As foreshadowed in my previous column, I have just had a week in Japan, and to get there I caught a daytime flight which gave me a bird’s-eye view of drought-racked eastern Australia.
Needless to say, it was a depressing panorama of parched, bare and largely waterless land, unrelieved by any real agricultural greenery until we reached the coastal hinterland of North Queensland.
Malcolm Turnbull has characterised this drought as being the worst since that of 1965, although he said he had no memories of that one because he was too young.
I can remember it, because I was at Brewarrina in an agency branch office, and we were bringing lucerne hay from Tocumwal and wheat from AWB silos to keep clients’ stock alive. No cropping there then.
But there are big differences between the drought of ’65 and this one. For one thing, farms today are bigger, and better resourced, following the rationalisations and shake-outs of the 1970s and ‘80s. Also, the people running the farms are by and large better trained, more businesslike in their management approach and more environmentally aware than their 1960s forebears.
And most significantly, livestock producers today know that whatever sheep or cattle they can nurse through this drought will amply reward them when it’s over, as demand for our wool and meat is rock-solid.
In 1965, by way of contrast, the wool industry was in turmoil and our export beef was only good for United States hamburger mince. Not that these facts are any comfort to graziers now confronted daily by hungry animals, shrinking dams and bare paddocks, and running out of options for sourcing fodder.
What makes this drought so severe is the rapidity with which it took hold, and the scale of its geographic footprint. At least it comes on the heels of several good seasons for most of NSW, which has enabled prudent managers to divert money into farm management deposits (a facility not available in 1965).
But for stockowners the pain of this drought is not just about money; it’s about what to do next, in a situation where agistment and fodder reserves have all but dried up across the whole of eastern Australia.
This week’s mercy convoy of trailer-loads of hay from Western Australia provides perhaps a foretaste of what is to come, if the drought continues.
There could well be a bigger role for Canberra in making fodder available from far-flung sources, given the importance to the nation of preserving our livestock breeding base.
In light of that, it was nothing short of extraordinary to hear Turnbull last week announce a $444 million handout to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, for environmental research of no pressing urgency. Surely that money would have been better held in reserve against the future demands of this very here-and-now drought!
- Peter Austin