon neutral by about the same timeframe.

– Charlie Prell

Charlie, sheepdog, ute and turbine.
Charlie, sheepdog, ute and turbine. Image Credit: Rod Taylor for Farmers for Climate Action

About five or six years after they built this wind farm [next door] in 2001, my cousin and I were approached to see if we were interested in hosting turbines on our land. Of course we were because we were still struggling financially.

– Charlie Prell

We were just starting to go into the millennium drought and we knew that we were staring bankruptcy in the face … I was married 15 years, I had two teenage children, my wife and I were both struggling with mental health, depression.

– Charlie Prell

Charlie and wind turbines
Charlie and his wind turbines. Credit: Rod Taylor for Farmers for Climate Action

The fact that you can put up a wind turbine on an area about not even the size of a football field that’s going to generate enough electricity to power 2000 houses in a year and have virtually no impact on the agricultural capacity of my farm speaks for itself, really.

– Charlie Prell

Good farmers live with their land. They don’t live on it, they live with it… You notice when the water system changes, you notice when the dams dry up.

– Charlie Prell

There was a whole bunch of farmers out there who are very concerned about climate change…We weren’t quite sure what we’re going to do, but we wanted to put a stake in the ground, so we did. And I was involved in that first meeting of this group that’s become known as Farmers for Climate Action.

– Charlie Prell

They [consumers] can go and buy a lamb or lettuce or a cauliflower, whatever it is from my land, at the same time, they can buy the energy from that land, and at the same time they know that the land that I’m farming, that my community is farming, is healthy.

– Charlie Prell

Small rural communities are like any other community, urban or rural. There’s a diverse range of people in those communities, from all sorts of backgrounds and all sorts of religions and all sorts of beliefs.

– Charlie Prell

We’ve been given this opportunity to create a future, not just for you and me, for our children and our grandchildren and the whole planet. If Australia get[s] it right, we’ll be the first country on the planet to have 100 per cent renewables by 2035, agriculture being carbon neutral by about the same timeframe.

– Charlie Prell

Gabrielle Chan

Welcome everyone to 100 Climate Conversations. The series presents 100 visionary Australians that are taking positive action to respond to the most critical issue of our time, climate change. We’re broadcasting today in the Boiler Hall of the Powerhouse museum. Built in 1899, it’s supplied coal powered electricity to Sydney’s tram systems up until the 1960s. And if you look around this hall, unique industrial features remain, including the entrance with its imposing chimneys and the coal cart rail tracks that run under the stage today. In the context of this architectural artefact, we shift our focus forward to the innovations of the net zero revolution.

I want to acknowledge the Country on which we’re meeting today, the Traditional Custodians of the ancestral homelands upon which our museums are situated. We respect their Elders past, present and future and recognise their continuous connection to Country. My name is Gabrielle Chan. I want to welcome Charlie, this quiet achiever sitting next to me. Charlie Prell is a fourth-generation farmer and more recently chair of Farmers for Climate Action. He’s a vocal proponent of the shared benefit model for renewable energy projects in regional areas where a fair share of the profit is distributed widely and equitably within those local communities. Welcome, Charlie. So can you tell us about your family background?

Charlie, sheepdog, ute and turbine.
Charlie, sheepdog, ute and turbine. Image Credit: Rod Taylor for Farmers for Climate Action
Charlie Prell

My great grandfather, well his father was a trader in Melbourne in the 1870s, 80s and made a lot of money out of selling bits and pieces and shovels and picks and things to people who were going to the gold rush in Ballarat and Bendigo. So they were a wealthy family. I’m from a privileged background, I should, I will acknowledge that upfront. But my great grandfather went to Queensland, I’m not sure why, but he went to Queensland to manage a property that the family had, roughly about where they’re about to dig up, hopefully not, but they’re proposing to dig up the Adani mine, on a block of land that the local bank manager said, ‘This has been the death knell of three or four people already. Good luck with this.’

He went out there and he found water, artesian water. At that point, the water was running out of a bore uncapped and over two metres high, it was just running out of the ground. So he went from a struggling farmer on a farm that the bank manager had said, ‘This is a graveyard, what are you doing here?’ to all of a sudden having a property that was worth a lot of money. For one reason, water, and water is the scarcest commodity in this country. He had to bury his first child, I think a two year old, maybe even less than that.

