Grass roots response to drought: 8 reports from 8 farms

Grass roots response to drought: 8 reports from 8 farms

Settle in, children, for today's story will be long and it will tug at your heartstrings.

As the extreme weather across the country continues, the air waves are choked with heartbreaking stories of farmers brought to their knees and struggling to cope. From the city, it's hard to get a clear perspective on the scale of hardship, the causes and the possible solutions. The photo above, for example, is a stark illustration of the contrast in management practices between two neighbouring farms, both suffering from long-term drought.

On the right, the ground is exposed, unprotected and vulnerable. Some would argue that this is a good sign - the vegetation has been used for fodder which is a financially sensible use of existing resources. Leaving grass on the ground is leaving money in the paddock. Except that once the grass is gone and the earth is exposed, there is a rapid loss of moisture and organic matter and the battle to restore vegetation is much more challenging.

On the left, thick grasses have been allowed to grow, maintaining a symbiotic relationship with the soil that is so essential for the health of all the complex life just above and below the surface of the soil. The roots knit the precious topsoil in place, limit evaporation, feed the soil, prevent erosion and, if grazed judiciously, provide fodder for animals. Most importantly, they ensure long-term soil fertility and resilience even during extended drought. The grass may represent money left in the paddock but it's money well-spent if it means a faster recovery and long-term security.

This is what you might call 'grass roots' farming.

But we're not experts so we decided to try to find out more.

Last November, in response to media reports of farms in crisis due to the drought, we asked the farmers with whom we work to report on the condition of their farms. We gave eight farms eight questions to answer as they wished - the links to their un-edited responses are below. We’ve checked in with all of them over the last month and it’s sobering to note that little has changed since mid November 2018.

Except, last Tuesday 12 March, something important and long overdue occurred. 

Guy Debelle, the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank, announced that the RBA had come to the earth-shattering conclusion that there is an inevitable link between climate and the economy. Instead of responding to extreme weather events such as droughts, floods or cyclones as isolated events or ‘one-off shocks’, the RBA will henceforth embrace the idea that climate change is permanent, and this will now be factored into fiscal modelling and policy development. Climate change is a ‘serious threat’ and ‘financial stability will be better served by an orderly transition rather than an abrupt disorderly one.’

This idea that climate change needs to be factored into the plan is something others are also realising - the insurance industry, for example, is flagging the very real possibility that, in future, there may be large parts of Australia that are virtually uninsurable. Look around and there is abundant evidence that climate change is having an impact on our financial security so it’s disconcerting that the RBA has taken so long to get on board. Sadly, it’s consistent with the short-sighted, disjointed approach taken by many key decision makers who appear blind to the fact that climate change is a collective problem that must be addressed holistically. Until we have a cohesive, coordinated, national approach to climate change that connects policy development across all sectors from energy to agriculture to education we are just wasting precious resources and time. You only need to look at the Murray Darling basin to see what happens when we don’t work together and take the long view.

In the meantime, despite the heart-breaking 'dust' storms that leave city cars blanketed with precious topsoil, at a grass roots level there are plenty of people determined to take the long view.  Few are more grass roots than the farmers with whom we work. 

It’s hard to remember now, given the ferocious churn of the media cycle, but if you cast your mind back to the last quarter of 2018, you’ll remember that the Australian media were in overdrive reporting on the crisis gripping many rural communities and farmers in Eastern Australia. We found ourselves feeling overwhelmed and depressed by the deeply distressing stories of drought that were coursing from every screen. The media’s ghoulish fascination with the disaster narrative mixed with the well-intentioned but slightly frantic ‘buy a bale’ fundraiser drives were deeply unsettling.

On one hand, we were filled with sympathy for the farmers in crisis, their land laid waste by the forces of nature. Who wouldn’t be moved by the images of distraught families weeping and kicking up dust in parched fields, murky storms of precious topsoil coating our cities and closing airports and skeletal cattle wandering weakly across cracked earth with barely a tree to hold the whole landscape together? In the face of this, buying a bale seemed like the least anyone could do to help.

But, on the other hand, 12 years of working with regenerative farmers has taught us that there are ways that farmers can strengthen and enliven the land and manage the peaks and troughs of the Australian climate without ending up shooting their cattle and kicking up dust. Of course, you can’t beat drought, it’s terrible. Ultimately, nothing survives without water. But some farmers in Australia fare better than others. These are farmers who are entirely concerned with the slow and painstaking work of building long-term resilience and sustainable fertility. They recognise the natural limitations imposed by seasons and geography and instead of focussing on short-term gain, their work is all about reducing inputs and intervention and seeking a natural balance between fertility and production. These are the farms that look like the one on the left in the photo above and that we’re lucky enough to work with.

Of course, you rarely hear their stories because careful, compassionate, day-by-day management for long-term resilience isn’t nearly as exciting as crisis and disaster.

But, if it’s possible to farm relatively productively but also tread lightly on our delicate soils, even in times of great duress such as this drought, what are all these other farmers doing and why were they in such dire straits? Would importing enough hugely expensive hay from as far away as Western Australia so they could survive this current crisis make any difference in the long term? Is the quality of their surviving livestock now so compromised by extended nutritional deficiencies that their market value is negligible? Are these denuded farms, bereft of ground cover, now so compromised in terms of the structures that sustain growth that, if they continue to be managed as they have been, they’ll struggle to recover?

Why aren’t all farmers adopting the regenerative principles that seem to work so effectively on many farms?

The answer comes down to the core issue of whether or not the marketplace values and rewards good land management and connects it directly to the product on the shelf. Let’s be clear, the ‘marketplace’ isn’t some abstract force in the ether. It’s you and me and the tangible choices we make.

