3 Aussie farmers tell their extreme drought stories

From left: James Walker, Cameron Rowntree and Rob Moore

From left: James Walker, Cameron Rowntree and Rob Moore

Australian farmers are used to coping without rain. But not like this. The drought sweeping northern and eastern states is now in its fourth year, making it the longest most have ever had to endure.

The wet season last arrived in 2011. Large areas of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland are experiencing “severe deficiencies” in rainfall, according to the Australian government’s Bureau of Meteorology, with some spots facing the driest 32 months on record.

Farming businesses have been devastated and producers, their families and communities are being stretched to the limit.

Most farmers in Queensland will not make a profit this decade, says the state’s main farm-member organisation AgForce Queensland.

Incomes halved, debt up

In a survey of its members, 50% said their annual incomes had halved and 59% had seen their debt increase by 25-50%.

Andrew Berkman of AgForce Queensland says: “The general rule of thumb is it takes two years to recover financially for every year of drought, equating to at least a six-year process for these families, rural businesses and regional communities – and that’s making the assumption rain will come soon.”

Many beef producers in drought-affected states have had to cull their livestock; others have been unable to put their cows into calf.

See also: How Californian farmers are coping with a four-year drought

Growers are also facing huge challenges, with many looking at a third year of failed crops.

More than 90% of farmers in New South Wales have been unable to sow a crop this year, according to a survey by state farming organisation NSW Farmers.

North and east Australia drought map

Mental health

The effect on emotional well-being is marked. Alison Farleigh, an area manager for charity Mental Illness Fellowship NQ in Queensland, says many farmers feel “completely overwhelmed”.

“The slow, creeping nature of drought goes largely unseen by the wider community and people suffering through it feel very isolated,” she says.

“There’s a lot of fear for many about losing their properties and what they will do in the future.

“Others are in a sound position – they destocked early and did not get caught up buying more land, which has left so many in financial crisis.”

Government support

The Australian government has ploughed AUD$500m (£245m) into support for affected farmers, including tax cuts for small businesses and loans.

But as of April, AUD$430m (£210m) remained unallocated.

Farming groups have called the schemes complicated and inaccessible, with rates no better than those of commercial lenders, while farmers say they are short-term handouts that don’t tackle the bigger problem.

There may yet be progress ahead, though, with a government announcement last week for water infrastructure development in northern Queensland.

In the meantime, many individuals and rural communities have rallied to support each other – for however long the drought lasts.

James and Mannie Walker, Queensland

Beef sheep and hay farmer James Walker on his dry land in Longreach, central Queensland

Beef sheep and hay farmer James Walker on his dry land

It is not every day that you invite the prime minister of Australia to your farm – and he actually shows up.

Or the country’s biggest company chiefs arrive in private jets to thrash out practical ideas for drought-hit producers around a campfire.

But beef and sheep farmer James Walker has “spent the past 18 months hammering it out to try to solve the drought”.

In conjunction with a UN climatologist, he is working on integrating seasonal forecasts and business figures and has developed Agrihive – an initiative to tackle crisis points in agriculture and come up with practical solutions.

“When you have a drought, you’ve got to have hope,” he says. “When you run out of ideas, you run out of hope.

“The government works in very short cycles – three years – so all initiatives are based on trying to capture the voter sentiment. They are going for handouts rather than trying to empower people.”

“Dealing with a drought needs hope and ideas”
James Walker

Empty holdings

Meanwhile, his 8,100ha holding in Longreach, central Queensland, has stood empty for two years.

Three years ago, Mr Walker and his wife Mannie had 22,000 sheep, 8,000 cattle and produced and sold 10,000 bales of hay.

But the wet season didn’t arrive in 2012 and it hasn’t rained substantially since. This is the third time the farm has been destocked since 2003.

Drained reservoirs

The Walkers’ eight reservoirs, which each holds the equivalent of between 2,000 and 8,000 swimming pools worth of water, are bone dry and they are not expecting any substantial rain until at least March next year – though it may not rain at all.

Mr Walker estimates that 80% of local farms are destocked and many people have left their holdings to look for work.

“It’s pretty bleak,” he says. “In a lot of communities there is no cashflow going through.”

The local economy relies heavily on farming and each farm would normally be turning over between AUD$800,000 (£390,000) and $2m (£980,000) a year, he says.

