Helping drought-stricken farmers requires recognising global warming and planning

Droughts keep getting worse, and the changing climate means they will continue to do so.

This autumn was the fourth-warmest on record in Australia with below average rainfall for most of the country, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. New South Wales, north-west Victoria and eastern South Australia are experiencing significant drought.

All of NSW has now officially been declared to be in drought, and 57% of Queensland has officially entered its sixth year of the current drought (though there has been little real change from when 88% was declared to be in drought in March 2017).

Droughts keep getting worse, and the changing climate means they will continue to do so.

The Coalition's “solutions” start with denying that climate change is real.

It wants more dams and greater clearing of trees to create an “improved” landscape devoid of greenery other than for pasture or crops. It is happy to subsidise chemical fertilisers as it cuts funding to CSIRO research on native grasses and vegetation.

The government's idea of “income diversification” is to encourage farmers to turn to mining to supplement their income. This explains the rise in government investment in coal and unconventional gas mining.

It also explains their waiver of environmental considerations, including the free provision of water and laws to enable farmers to take advantage of mining company's offers regardless of social amenity or community considerations.

An example of this was the National Party's suggestion that if one particular farmer objects to mining on their land, companies should go underneath farm boundaries to get to the resource.

The impact of these mines on water tables is ignored: clean water is not considered to be important to farming futures or drought-proofing.

Most conservative “solutions” lead to profits for corporations, which are donors to the major parties.

They do not address the cause of drought or help farmers overcome the problems of surviving and producing food in the changing climate.

Treating symptoms, not the cause

Financial assistance to farmers continues to be treated as exceptional — as if droughts are not an increasingly regular part of the weather cycle. There is no security or certainty of government support, and many producers do not access it when it becomes available.

Despite submissions from Agforce, the government refuses to take up its suggestion to establish training for farmers to be drought resilient and to guarantee support and assistance to those who do.

There is no framework to encourage revegetation and soil management to protect soil humus and ground cover when droughts threaten so that land recovers swiftly instead of burning soil carbon stores and becoming water resistant.

Nothing happens until districts are drought-declared, and then it is too late.

At the same time, government weather and meteorological services have been cut severely, making long-term predictions more unreliable and planning more difficult.

Meanwhile, we have witnessed the loss of state and federal government-funded extension services that used to supply this expert advice for free. This is particularly the case with the axing of catchment management authorities that encouraged producers to manage water cycling through appropriate earthworks and tree planting.

The end result is limited assistance that treats the symptoms and not the cause.

The government treats farmers like any other walk in-walk out business and, by extension, the climate disaster as a personal business risk. No wonder this sink or swim, survival-of-the-fittest policy leads to more suicides and farmers walking off the land.

For farming communities to become truly drought resilient, while also setting up supplementary diversified income systems, they must be helped to manage the soil sustainably so that it can sequester carbon and store water in humus — until the droughts break.

We need to keep ground cover to anchor soil from blowing or washing away. Even if we cannot grow food in it, dust storms are a major health hazard and erosion silts estuaries and covers seagrass where fisheries breed.

Drought resilience means means the ground needs to contain humus to store water to keep 100% groundcover. This enables it to quickly grow food or grass when the drought breaks. Trees can help with this in pastures, as long as they do not regrow so densely that they easily turn into crown fires.

Indigenous knowledge

Indigenous plant knowledge needs to be used.

The ABC interviewed Fran Bodkin, a Dharawal elder, scientist and botanist, on the importance of using this knowledge to build strong, drought-resistant ecosystems.

She listed three native trees that people experiencing drought could plant now and, in time, the trees would raise their water table, improve soil quality, encourage insect and bird populations and provide fodder for stock.

When planted together, these species will improve the soil, increase the ground water system and improve air quality.

There are many other supplementary species that work together to create a healthy, drought tolerant ecosystem.

The farm management deposits (FMD) scheme, which was designed to help Australian primary producers meet their business costs in low-income years by building up cash reserves, is a useful tool in encouraging farmers to destock completely and then re-stock once the drought breaks and pastures have recovered.

But they do not account for the low prices we mostly get when de-stocking compared to the high prices to re-stock or re-plant crops when demand is high.