So that experience and the fact that he created this equity because he found water convinced him and his wife to move closer to civilisation, basically. So he moved from there to Crookwell, which is where I live now, which is roughly halfway from here the Canberra. Again, he understood the importance of water, and the farm where I live on, is on the headwaters of the Sydney catchment area, actually. And it’s a really, really secure water supply.

He also was open to new ideas because of his history of farming really tough country with Aboriginal people. Actually, they couldn’t have done it without Indigenous people in those days. He moved to Crookwell. He was open to new ideas and he started working with the CSIRO in the 1920s on pasture improvement, on putting super phosphate on pasture, all sorts of innovative ideas. He was a broad thinker and he was wasn’t afraid to look at different options on that farm, this is 100 years ago.

GC

So I see there’s two themes there, right? So he came to Crookwell basically for a safer climate, notwithstanding, obviously droughts occasionally, but also that kind of being open to new ideas and progressive, if you like. You went away to boarding school and you were obviously not focused on the farm so much. So with that understanding of your family history, why did you come back to the farm? Were you passionate about the farm or was it something else that brought you back?

CP

No, I wasn’t. And to be frank, boarding school wasn’t the best part of my life. I went away to school when I was nine and ended up leaving school when I was 18. In 1979, I came back to the farm, 1980 actually, it was. There was a very intense but short drought from 1979 to 1983 in the area where I lived. Our family had done really well through the 1950s, the wool boom, the 1960s, and then in the 1970s things started to get a bit tough.

There was a huge commodity crash and the farm – my father and his brother, who were working in partnership at that point, had to put people off from the farm for financial reasons. I was in Sydney having a fine old time at university, which was free in those days, and I wasn’t wasting my time, but I was pretty much told that if you wanted to do that stuff, you’re going to have to look after yourself or you can come home and help on the farm. So I came home and helped on the farm.

At that point, I became interested in my family’s history in depth. The man that I spoke about, who developed this property in Queensland and moved to Crookwell, my great grandfather, his name was Charlie. And he was actually called Crazy Charlie because he was crazy enough to have this concept of putting a rabbit proof fence around 10,000 acres of land that he owned to keep the rabbits out, and all the locals were going, ‘Why would you do that?’ And he puts fertiliser, super phosphate, on pasture, first person in Australia to do that.

He introduced new pastures to the farming system in the 1920s and 30s with the CSIRO. Like most things humans do, we over did it. But also the social issues that he was trying to address in the 1930s when people were walking the street, swaggies were walking the street looking for a job. He was really concerned about that.

GC

He was quite instrumental in something called the Closer Settlement Scheme, and that was about building community. Can you briefly speak to that idea of him wanting to bring people together?

About five or six years after they built this wind farm [next door] in 2001, my cousin and I were approached to see if we were interested in hosting turbines on our land. Of course we were because we were still struggling financially.

– Charlie Prell

CP

He had a social conscience, as I said, and he was concerned about the welfare of the people that were working on his farm, but also the people that couldn’t get a job on his farm. And he designed a system in consultation with the Australian Government of the day, which was called the Closer Settlement Scheme, which was about creating a viable farm, small farm, for people in those days and giving them the opportunity to buy it, but also having a financial system that could underpin the viability of that farm.

Communities in the country, they’re riven by debates and discussions and sometimes worse than that over controversial issues of all types. But at the end of the day, and we’ve seen that just recently in the north, they’re really cohesive and if somebody gets into trouble, the whole community steps up and helps them out, it doesn’t matter whether they’re good, bad or indifferent people. So that’s a really important part of that community aspect that I’ve taken on board and my great grandfather and probably the rest of my family, too.

GC

So how do you first hear about the Crookwell wind farm then? How does wind energy come into your world?

CP

So we went through the drought of the 80s that I spoke about when I came home. There was quite a serious wool crash, the Wool Reserve Price Scheme crashed in the late 1980s. The 1990s there was a reasonably severe commodity crash. You could buy sheep for five bucks or ten bucks instead of 250 that they’re paying for them now.

In 1996, the first grid connected wind farm in eastern Australia was built right next to our property, it’s only small, it’s still there, and it works fine after 25 years, nearly 30 years. But we were next to that wind farm and always aware of the opportunity to potentially put some of those things on our place. So about five or six years after they built this wind farm in 2000, 2001, my cousin and I were approached by a wind farm developer, an early-stage developer, to see if we were interested in hosting wind turbines on our land. Of course we were because we were still struggling financially.

