It’s Time To Wake Up To The Truth About This Sunburnt Country
If we’re not careful, she won’t be right, mate.
My people are farmers. We’ve worked the land in an unbroken line going back before records began.
The affinity I have with my land, my farm, is something that cannot be explained, it’s a mixture between an American’s Pride in their flag, Islamic devotion to their prophet and that intense love a grandparent feels for their grandchild.
It’s a connection to country that allows us on the land to live it, breath it and love it in a way that draws us out of the swag to do it all again when every muscle in bodies aches for that day off that never comes.
We farmers don’t just work the land for profit, we are its guardians who harness our environment for its multigenerational sustainability.
However, in times like this we must have a tough conversation.
Australia is the driest habitable continent on earth and was the last of them to introduce modern agriculture. But it’s not the past that’s the issue. We need to talk about the future as we are currently on a path that will leave generations to come with nothing short of a catastrophe.
This week Australia’s population hit 25 million. In just 117 years as a Federated nation -- mere seconds compared to the thousands of years this land has existed -- we now have to face facts, namely that these intense drought/flood cycles are not new, they’ve always existed but successive generations and politicians have always treated them as one-offs and with a ‘she’ll be right mate’ attitude.
We need to talk about a long-term management strategy which takes into account how we Aussies can manage our water, fuel, fibre and food production in a much better way, a way which not only meets the needs of the explosion in our own numbers but also meets the needs of the global community and the stressed environment of Australia itself.
Short-sighted governments have allowed our finite water resources to be overutilised by mining and intensive agriculture to a point now that on my own stations we have lost all natural surfacing of artesian water, as well as the loss of 20 percent of our essential underground water bores, which are barely keeping our stock and native fauna alive.
That being said, the Howard government’s initiative after the 1990’s Millennium Drought to install pipes to reduce the massive evaporation losses of open-flowing bore drains was a rare, much-needed solution to address water waste in the grazing regions of our central and continental eastern grasslands.
The shocking news of Cape Town’s recent drought and corresponding population explosion should serve as a timely reminder that the cities and towns of Australia have learnt little to ensure sustainability of both surface and ground water when this drought and future droughts diminish the replenishment required to ensure water is always flowing at the turn of a tap.
At the same time as governments, both federal and state, have allowed the exploitation of our water resources, local government allowed the concreting over of the eastern seaboard to a point we are already witnessing dramatic reductions in the food bowls of fruit and vegetable growing areas within sight of these population centres.
Once covered in concrete and housing in the constant drive for economic growth through urban population increase, these dairy farms and horticultural enterprises which once stocked the fridges of every household will never be replaced.
We can recover from droughts and floods but the loss of prime agricultural land to housing and industry is irredeemable.
A drive through the once super-productive plains and hills of western Sydney and the fertile outer suburbs of Melbourne and Queensland’s South East will sadden anyone concerned about a future food supply to the point of despair. The reason these population centres thrived to their current status is simply due to them being in high secure rainfall with fertile soils beneath them.
But now that valuable rainfall is dumped out to sea via concrete pipes and streets unable to cope with the deluges that once supplied the restorative silt that gave them their abundant fertility.
Climate change is a subject that usually raises eyebrows in any farming community, but what cannot be denied is that annual evaporation is increasing. While we face dry spells and wet spells, and have done since we all got here, evaporation is taking away from any ability for the implementation of technology and sustainable agriculture to combat it.
Increased evaporation has gone unnoticed to a large degree over the past 25 years thanks to the broad scale take up of minimum and zero tillage agriculture which retains most rainfall in the soil profile for cropping and pasture usage, but we seemed to have reached the peak before that practice.
Farmers have a responsibility to plan, prepare and utilise modern technology and weather forecasting to ensure the sustainability of their businesses and the environment under their guardianship. With Australia's dwindling farm-based population and farmers themselves nearing the average of age of 60, there is an issue with the uptake of the huge technological advancements and a readiness to implement programmes to combat the ever-changing weather patterns and their impacts on long-term profitability and multigenerational sustainability.
Unlike droughts that have seen the mass depletion of the farming population over the past century, this current drought was predicted, this drought is nothing new, in the boom bust cycle of our inland regions, this is what we deal with on this continent and we must as a society adapt to a reality we cannot hide from.
That said, in a society as fortunate and wealthy as ours, when the chips are down we must come to the aid of those in any tough situation, but that does not mean an end to the tough conversation about what we can do moving forward to ensure that no rural population becomes reliant on government assistance.
Farmers are forced in these exceptional times to let go of valuable staff who are unlikely to return when things improve.
There have been many studies by farm groups such as Cotton Australia and Australian Farm Institute that show a multiplier effect that for every dollar earned in agriculture there is a 4 to 1 multiplier in the local region and around a 7 to 1 multiplier in a state-wide economy.
Investment in the farm sector has a massive flow-on effect, with farmers readily employing more people, investing in new infrastructure and increasing farm inputs to correspond with increased production. A reduction in investment results in a loss in the farm economy and forces a drastic downturn in the wider economy, affecting the entire community in a way that is often unfathomable.
This shows that financial fluidity flowing from farm communities permeates into the wider economy drastically more than any other industry.
It is every Australian’s responsibility to be connected as consumers to our food fibre and fuel production. Gone are the days that most urban families had country cousins – that direct relationship with producers and an ability to directly understand the complexities faced day to day by the people on the land. So we must find new ways of bridging the divide between those that manage the land and those that rely on its production.
All societies are based on agriculture. At every society’s heart is a need for food security and affordability.
All banana lovers remember the massive hike in prices for the beloved fruit and the huge effects on the economy from a single catastrophic weather event.
Two years ago I started a programme to visit schools, day cares and community centres to provide a conduit between farmers and the next generation of school-aged children by allowing them to learn what we do, how we do it, as well as our unique language.
It’s a conversation that starts with ‘g’day’. But it’s a tough conversation, one we need to have if we are to find a sustainable future for this sunburnt country.
If you want to help Australian farmers in need, you can donate to a registered charity. Donate online to Rural Aid's Buy a Bale, Drought Angels, Aussie Helpers or Lions' Need for Feed. You can also support farmers by buying Australian grown produce at your local supermarket.
For 24/7 crisis or suicide prevention support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp.