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Organic livestock production on lower Darling halted by drought

Saskia Mabin, Tuesday October 8, 2019 - 06:31 EDT
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Wayne Smith says with the river mostly dry, he has lost his boundary fence. - ABC

The drought has taken its toll on organic farmers who say the big dry has ruined their ability to meet the conditions of their licences, so they cannot sell their livestock as organic.

Graziers say the Darling River is the source of all their problems — without adequate water flows they cannot guarantee a supply of good quality water for their livestock and new biosecurity issues have arisen.

"The organic lamb is a fairly sought-after article and currently there's just none coming out of this area because everyone along the river has lost their certification," grazier Wayne Smith said.

Mr Smith lives at Karoola Station on the lower Darling, where the river is mostly dry.

"The river is our boundary fence and currently we haven't got one," he said.

"The biggest issue for us without the river is our containment of stock … we can't guarantee organic status with stock wandering backwards and forwards.

"It's costing us the bottom line — hip pocket, everywhere."

Mr Smith said it was not as simple as fencing off the river.

"You can't really go pushing 500-year-old red gums out to try to get a fence through there somewhere and the next time it floods it's under the water."

'Means a lot to our bottom line'

The process to become certified organic in Australia takes three years and there are annual assessments and fees required to maintain the licence.

If producers are exporting livestock to overseas markets they are required to comply with additional certification standards.

It is a significant undertaking, but one with financial incentive when conditions are good.

"You actually pick up an extra dollar or so a kilo for the organic lamb," said John Clothier of Polia Station, 50 kilometres west of Pooncarie on the Darling River.

Mr Clothier has maintained his organic certification licence but has not sold anything organic for three years.

With no end to the drought in sight, it has left him questioning whether he can afford to keep it.

"I don't know if it's worth having it at the moment, to be honest," he said.

"There's plenty of paperwork and I don't know what we pay to keep it … but it's a few thousand dollars a year. So when you're not actually using it, it makes you wonder whether we need it or not.

"If there are no improvements with this river in the time to come I think we'll probably end up dropping it."

Problems beyond the river

General manager of Australian Certified Organic Sachin Ayachit said there was "no doubt the drought has affected existing and potential certified producers".

"This is particularly due to the unavailability of certified organic feed. I would say dairy and meat producers are the two most affected categories," he said.

Gary Hannigan of Churinga Station, 130km east of Broken Hill, was among the first to sell organic livestock at the turn of the millennium.

He said this drought had made it "almost impossible" to source organic hay.

Mr Hannigan does not live on the river and is still able to sell organic lambs to the United States, but he said production numbers were much smaller than usual.

"We've had reasonably good lambing this year but we're only allowing probably 20 per cent of what we normally would," he said.

While the drought has certainly brought challenges, he had no intention of giving up his licence.

"There's a bit of work in keeping the certification current but I think it's certainly worthwhile and we've been doing it for nearly 20 years now, so we're certainly not going to let it slip at this point in time," Mr Hannigan said.

"We'll stay and we'll be pleased to take advantage of it as soon as the season breaks. With a few more lambs on the ground we'll be back in full swing again, hopefully.

"That's certainly the plan but the way this drought goes on all sorts of good plans get thrown out the window."


© ABC 2019

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