We were just starting to go into the millennium drought and we knew that we were staring bankruptcy in the face … I was married 15 years, I had two teenage children, my wife and I were both struggling with mental health, depression.

– Charlie Prell

GC

So you had no hesitation.

CP

We had some hesitation about the approach. So 18 months later, after we’d been to lawyers and got some advice and understood what we were talking about in relation to wind energy, we ended up signing an agreement for a lease in 2004. But also at that point, we were just starting to go into the Millennium Drought, which was the next drought. It was longer than the 80s drought and we knew that we were staring bankruptcy in the face. I had two teenage children, my wife and I were both struggling with mental health, depression. There was no plan on the farm for the future, no succession plan which is really common in the bush.

So we sat down and decided that we were going to sell a third of our farm, 800 acres. In 2006, we sold that land right in the middle of that Millennium Drought. It wasn’t like the gold rush that’s happening for land now. It was – we had to find a buyer and convince them to buy the land just to keep the banks off our back. But at the same time, I was determined to make this wind farm thing work because I’d seen the numbers and it looked like everything was going to be great as far as underpinning our farming operation.

It was a no brainer, but there was substantial resistance from our community to, not just to my wind farm, to other wind farms. And I couldn’t quite understand that, but I soon worked out that that was totally because I was getting paid a fair bit of money to host these wind turbines and people not far away, not much further away than you and me to these turbines, which are 180 metres tall, were getting paid nothing. And if I was in their shoes, I would be going, hang on, that’s not fair. And then all of a sudden, all this fear erupts about land devaluation, you’re going to kill birds, all of those things that everybody’s heard about wind turbines.

Charlie and wind turbines
Charlie and his wind turbines. Credit: Rod Taylor for Farmers for Climate Action
GC

I had never been to a wind farm until I came to your place. And so I remember driving in there, driving through these black Angus cattle, and you chose to do the interview right at the base of one of the wind turbines. And I thought, wow, so this is going to be noisy if I’m recording a conversation. It actually wasn’t that noisy. What’s the usual reaction of people who’ve never been? Because it shocked me how quiet they were in a way.

CP

The usual reaction to people that actually come and experience the turbines, the reality of them, and they’re big as you saw, is awe and wonderment and I call them majestic. But the fact that you can put up a wind turbine on an area about, not even the size of a football field, half the size of a rugby field that’s going to generate enough electricity to power 2000 houses in a year and have virtually no impact on the agricultural capacity of my farm or any farm and that’s why it’s a no brainer for me. That’s why I really encourage anybody that’s in the area that rings me to come and have a look and experience that.

GC

As you say, the model’s changed a lot, hasn’t it? From those original agreements where you could put a wind turbine right on the edge of a neighbour’s fence, really and get paid for it and the neighbour can’t get paid for it. And there’s been a lot of discussion and debate and research and that really goes to this idea of decentralisation. And while decentralisation has been something talked about by, country parties, National Party, a lot, we don’t see a lot of movement in terms of energy, where energy’s sort of got more concentrated. Is that the way forward, do you think for these communities, some of which are so riven by debates over energy production on agricultural land?

The fact that you can put up a wind turbine on an area about not even the size of a football field that’s going to generate enough electricity to power 2000 houses in a year and have virtually no impact on the agricultural capacity of my farm speaks for itself, really.

– Charlie Prell

CP

I think it’s not the way forward, but it is the best way forward. There’s lots of ways to do things. You spend a bit more money up front and that can be facilitated and actually encouraged and even mandated by local government. A lot of people forget about local government when they talk about politics in this country, but a lot of the good things that happen in this country happen through local government, local councils.

I think Helen Haines’ bill, the Local Power Agency Bill is fantastic because it actually – it actively encourages community ownership of this generation infrastructure. That needs to be led by local government. The state government in New South Wales are currently doing a really good job facilitating a plan for this renewable rollout.

GC

The Kevin Rudd election was in 2007. We go into climate change as the greatest moral crisis of our time, moral challenge, rather, of our time and then climate politics breaks when Tony Abbott wins the leadership from Malcolm Turnbull. Climate change is weaponised from then, 2011 til pretty much now. How did that politics impact on the community, your community’s attitude to climate change?

Good farmers live with their land. They don’t live on it, they live with it… You notice when the water system changes, you notice when the dams dry up.

