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Farmers are still managing to harvest crops in drought. Here's how they're doing it

By national drought reporter Lucy Barbour, Wednesday November 27, 2019 - 12:59 EDT
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Farmers are desperate to prevent topsoil from blowing away in dust storms during the drought. - ABC

Dust storms have become part of daily life in central-west New South Wales, as wind whips up dry soil and sends it flying.



Mark Swift has watched as it has blown onto his property and he has noted how "constant" it has become.

"It can't be good for your health," he said.

But Mr Swift, and his wife Katrina Swift, were most concerned about the environmental damage of the dust storms, as precious topsoil disappears from their farming region and beyond.

"We thought the noughties' drought was bad," he said.

"I'd have it back any day of the week at the moment compared to what we're dealing with."



Investing in drought-tolerant technologies

Since that notorious drought, their family business has made significant changes.

Mr Swift has de-stocked and invested in new research and technology to help improve soil quality.

"It's a whole range of things. It's stubble retention, managing fallows over summer where we control weeds where we're not growing crops, and it's less disturbance of our soil," he said.

"It's also what goes on in the background, like breeding programs to improve the resilience of our seed varieties."



And Mr Swift said the results spoke for themselves.

"We're growing more grain now than we were in previous droughts that we thought were pretty bad," he said.



Technology like soil probes have been helping with testing moisture levels, allowing the couple to make educated decisions on when and what to plant.

Ms Swift said the other big lesson was to keep some crop, or cover, on the ground.

"Groundcover is key in extreme conditions like this," she said.

"It stops wind erosion, water erosion, and holds the soil particles together."

The barley crop the family managed to grow this year has been poor quality.

But instead of cutting it for hay to make quick cash it has been left to shade the ground.

As a result there was no dust.

"It also means our soil microbes and things can survive year on year, and we haven't got to re-establish a whole ecosystem underneath the ground again when the drought breaks," Ms Swift said.



No-till farming for surviving drought

Most farmers are desperate to avoid seeing their paddocks become a dustbowl, including John Gladigau, who has been farming with business partner, Robin Schaefer, on the sandy soils of Loxton in the South Australian Mallee region.

He recalled that during the 1982 drought there was "not a blade of grass" on the farm.

"There was nothing. It was just erosion. That was it," Mr Gladigau said.

Since then the business has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in no-till farming, or growing crops without disturbing the soil.

And the picture now is very different.



"So this year, while we still have some eroded patches, we could argue that 95 per cent of our farming area is covered [and] isn't eroded — isn't blowing away," Mr Gladigau said.

While the machinery required for no-till farming has been expensive, Mr Schaefer said the long-term environmental benefits made it worthwhile.

"It enables us to be able to plant our crops dry because we know they're not going to get blasted by wind with any sand, or anything [else]," he said.

"And they're protected in amongst the stubble, and so that enables us to make use of every single drop of rain that falls.

"So as soon as the first rain comes, the plants get up and germinate and get up [and] start growing."

It is why they would like to see farmers rewarded for looking after the land.



Progressive farming finds environmental solutions

Australian Farm Institute executive director, Richard Heath, said some progressive farmers had been making the most of a "small number of grants and schemes" available, but the market needed to be expanded.

"The sorts of services that are delivered from farmland are sequestering carbon, delivering clean air and clean water," he said.

"That adds to tourism value and the value of the landscape.

"There are lots of ways those services can be monetised or valued in a way that rewards farmers for protecting them … which is obviously of great benefit for reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

The Federal Government is in the early stages of developing a $34-million trial to give farmers money to improve biodiversity on farms.



Mr Swift said such an approach would be critical for future generations because farmers managing in this drought would struggle without significant rainfall next year.

"I don't know what we'll do," he said.

"There won't be groundcover anywhere."

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- ABC

© ABC 2019

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