At first the days are fine but slowly the dry expands and then hollows out. A realisation creeps up and niggles. Is this it? There is an optimism from knowing it will rain again, while banishing the seed of doubt about when.
But when every day dawns, you open your eyes and that seed of doubt grows, nurtured by dread. More than anything, it’s the silence. It is as if the natural energy is sucked out of the landscape and there is nothing left.
Anyone on the land who has lived through big droughts knows this dread. So, first up, we have to acknowledge that for those living through the dry right now, no one is saying it is easy.
It can appear straightforward from a distance but management paths for communities and individual landholders are complex. As Rachelle Cameron, a farmer in south-west Queensland who has been in drought since the floods of 2012, says, “It’s so easy to be a good manager in a good season.” In drought, farmers have very individual decisions to manage. Most farming operations juggle a level of debt, a model that requires constant production, or at least some level of cashflow.
Yet most farmers prepare for dry periods by making hay and building grain stores in good times, and right now the overwhelming conversation, away from metropolitan centres, is the angst over the media coverage of farmers as victims. As the National Farmers Federation president, Fiona Simson, said recently, the “broken-down, handout-dependent farmer profile” does not represent the majority.
The most persistent conversation in this drought is a greater willingness to discuss good management practices and a resentment of any form of government reward for poor management practice.
With the changing climate, new conversations are springing up in non-metropolitan areas which centre on three areas; improving efficiencies in farming systems; changing farming systems; and debate around the value of Australian-produced food. Some of the most exciting developments relate to a synthesis of new and very old ways of looking at farming practice.
Recognising a dry continent
It was no coincidence that in a recent speech, Simson recognised Indigenous people as Australia’s first farmers. There is a growing body of literature around the long history of food production by the nation’s First Peoples. Indigenous historian Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu and Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate On Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia throw out the hunter-gatherer myth. And there is increasing recognition and interest in Indigenous land management using native grasses that better withstand dry periods, fire stick farming, and more gentle stocking rates to retain better ground cover.
Variability of the Australian climate is at the heart of recognition of Indigenous land management and the capacity to produce and store plenty of food.
Gammage, for example, always puzzled over the fact that Indigenous people grew so much food but continued to maintain their population when most societies expand to meet increased resources.
“In 1788, the land was more drought resistant,” Gammage says. “Most rivers and creeks ran slower, because they were often choked with debris, which meant shallow waters that spread more easily over creeks and streams. There was more water on landscape, which gave more resources in summer – for the animals and people.
“Native grasses like kangaroo grass and perennials flourished in summer and are green in autumn so they shielded the soil, providing green feed when animals need it most. It all meant the capacity to deal with drought is increased.”
In his book, Gammage describes pre-1788 populations “tuned not to ‘normal’ times but to harsh and erratic uncertainty, and not merely to bad times but to the worst times, such as giant floods or 100-year droughts, shorthand for the severest droughts of a drought-ridden continent”.
The downside of the current disrupted political environment is the lack of long-term policy making. Lucinda Corrigan and her husband Brian have an agribusiness company in cattle genetics. Lucinda has been on numerous government boards advising agricultural ministers, rural leadership programs and the like. She is also the chair of the Farmers for Climate Action (FCA).
Corrigan would like to see longer-term investments in agricultural research and development to improve farming systems and education for farm operators. As an agricultural scientist, she wants to focus on evidence-based policy as well as a mechanism for emissions reduction.
She says there has been a “whole lot of work done” on continually improving farm systems with nutrients, perennial plants, water use efficiency and soil management, but research has often been discontinued.
“Drought policy is classically done on the brink of disaster,” she says. “In the Millenium drought, there was lots of work done with [Labor’s] Tony Burke as agriculture minister, there were the Western Australian trials for example, but it never amounts to a long-term bipartisan approach.”
The Future Farm Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) was conducting research around perennial plants, important to maintaining ground cover, but the CRC wound up in 2014.
“We wanted to carry that investment forward as it had done a lot on landscape management, with systems like Evergraze, to make pastures and farming systems more resilient under climate change,” Corrigan says.
She says the really useful research was around how to protect perennial pastures during drought, so that plants are not killed through overgrazing.
FCA would like to see market-based emissions instruments that price carbon and open up more opportunities for land managers. Corrigan says there had been a high take-up of contracts in the Coalition government’s emissions reductions fund (ERF), which allows for diversified income streams.
Perennial solutions to long-term problems
Bruce Pascoe believes the future of drought policy lies in an attitudinal shift towards the landscape and the First Nations, one that acknowledges the people and the practices as a valuable resource rather than a drain on the country. Pascoe would like to see a switch from introduced crops to Australian native crops, primarily grasses, which are adapted to the climate and will grow in most places, as they were growing before 1788.