– Charlie Prell

CP

That initiation of the climate wars was the most disheartening political event that I’ve witnessed in this country because it weaponised the climate wars. I desperately hope you’re right and I think you’re right. There’s a mood for change because climate change has become way more than a moral challenge for our generation let alone my children’s generation, it’s a physical challenge now. But to weaponise the climate for political purposes might have been okay in 2007, 10, 13, but it’s gone so far past that, that’s 10 years ago.

Now the climate crisis is dictating things that are happening. Things that are happening now, the climate scientists were telling us, weren’t going to happen until 2035 or 2040. If that doesn’t at least wake you up, then you really should go back to sleep because there’s an existential threat. I think in my local community, it gradually dawned on people, maybe through people tree changing, so moving from an urban environment to a rural environment. But also, there was a very intense drought from 2015 to 2019, and since then, we’ve had endless floods basically, that was forecast by the climate scientists in the 1980s and 1990s.

So things are changing and good farmers live with their land. They don’t live on it, they live with it. You notice when trees are dying, you notice when the water system changes, you notice when the dams dry up, you notice when the animals are doing well because the pastures healthy or not, because there’s no pasture or unhealthy pasture. So there’s been a general awakening to the threat.

GC

So in the face of the political wars around climate change, you get together with a bunch of farmers in the Blue Mountains, I think, in 2015. And that’s interesting to me that obviously there was a level of frustration there to bring those people together. So talk to me, how Farmers for Climate Action was born.

CP

About 40 people from all over Australia got together in Blackheath and sat down and started to just workshop and talk about the reality of where we’re at and whether there was anything we could do about it, and if there was, what could we do? And I was involved in that first meeting of this group that’s become known as Farmers for Climate Action. But the main thing was that we wanted to be putting the message out there that not all farmers think like Neanderthals. A progressive farmer is somebody who’s out there accepting change. We need to talk about new technologies, we need to talk about not just building a few wind turbines or solar panels. We need to change the structure of the energy system in this country.

GC

So that organisation has had, in my view as an outsider, a massive effect on the political debate that I’ve watched very closely after that – over the last, say, 15 years. From my vantage point, it’s really mustered the National Farmers Federation around a position on climate change, it’s had a big impact. Given the impact that you’ve had and how outspoken you’ve had – in your very lovely, quiet way, are you kind of considered Crazy Charlie, the next generation down? Like people are moving now in behind you, is what I’m seeing on the political landscape. Do you have any sense of how you could quantify that, what you’ve seen change in the time since you all got together in Blackheath?

CP

Unbelievable change. Unbelievable change. We went from a group of 40 odd people with no budget, no money, to 12 months later having maybe 100 people. We had an idea of what we wanted to do. I think we have been successful in changing the politics, so now it’s okay, even for conservative politicians to talk about climate.

I think we’ve had a dramatic influence on the conversation within the National Farmers Federation. So we’ve gone from about 100 people, we had about $200,000 that, we raise all our money from donations. I’m fortunate and privileged and honoured and actually really enjoying being Chair of Farmers for Climate Action, have for about 18 months now. Our budget is about $1.2 million from philanthropists across Australia, and we want to make it okay to talk about climate, not change the politicians.

It’s a false dichotomy to think if you change a politician that you’re going to get a different outcome because those other politicians are just as susceptible to the same influences as these politicians. But if you can change the political dialogue and make it okay for moderate politicians on the conservative side to raise the spectre of climate change, to point out the opportunities, the wind and solar, then that changes the tenor of the conversation, not only with the politicians, but also with the electorate.

So our philosophy is to spend a bit of time talking to the politicians, but mainly go and talk to the people, convince the people that what we’re saying that climate [change] is real but also that there’s solutions and opportunities.

There was a whole bunch of farmers out there who are very concerned about climate change…We weren’t quite sure what we’re going to do, but we wanted to put a stake in the ground, so we did. And I was involved in that first meeting of this group that’s become known as Farmers for Climate Action.

– Charlie Prell

GC

So you’ve had this impact on the climate debate and it really has impacted as well the debate around how we use land, because say, if we’re talking about energy production via renewables like wind and solar, there is still this worry about the competing uses of land between solar panels, wind turbines, food production. All of these things are in the mix, as well as mining, mines like Adani have highlighted how we best use land. Do you think we need to be more strategic and does that necessarily look like governments telling people how they should use land in certain places? Or is it a more nuanced debate than that?

