In the land of drought

With NSW facing its worst drought in decades, it's on all of us to do our part

Artwork by Jess Zlotnick

Pipes screeched and ran dry. Taps across NSW poured out a trickle—water had finally run out. It’s a strange feeling, though not unfamiliar, to know that with each shower and dish washed, you’re playing a game of roulette with a water shortage-shaped bullet. But this is a common dread: for most of rural Australia, this is only one of the many issues caused by the most recent drought gripping the nation. Now at 100 per cent drought declaration, many parts of NSW are at crisis point in the face of this natural disaster.

All across Australia, the drought has slowly trickled into the mainstream news, generating an outpouring of solidarity and assistance. Strangers from around the country are purchasing bales of hay and providing vital goods to rural communities. Thousands of dollars have been injected into alleviating the scourge of drought. But even if it were to rain tomorrow, produce and sales would be seasons, even years, away. As graziers and farmers crawl their way back to profitable margins, what are the solutions?

In a drought, many producers are left in a Catch 22. Despite environmental activist groups such as PETA arguing that “if you can’t feed them, don’t breed them”, there are far more implications to destocking than at first glance.

By stretching every cent and trucking in thousands of dollars of feed, livestock producers hope to retain breeding stock to see through the next few months, though the Bureau of Meteorology has indicated no substantial rainfall moving into spring. Developed over decades, key breeding lines of sheep and cattle have been nurtured to provide the highest quality produce in supermarket stores. Without these high quality sales, there is no income. Without this income, there is no feed, and no feed means breeding lines are lost and production forced to a standstill. It’s a vicious circle  that worsens in trying times, as more and more farms go down the gurgler trying to stay afloat.

The agricultural industry remains at the mercy of Australia’s diverse and variable climate. In response to the recent droughts, some graziers have embraced this unpredictable climate and adapted to the inevitable future by implementing drought management plans. The NSW Farmers Association estimated that 94 per cent of Australian farmers are actively undertaking natural resource management: many are looking to match stocking rates and carrying capacities to their land in order to reduce stress in dry times.

Speaking with the ABC, Nigel Kerin, a sheep producer from Yeoval, has adopted a flexible business model. By maximising land utilisation in good periods and ensuring rest and recuperation during dry spells, Kerin ensures he “sets [himself] up for when the dry breaks” by “flogging it [the land]” when it rains..This way, Kerin ensures maximum yet sustainable productivity. He, like many others, are beginning to focus on a stewardship mentality of property management, acknowledging the role of farmers to ensure the health and sustainability of their land.

Despite this, there are questions about the role of government in tackling the issues of funding and sustainability for the industry. Former Australian Farm Institute Executive Director Mick Keogh addresses the cultural gap between Australian and American agricultural attitudes.

“In the US, agriculture has been treated as a public service, rather than an industry sector for a number of years” says Keogh. In 2015,  25 million acres of land were included in the US Conservation Reserve Program, providing farmers sustainability and stewardship incentives in the form of land rent for up to 15 years.

Similarly, across the European Union, the Common Agricultural Policy provides farmers with income assistance, but only if they “maintain land in good environmental and agricultural condition”. This is a stark contrast to Australia’s policy setting, built upon a history of indirect support mechanisms and knee-jerk reactions to industry threats.

Perhaps it is time for Australia to look to its foreign counterparts and adopt more direct support mechanisms like those in the US and EU. A direct translation of such programs may not be a reality, but the financial and political landscapes of the US and EU should still be considered when addressing Australian agricultural policy.

We all know the power of consumer confidence.  Mass coverage of the emotional and social toll of this drought may have brought charity, but many producers including Bryce Camm for Queensland Country Life argue that “the doom and gloom does nothing to inspire confidence”. Despite often being perceived as being in terminal decline, the agricultural industry has drastically improved its sustainability and coping capacities when faced with  droughts and other natural disasters. Perhaps it is time we address the issue of sustainability, drought management and food security on a broader scale.

“An economic rationalisation of the industry appears to be the way forward” says Sydney University Associate Professor Willem Vervoort.

“But drought and national food security goes beyond producers and our rural communities. It will require a social and economic restructure of the nation.”

Already targeted by the ABC in The War on Waste, overconsumption and loss of food along the production line are areas of concern. With an estimated 20 to 40 per cent of fruit and vegetable products rejected prior to supermarket sale, customer preferences and marketing often drives much of this wastage. By educating consumers to appreciate the value of food beyond visual appeal and putting pressure on the production line to maximise efficiency, producers can ensure that maximum returns are provided for product input, suggested Vervoort.

There is a divide between rural and metropolitan Australia. Geographically yes, but mentally and emotionally as well, extended through a lack of  mutual understanding. Without taking a moment to sit back and ask ourselves where our food and fibre comes from, we cannot truly have an appreciation for the extent the drought impacts each and every one of us.

While water may run freely and fresh goods are are readily available here in Sydney, we must spare a thought for the many in the grip of this natural disaster. With people calling out for help, it is time for civilians, government and the industry to not only get behind our primary producers and communities, but also secure a  better equipped future. We must work with, not against, this “land of drought and flooding rains”, and it is our role as a nation to support the agricultural industry now and into the future.