“They are not as productive as wheat per acre, but the on-costs are nil, they are Australian grasses that grow in drought, tolerate poor nutrition, with no fertilisers or pesticides,” Pascoe says.
The Dark Emu author says he has been overwhelmed by the interest from the farming, permaculture and horticulture industries. He says many farmers understand the potential for growing native species such as murnong, native millet and kangaroo grass, which have probiotic benefits tested over 100,000 years. And the first wine from native grapes has been made. “Why has it taken 230 years to think about wine out of Australian grapes?”
Pascoe says government programs, such as the release of soldier settler blocks to returned servicemen who had no experience, often resulted in poor land management when “decent farmers” would have walked away. More recently, many big businesses have shown interest in using native grasses to bring back landscapes, including after mining rehabilitation, but it needs re-education of staff.
He describes the native grass industry as exciting for young Indigenous people but says the hard part is ensuring Indigenous people benefit. He says local Landcare has been helpful in his propagation trials but he is not waiting for government to come on board. Instead, Pascoe is working with local land councils, restaurants and farmers.
“The community is ahead of government, they always were ahead of government. I say to our young people, don’t sit on your bum, waiting for government to help you. All Australians have to take responsibility for themselves and their communities.”
The regeneration revolution
Ancient Indigenous ideas of landscape management also underlie new agricultural thinking on drought. More recently, farmers such as Charlie Massy are challenging what he calls “profit-obsessed industrial agriculture”. He’s not interested in the notion of sustainability but instead has called for regenerative agriculture that “heals the earth”.
A sheep farmer and academic, Massy’s work appears to have hit the zeitgeist at a time when drought has sparked a questioning of conventional agricultural practice. For the past few decades, agriculture systems such as holistic management have been slowly building. Terry McCosker is a director of RCS Australia, which runs education courses around holistic management principles.
“My definition of drought is simply not having feed when you expect it,” McCosker says.
Holistic management teaches Australian land managers that they exist in one of three phases at any time: not in drought, in drought and recovering from drought. He encourages business to invest in drought-proofing in the first phase. In drought he says people, animals and land should not be allowed to suffer, which may mean selling down all animals. And when coming out of drought, people, animals and landscapes should be healthy enough to take advantage of better seasons.
He gives the example of a young client who had just 5% equity in her farming business. She has recently sold all her animals, put the money away to pay the interest bill while using any moisture for growing grass on her land, maintaining root systems and ground cover. As soon as it rains, she can take advantage.
“Over the last month, she has had 35mm of rain, so she is growing feed because she got rid of her stock while the person next to her has bare ground,” McCosker says.
“The people we see letting stock die, in what is currently a high [stock] market, those people should never be seen on TV.”
McCosker would advise governments to design drought policy that rewards good management practices, such as good ground cover to protect soils, destocking early and education programs to help update management practices. Often farming is learned via family and peer cultures, which can make it hard to break out of convention.
Tim Wright, from the New England tablelands, studied holistic management after the 1980s drought. He completely changed the way he did things but says it was hard, going against the grain.
“I was the village idiot for doing what I did but it wasn’t that hard because I knew I had to survive,” Wright says.
“The crux is [in conventional systems] the cost of production is still going up. It’s about decision making.”
Wright says holistic management has given him more flexibility of thinking. That is, perhaps not to crop when it’s dry, always look after soils, bring in livestock when the season allows. “Selling down stock and going on holiday might be a better decision.” He no longer feeds stock in drought because he says it took too long for the land and his bank account to recover.
What is Australian-grown food worth?
All of these older and newer ways of thinking are linked by the idea of surviving and thriving in a dry continent in a changing climate. However, it is not just the agricultural industry that has a role to play.
State and federal governments have spent billions on drought funding in the past few months alone. Metropolitan Australia has been incredibly generous in donating towards drought relief funds. Yet there are still arguments about whether good food is worth paying for. Milk at $1 a litre is currently below production price for dairy producers, if you factor in labour costs. Can we accept that the price of food should include all the costs of production – economic and environmental? Can we accept that Australian farmers manage around 60% of the landmass, so good land management practices are worth getting right and factoring into the farm gate price?
If we take the groundswell of metropolitan support for farmers in drought as a good sign, then it could just as easily drive good policy that rewards diligent food producers and start a better conversation across the city-country divide.
Pascoe says while it would be nice to think that government policy would support good land management, he likens the land management debates to solar power. While governments argued about the value of renewables, Australians went out and put solar on their rooftops.
When he began addressing farming groups after his book was published in 2014, he thought he would get rotten tomatoes thrown at him.
“There is abundant goodwill, they are grateful – most have an affinity with soil. I think farmers are more likely to understand how it works than Carlton and Redfern. Farmers know they are in strife so there is intense discussion about land and how best to treat our land.”