Climate modelling

Through Mr Walker’s climatic modelling work, the farm is in a better position than many others. In 2012 the national cattle herd was at a record high, but models showed Queensland was heading for drought.

So the Walkers sold their cattle and bought sheep.

When forecasts predicted the drought would extend into 2014, the couple sold all their livestock.

Other farmers with fully stocked holdings saw feed prices jump and the equity in their cattle plunge as thousands more animals entered the market for slaughter.

“Everything bottlenecked and nobody could afford to sell their cattle,” says Mr Walker.

To avoid producing commodities, the Walkers are getting themselves in a position to produce added-value products and are looking at leasing land six hours away.

“Farmers are really good at adapting,” says Mr Walker. “So if we have lower rainfall, we’ll have different crops and different cattle.”

Cameron Rowntree, New South Wales

Cameron Rowntree

Cameron Rowntree

Cameron Rowntree’s 500 beef cattle are 500 miles away from his farm, riding out the drought in southern New South Wales on someone else’s farm.

Normally he would have 1,000 livestock on his 400ha holding in Walgett, 435 miles north west of Sydney.

While it is a common practice to lodge cattle for a fee during dry periods, they have been away for two years now, which is much longer than usual.

Crops of wheat, chickpeas, broad beans and barley should be coming up in his fields by now, too. But Mr Rowntree hasn’t been able to sow anything since 2012.

His crops rely on moisture stored in the soil from the rainy season, with topsoils anywhere between 9m and 24m deep.

“It’s not uncommon to have drought in Australia,” he says, “but this one is extreme.

“Drought is common here, but this one is extreme”
Cameron Rowntree

“It’s a desert. It’s unchartered territory – it has never been so long. Our business is getting smashed.”

He has now sold all of the grain from the last crop and has some cash coming in from his cattle.

Increasing debt

But interest is mounting on the business’ debt previously taken out for investments such as machinery.

“Our debt levels are getting very scary,” he says. “We’re re-evaluating everything and watching our budgets, tightening the ship right up.”

But mentally, “it’s extreme”, he says, and the government’s five-year loans offered to drought-affected farmers, with 3.84% interest rates, are not as competitive or as flexible as those of commercial lenders.

Banks are starting to get anxious, he says, but the challenge now is to be in a financial position to buy inputs when the drought is over.

But local farmers have seen a 70% drop in turnover, he says and, while there is a lot of community spirit, morale is low because the drought has dragged on for so long.

“Everyone is in the same boat and it is not pretty. When things are good, they are really good, but when they are bad, they are really bad.”

Rob and Leanne Moore, Queensland

Rob Moore surveys his dry reservoir

Rob Moore surveys his dry reservoir

“It has been pretty rude, but this one is the worst because of low prices,” says Rob Moore of the drought.

He runs 800 Angus cattle and 2,000 ewes on his 169ha farm near Mitchell in Queensland.

Mr Moore’s family have owned the farm since 1926, but 2012 and 2013 were the worst years it has ever seen.

The drought, combined with record low cattle prices, meant he couldn’t afford to buy in enough feed.

He is trying not to count, but estimates he has lost at least 400 cattle to the drought, even when able to buy in feed.

By last year, his farm was so run down, he had no staff or machinery left. “It was like burning a candle at both ends,” he says.

Low prices

Prices have improved this year because the national herd is much smaller after a lot of culling, says Mr Moore, but low prices have “bled us to death” for the past two years.

“We have been bled to death by low prices”
Rob Moore

A sudden live export ban four years ago kept more cattle in the domestic market.

As the drought forced producers to slaughter their cattle, prices plummeted to a record low.

At its worst, the liveweight price for his prime Angus cattle was AUD$1.50-1.60/kg (74-79p/kg) and the deadweight hovered around $2.80/kg (£1.37/kg) for two years.

Meat market

Control of the meat market by a handful of large companies has exacerbated these low prices, says Mr Moore, and he is lobbying government to introduce competition laws and better transparency.

“In Australia, owning the livestock makes you a peasant, but owning the meat makes you a billionaire.

“There’s a calamity waiting to happen,” he says. “Global demand is high and [consumers] have had two years of paying almost nothing – but it will hit them.”

At 57 years old, Mr Moore had planned to be expanding his business for his children to take on.

“I thought right now we’d be making a reasonable go of it, but it couldn’t be more different… it’s just me, my wife, the dog and a lot of broken-down machinery – and I’m in the top 1% of Australian producers.”


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