We need a supplementary income for when the land cannot grow crops or feed stock so that farmers do not have to choose between walking off the land and getting further into debt, or sitting on a short-term dole equivalent which does not cover ongoing land management expenses.

These should be of concern to the general public, as farmers are managing the catchments that we all drink from and the living soil that grows our food.

Dams

The problem with the National Party's support for large dams as the means to "drought-proof” Australia is that they change water quality and encourage toxic algal blooms, according to associate professor Larelle Fabbro from the Central Queensland University.

The longer water is stored, the poorer its quality; and the bigger the dam becomes, the more the water quality changes for the worse as the water mixes less.

In summer, the surface heats and the cold bottom layer rots and breeds highly toxic algal blooms, often invisible on the surface. Many types of toxic algal blooms have still not been identified.

Large dams can also prevent many fish species from migrating from fresh to saltwater to breed.

Fabbro said another risk in dam storage is toxic mine water releases, whether deliberate or accidental. For example, the Ensham Mine wall holding back wastewater, supposedly the “best designed levy bank”, gave way upstream of the Fitzroy River — the water supply for Rockhampton and many other communities.

Then there is evaporation, which can be limited by making sure dams are deep enough and shading the water. But when the water levels drop and you need the water the most, the water heats up, stratifies and algae bloom.

There is also the problem of allocation: who gets to say who should get the water? You only have to look at the Murray Darling Plan, which has turned into a nice deep trough for National Party donors and the politicians they subsidise, to understand this.

Water speculation is flourishing while those downstream watch their river systems die.

There are those championing various desalination operations, which pump the processed sea-water inland. But desalination is hugely expensive and uses a lot of electricity.

Furthermore, there has been little thought put into where the highly salty brine byproduct of desalination is dumped. It is toxic to sea ecosystems and toxic to store on land or pump into water tables underground.

Solutions

What are the real solutions to assist farmers survive climate disasters and boost their farm's ability to survive droughts?

As conventional crops get harder to grow, we have to reassess what grows without inputs in these dry conditions and work out how we can eat it.

Drought resilience also requires early de-stocking of livestock.

This does not stop the feral animals or huge mobs of starving kangaroos moving in to strip the ground then starve slowly to death. A national feral animal harvest industry not only converts pests (and plague-proportion kangaroos) into food, fibre and fertiliser, but helps keep ground cover.

If we do not want to eat these animals, we can export them to those who will if we build more regional and mobile abattoirs and processing units to either freeze the meat or dry it. This makes dealing with feral pests and reducing kangaroo numbers a supplement to farmers' incomes instead of a financial burden.


We need to immediately stop poisoning precious water by mining coal and unconventional gas, and switch to renewable energy sources. Subsidising the building of solar and wind farms, and battery storage, on volunteer farmers' properties will afford them extra income.

(Panels that are high enough off the ground for the stock to graze underneath are also a handy source of summer shade in heat waves for crops.)

As our only dependable water is artesian, we should support the Clean Water Manifesto. We should vote for candidates who commit to its call to enforce section 100 of the Constitution and immediately stop the operations of, and prosecute for all rehabilitation expenses, any company poisoning or wasting water, along with any politicians who allow them to do so.

Those living in urban areas should also take more responsibility for their water usage and waste. This would be helped along if governments subsidised the installation of tanks and water filters, along with solar roofs (which are now cheaper than some conventional options) and other solar surfaces on public structures to generate electricity.

And why not push for policies that encourage farms in green belts of bushland around urban areas, instead of endlessly expanding suburbia? What about recycling sewage into soil humus?

Make cities go up or down, like giant termite mounds, rather than endlessly expanding them to cover our best farming soils. And encourage people to buy food produced by regenerative farming methods that help our soils store water and carbon, rather than by industrial and factory farming which strip the land of both.


These are the sorts of changes we could make if political parties were not blindsided by corporate donations from those profiting from the present, terrible, situation.

Most farmers are land managers, who are doing a job in the public interest that needs to be done whether food is produced or not. They need support to make these changes.

[Elena Garcia manages marginal forest and grasslands with cattle and is a co-author of Sustainable Agriculture versus Corporate Greed.]

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