One of the key stumbling blocks in the way of developing a more constructive approach to energy, land and food management generally is the fact that urban Australians perceive events such as drought as a rural problem that happens ‘out there’ on ‘their farms’. This has to change. We need to foster a much more acute and nuanced understanding of the ways in which we are inextricably connected to and responsible for the sources of our food. 

Every purchasing decision anyone of us makes has a direct impact on what is produced. Spend money on local, sustainably-produced food and you are expressing support for that production system and adding powerful, quantifiable impetus to its continuation and growth. Follow the trail back from the checkout to the farm and it’s not hard to see how buying a loaf of bread, a litre of milk, a kilo of lentils or a packet of sausages can be linked directly to the health of our soils and the ways in which our soil is being managed.

Because, while farmers own their land and are free to manage it as they choose, there is a broader, accepted notion that these lands, collectively, make up ‘our’ Australia. This is ‘our’ soil and ‘our’ food future partitioned up into lands owned and managed by custodian farmers and, as it turns out, the way it’s being managed has a direct impact on all of us. We all pay the price and we all stand to benefit.

So, if we accept that we’re inextricably connected and that our choices have a direct impact on the way our country is managed, we start to understand that we’re not bystanders in the production of our food. Even more, we also start to see that the specific loaf of bread of packet of sausages we’re putting into our shopping cart isn’t just a commodity but is actually representative of a whole series of decisions and consequences which are directly connected to us, our community and our country.

If you want to promote a fertile and sustainable Australian food system, what choices will you make?

Clearly, we’ve got skin in the game here. But regardless of whether or not this sounds like a convenient commercial argument, it’s clear that we all have much to gain if our country is managed in a holistic way by policy makers and farmers working on sustainable fertility. There’s a pressing need to develop a much more comprehensive and intelligent way of supporting and rewarding farms that not only provide consumable produce but do so while demonstrably sequestering carbon, improving soil quality and water retention, increasing plant cover and species diversity and improving capacity to withstand events like extended drought. When the Reserve Bank starts to ask what ongoing climate change might mean for the national economy, you know that we’re starting to see an overdue awakening of the links between all these issues.

We put a universal star system on our white goods to guide consumers toward the most environmentally-friendly products but when it comes to food we end up in a quagmire of confusing and disingenuous labelling, mixed messages and conflicting values. At this point, in lieu of legislated guidelines around transparency and definitions, the only immediate and direct way to influence this situation is to send a clear message to retailers by boycotting the stuff that doesn’t make sense. Instead, choose food that is as un-mediated as possible, with as few additives as possible and that is made as close to you as possible. 

Which brings us back to the farms and these reports. As well as giving us yet another excuse to rant about food choices, they provide you with an unvarnished, honest account of the drought experience from a number of regenerative farmers across NSW. As you’ll read, it’s been really tough. No matter how fertile the region or much you fortify your land with intelligent and mindful management, all farms need rainfall to thrive.

These farmers grow everything from chickens to buffalo on a diverse range of farms in varied country across NSW. Some grew up on their land, like Vince Heffernan, the sixth generation to farm his property near Canberra but the first to farm according to bio-dynamic principles. Others are just out of the blocks, like Lisa and Todd Dennett who took over a degraded sheep farm early in 2018 and are embarking on a life-long regeneration project.

Predictably, there are some fascinating and moving responses here and some common themes.

  • While there is compassion for those in crisis, there is anger at poor land and animal management.
  • Exasperation that negligent farming isn't understood as such and that some of the worst offenders attract public support.
  • The tension in negotiating the competition for feed between native and domestic stock.
  • The over-arching mantra is ‘no bare earth’ and maintaining effective ground cover is of paramount importance.
  • All feel the need to remind urban Australians of their obligation to support the work of regenerative farmers.

    After reading these responses, the overwhelming feeling we have is one of gratitude and reassurance. Thank goodness there are people like these farmers growing our food and managing ‘our’ country. What we need is more of them.

    These are the questions we sent each farmer to answer (or not) as they wished. 

    1. When did you start to realise that this drought would probably be prolonged and very serious?
    2. When did you start to take mitigating action against this drought?
    3. What are the main actions you’ve taken and strategies you’ve followed?
    4. What are your priorities during this period and what are your objectives (e.g. maintain a core breeding stock, maintain ground cover etc.)?
    5. What are the main challenges you’ve faced during this drought? (e.g. retaining ground cover, dealing with kangaroos etc)?
    6. Have you witnessed or learned anything particular over the last year that has changed or reinforced your thinking?
    7. How would you describe what you do and the contribution you make to Australian agriculture?
    8. What do you think the ‘City' - consumers, retailers, policy makers - should be doing in times of drought? 

    Drought reports

    Burraduc Buffalo Farm

    Extraordinary Pork

    Grassland Poultry

    Gundooee Organic Wagyu

    Moorlands Bio-dynamic Farm

    Saulsbury Berkshires

    South Hill Farm

    The Gourmet Goat Lady 


      Mrs Feather

      Hi Laura,
      What a well researched and considered post and a perceptive examination of the important issues around farm management and the links between producers and consumers.
      The query as to why regenerative management practises have not been more widely adopted is one that puzzles me (as I watch neighbouring farms turn to dust). It is a complex problem and involves financial as well as deep seated social issues. I think until land managers are able to shift the paradigm they have in their head it is hard for them to see an alternative to their current methods, even if it means pulling a whole lot of misery down on their own heads.
      The stories from your producers was a great antidote to the widespread belief that drought is something outside their control or management. It is great to be positive.
      Thanks again for your great article and incisive thinking in this area.
      Sam Johnson

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