By QFF CEO Travis Tobin
Many would be familiar with Dorothea Mackellar’s famous lines “I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains”, which she wrote in the early 1900s while homesick in the UK. Since then, Australia has ‘fondly’ been known as “a land of droughts and flooding rains.”
As a normal feature of our environment, Australian farmers and their communities have always had to deal with drought. But what is drought and why does it become such an issue?
The Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) defines drought as a prolonged, abnormally dry period when the amount of available water is insufficient to meet normal use. Pretty simple; but where agriculture is concerned it’s not simply about low rainfall because people use water in different ways and there is no universal definition. And it is generally difficult to compare one drought to another, as each drought differs in the seasonality, location, spatial extent and duration of the associated rainfall deficiencies. Each drought is also accompanied by varying temperatures and soil moisture deficits and the interactions between and flow-on effects for different agricultural industries will vary. Further, a changing climate is increasing the weather extremes that our already highly variable climate experiences.
While drought is just one of the many climatic risks that farmers face and must manage, it differs from others in that it can affect a large number of farm businesses at once, it has a slow onset with effects that can last years, and it has a highly uncertain end date. The prolonged and uncertain nature of drought mean that the ongoing effects experienced include:
- the disruption to cropping programs and reduction of breeding stock, which threaten the profit and long-term viability of farm businesses;
- a downturn of regional, state and national economies;
- environmental damage, including vegetation loss, soil erosion, and water contamination;
- an increase in the frequency of bushfires and dust storms;
- decline of the physical and mental wellbeing of farming families, which can impede an individual’s decision-making and their ability to engage with family and their community; and
- a decrease in vitality and the viability of rural businesses and communities.
Under enormous pressure, people naturally look to government for some help and solutions. Government policy responses to drought can be traced back to the early 1900s. I won’t go into this complex, often over-politicised area – and there is a lot of room for improvement to current drought policy settings – but generally the focus of support has changed over time, from infrastructure investments of ‘drought proofing’ through irrigation to direct financial assistance to help farmers through hard times. These policies and programs have generally focussed on measures to help keep people on the land. What has often been overlooked is measures that keep the businesses and economies of rural towns going.
That’s where readers of this publication can really help as tourism plays an important role in keeping rural towns alive, and many drought-affected towns are encouraging people to support their communities by taking their next holiday in the country.
In a globalised world where many things are now at our fingertips and available on demand, we often forget about the fantastic things to do and see in our own backyard. Many parts of Australia have fascinating histories, great tourism attractions, unique places to stay and amazing natural landscapes to enjoy. Beyond the economic boost to local businesses, it also increases morale which is critical for these proud communities.
Looking ahead to when it starts to rain again, and it will, it is also important to understand that drought recovery is often a slow process that can take several years. And with droughts expected to become more frequent and extreme, the general public should consider what ongoing role all Australians can play in supporting farmers and rural communities – just as they are considering their ongoing drought preparedness, management and resilience.
The extensive media coverage of the current drought has no doubt increased the awareness for many people living in our cities of some of the vagaries of life on the land and helped remind them how important farming is to the foundations of our society. This has led to a greater desire to buy local produce and if need be, pay a bit more for it. But when it rains again will the ‘average’ Australian consumer simply return to a cheapest option approach, or can this drought be the catalyst to change people’s perception of locally grown food and fibre and the value they place on it?
Australian is one of only eight countries in the world to spend less than 10 per cent of household income on food each year. While these numbers reflect a common trend across western societies and general living standards, other factors also contribute to it. For example, the constant price war between our major supermarkets, which control about 85 per cent of the market share, is a fundamental tenant of capitalism but it devalues food, what it takes to produce it, and what a fair farm gate return is. Encouragingly, many consumers are bucking the “down down” and “cheap cheap” influencers in the current drought and making more conscious purchasing decisions. If this can be sustained, they will continue to play an active role in helping to build more resilient farming businesses and rural communities.
None of us can make it rain, but we can do our bit towards providing support, hope and options for farmers and rural communities.