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What drought, La Nina and emotional hardship have taught these farmers about a better future

By Lucy Thackray, Wednesday November 18, 2020 - 14:44 EDT
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Finally, a harvest to watch over after years living through drought. - ABC licensed

Life on the land is never easy and the past four years have been particularly challenging for Australian farmers.

Despite their struggles, many producers are planning to stay in agriculture but with new strategies and fresh mindsets.

So what are the most valuable lessons rural communities have learned after living through the worst drought on record and, now, struggling with a wet harvest?

Lesson one: Maintain ground cover

At the drought's peak, the countryside was scoured by frequent, devastating dust storms.

Farmers the ABC spoke to are determined to prevent these conditions returning by maintaining soil structure during dry events.

"Ground cover has been the biggest lesson to try stop the dust and losing your topsoil," said Andy Campbell, a farmer at Narromine, about 40 kilometres west of Dubbo.

"We've learnt how important it is to maintain your country and look after it as well as you can."

Walgett farmer Greg Rummery agrees, after seeing reward for his efforts to care for his northern NSW property through the drought.

"Where we've been able to retain ground cover we've seen our paddock stay in much better condition," he said.

"If the country is covered and protected then it's not blowing dust and degrading. That is very important."

"Weed control during tough times never seems to be as tough a decision if you have the ground covered and protected, as you tend to get a feeling of doing the job well and controlling the seed bank from a long-term perspective.

"However, if the paddocks are bare and blowing, then most decisions seem a little pointless, from my experience.

"We then get stuck in the rut or cycle of cultivating to stop the blowing until the next small, ineffective rain event and the cycle starts again."

Lesson two: Don't fear destocking

A crucial part of protecting ground cover is ensuring land isn't overgrazed as feed becomes more scarce.

Many farmers spent millions of dollars buying feed for stock and, for some, properties were left bare.

Some farmers say they've now learned to bite the bullet and destock earlier for the benefit of their finances, mental health and property.

"If we all had a crystal ball we probably would have done things differently," said Amanda Thomas, from her farm at Warren in the state's central-west.

"In our operation, hanging on to the cattle and having to buy in feed was actually not viable.

"We didn't realise how much stress it was putting on our operation until we finally let them go."

Their business restocked when rain began and has already profited from the new cattle.

"The country responded quickly so we bought cows back in March and sold their calves for almost as much in October," Ms Thomas said.

"Things do turn around."

Lesson three: 'Don't count your chickens'

This year's harvest is meant to get farmers back on their feet after years of stifling drought.

For many producers with enormous debt to overcome, this could mean "boom or bust".

In western New South Wales, farmers were excited to strip bumper crops but rain, wind and hail have threatened their recovery.

Anne Kennedy and her husband have been farming in Coonamble for more than 50 years. Their wheat suffered significant damage in a recent hailstorm.

It has been a difficult reminder to keep a level head when the crop is still in nature's hands.

"The lesson is don't be too hopeful about a crop until it's stripped," she said.

"It did look like it was going to be the best crop we'd ever grown.

"I can't get over the damage and all these completely bare heads. It's hard to look at."

She says it's very beneficial to have a mixed enterprise so when one area of the business struggles, there are others to fall back on.

"We're lucky because to counteract this hail damage, we have feed in the paddocks like we've never had, we've got fat cattle — we're really lucky there's always a plus side."

Lesson four: Look after each other

For farmers, a vital lesson was to be supportive of others and, in turn, put their hand up for help when struggling.

Martin Mallon, who's farm is at Quambone, 55 kilometres west of Coonamble, has learned a lot about what to look out for when someone isn't coping.

"I think it's pretty important to look out for others," said.

"It's not always visible when people are doing it tough, but I think one sign is if someone isn't turning up to social events that they normally would.

"Just approach people, talk to them. 

"This it isn't just for the drought, though. It's been a tough four years for all rural communities and in some areas a lot longer than that.

"There's a fair bit of pressure to produce an income this year."

Mr Mallon says living through this stressful period has taught him coping mechanisms.

"I try to stay focused on things that are in my control, things I can change if I have to," he said.

"If a problem's arising that's out of my control, like the weather during harvest, all I can do is get as much grain off before rain and once it rains, just sleep well."

Gulargambone farmer Jo O'Brien agrees it's important to keep things in perspective.

"Take a deep breath every day and hang in there, look after yourself, look after your community, look after your family," she said.

"If you look back on what we've come through, I think we can just about take anything on.

"Hang in there, seek some support. Someone that listens to you is worth their weight in gold."

Lesson five: Some help is hard to come by

While government assistance was a saving grace for some producers, others were bitterly disappointed.

Hunter Hopcroft and Enid Coupe, agriculture contractors at Walgett, say their small business was left behind.

"It's been a hard slog for everyone in the district, whether you're a farmer or a contactor. Sometimes you wonder why we're here," Mr Hopcroft said.

"Banks have been really tough with us for the past 12 months. I've had to sell off a lot of gear to try keep them happy.

"You just have to do 16 hours a day, seven days a week for the year. It's tough and it gets to you."

They say they've learned the difficult lesson that financial assistance is hard to come by, particularly for small businesses.

They're still waiting to hear if they're approved for a small business drought loan they applied for almost 18 months ago.

"When we're in drought, you're meant to be able to get help," Mr Hopcroft said.

"We've got no further with our application. We're talking more than a year on and no resolution as to whether they're going to help us out or not.

"That's probably the first time small business has been offered money, and it's not free money either. You do pay interest after a couple of years.

"We do get forgotten a lot of the time. We're west of the Blue Mountains and we don't count too much.

"Businesses in rural NSW don't get much help at all. Eighteen months later it's still going. We needed the help last year.

"It's pretty frustrating, they just shouldn't offer it if it's not coming."

Lesson six: Don't be complacent when it rains

Meanwhile, the Government is working to droughtproof communities after the relentless dry threatened town water supplies.

NSW Regional Water Commissioner James McTavish says the lessons from the drought should not be forgotten after rain.

"Just because we're going into La Niña and we'll most likely see greater water availability over the next few years, doesn't mean we won't end up here again," he said.

"We need to make sure we look at the longer term view of all of this.

"The reality is we, as communities, need to have a genuine conversation about the value of water and how we use it.

"We need to talk about the changing nature of climate, the need to invest in good policy and infrastructure and what is accepted as good use of water."

He says works will continue to establish alternative water supplies.

"In a lot of river systems in western NSW we're seeing a shift away from being totally reliant on surface water to having an alternate supply with groundwater," he said.

"Where the groundwater doesn't meet the standards, we need alternative treatment like desalination.

"In Bourke we've invested very substantially in new bore fields. In Walgett we have new bore infrastructure and a new weir wall going in.

"And people are also more accepting now of looking at reusing wastewater more effectively."


© ABC 2020

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