CP

I don’t think we can be any less strategic than we are now. There is no plan. There is no strategy about where the wind turbines go, the solar panels go, or how we manage our landscapes. I think the awakening in relation to landscape management happened with the bushfires in 2019.

So things are changing, things are changing really rapidly and it’s amazing how quickly the wheel turns and things change. Everyone says we’re living in exciting times, I actually think they’re really exciting because we’re having – we’ve been given this opportunity to create a future, not just for you and me, for our children and our grandchildren and the whole planet, really. If Australia get[s] it right, we’ll be the first country on the planet to have anything like a cognisant climate policy, including 100 per cent renewables by 2035, agriculture being carbon neutral by about the same timeframe 2035, 2040.

GC

One of the, I guess, buzzwords in farming at the moment, and that a lot of consumers would have heard of is regenerative agriculture. How do you think of the debate around how we farm, the farming systems we use? How should people outside of agriculture be assessing all of these decisions over how you manage land? How do we manage land best and what can consumers do?

They [consumers] can go and buy a lamb or lettuce or a cauliflower, whatever it is from my land, at the same time, they can buy the energy from that land, and at the same time they know that the land that I’m farming, that my community is farming, is healthy.

– Charlie Prell

CP

Food prices are going through the roof right now, and that is because of climate change. It’s because of the climate impact on the logistics, the supply chains, but it’s also because of the massive impact that climate is having, floods and droughts, on the ability to grow food. Consumers need to be aware of, in relation to the first one, the logistics, try and buy local as much as you can, go to a farmer’s market or go to the community garden down the road. That’s your first option, not the last option. Go there first and then if there’s stuff that you can’t find there, go to the supermarket.

Secondly, they need to eat consciously, and whatever it is, if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, an omnivore or carnivore, whatever you want to eat is fine. But whatever you’re eating, have a look at the packaging on it. The plastic tells you how that food was grown, it generally tells you where it was grown. In relation to your question about regenerative agriculture, the good thing about regenerative agriculture is there’s a general acknowledgement happening.

I think the numbers in Europe, and I’m not sure what the numbers in Australia are, is an 80 per cent decline in the insect population in Europe. Some of that is due to climate, most of that’s due to pesticides, insecticides. We can’t go down that path because those cute little birds that run around, that fly around in your garden, they live on insects and those cute little birds get eaten by bigger birds, get eaten by foxes, get eaten by animals, that’s the base of the food chain, is insects. And if we continue to destroy insects through chemical use, through bad farming practises, through fertilisers, there’s no coming back from that.

And it’s controversial because it’s changing the conservative farmers that you mentioned at the start of this interview. That’s changing the things that they used to do, and their fathers used to do, and their grandfather said, ‘We’ve got to do it this way.’ But, you know, sometimes change happens because people confront and then overcome challenges.

GC

You’ve just turned 65 and I know you’re going to live at least until 95, so 30 years, three decades, 30 harvests. What do you want your legacy to be? You’ve had this massive impact already on climate leadership in rural communities. What do you want your legacy to be?

CP

My legacy, I think I’d like to think that the myth of the Australian farmer, as in The Man from Snowy River rounding up a few brumbies in the Snowy Mountains becomes the reality of farmers who are absolutely totally connected with their consumers and vice versa. And knowing that if they want to, they can go and buy a lamb or a lettuce or a cauliflower, or whatever it is from my land, but at the same time, they can buy the energy from that land and at the same time they know that the land that my community is farming is healthy. If I could see that as a 95 year old and if I live to be 95, that would be my legacy. And to recreate the communities in the 70s and 80s, probably 90s, where we’re actually in communication and in touch with each other.

Small rural communities are like any other community, urban or rural. There’s a diverse range of people in those communities, from all sorts of backgrounds and all sorts of religions and all sorts of beliefs.

– Charlie Prell

GC

Well, that’s a pretty fabulous image to end on, a farm that produces food, energy and biodiversity as well as carbon. So I’d ask everyone to thank Charlie Prell, join me.

To follow the program online, you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and to visit the 100 Climate Conversations exhibition or join us for a live recording, go to 100climateconversations.com. This is a significant new project for the museum and records of the conversations will form a new climate change archive preserved for future generations in the Powerhouse collection of over 500,000 objects that tell the stories of our time.

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