High and dry: A look inside South Australia’s drought woes

A kangaroo carcass lies on a South Australian farm, the victim of yet another regional drought (Image Source: Riley Walter).

By Riley Walter | @rileywalter_

“Push ‘em up, Flossy! Get ‘round ‘em!”

Floss the red kelpie is excited.

It’s her first chance to herd sheep in weeks, far too long for any working dog, and the calls of her owner are music to her pricked up ears.

She works the dozen or so merino sheep around like puppets, nudging them towards the holding pens, trotting at a leisurely pace, she’s savouring the moment.

In normal circumstances, Floss would work all day, moving sheep from paddock to paddock, perched on the front of the farm motorbike.

But these aren’t normal circumstances.

This is drought.

At the farm Floss calls home, Amelia Park, nestled in South Australia’s Mid North, stock numbers have diminished substantially on the back of some of the poorest seasons in recorded history, down as much as 80 per cent from previous years.

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Floss the red kelpie has been unable to flex her muscles this drought season (Image Source: Riley Walter).

Her owner and fourth generation Amelia Park farmer, Todd Casey, knows all too well that drought is “part of the deal” when it comes to farming, but this is admittedly one of the toughest stretches he can remember.

Todd has been back on the family farm for a couple of years now after spending most of the last decade living elsewhere in South Australia, as well as in the United States.

His family’s 12,500 acre property sits north-east of Goyder’s Line, a 150-year-old line in the sand, so to speak, drawn by Surveyor-General George Goyder in 1865 to separate the “good” farming land from the “marginal”.

Ever since then, it’s been the difference between success and survival.

The contrast between one side of Goyder’s Line to the other is so stark it’s as if a switch is flipped when you cross it.

The lush green paddocks south of the line quickly transform into bare, rocky expanses of red dirt that closer resemble images of Mars than acreage suitable to support livestock.

So why would anyone knowingly risk their livelihood by laying roots on the northern side of Goyder’s?

Moreover, why would they choose a career in which they can only control a fraction of the variables on which their income depends?

Because farming is a game of fortune as much as it is one of knowledge and resilience, and when it pays off, the reward can be worth the risk.

“That’s the thing with farmers, we’re gamblers,” Todd tells me when we chat over the phone.

He’s in fairly high spirits.

The months of May and June brought the most rain that Amelia Park has seen all year by a long way.

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Todd Casey checks the rain gauge at Amelia Park following a 7.5 millimetre rainfall in early July (Image Source: Riley Walter).

A 22 millimetre downpour on June 12 was a long-awaited relief for Todd, and a much-needed drink for the countryside, which is now showing signs of life as a tinge of green begins to spread across the depleted paddocks.

Though it’s still not enough for the drought to be considered broken; at the halfway mark of the year, the Casey property has recorded only a third of the 300 millimetres of rainfall it needs to be considered as having an average year.

This is because the first four months of 2019 saw just 28.2 millimetres in total, with rain falling on just six days.

It’s the “hit and miss” seasons that led Todd’s father, John Casey, to abandon broad-acre grain farming, and if he’d made the decision 20 years earlier, Todd tells me, his parents would have had a more than comfortable “nest egg” behind them—hindsight is a beautiful thing.

For that reason, it’s unlikely Todd will follow in his father’s footsteps into the cereal cropping game.

The drought has had such an impact on John this time around that even staying at the property while his son was away on holiday earlier in the year was too much to bear.

That says a lot about a man who has withstood the worst Mother Nature has thrown at him during a lifetime on the land.

About an hour further north of Amelia Park, the narrative is much the same for Nicole Lewis (Todd’s partner) and her family, whose 130,000 acre station, Panaramitee, has received almost as little rainfall as ever before.

Compared to properties like Amelia Park, Panaramitee is a desert.

Just 50 millimetres of rain has fallen there, one-sixth of what would be expected in an average season, and the stock numbers, like Amelia Park, have suffered because of it.

Over the last two years or so, Nicole’s father and Panaramitee Station manager Paul Lewis estimates that he would have lost at least 1200 sheep, and of those that survive, the amount of wool that they can produce will be down about 40 per cent per sheep.

Paul is currently running about 70 per cent of his average sheep numbers, which, in turn, means he is running at about 70 per cent income.

This drought will continue to affect stock numbers long after the rain returns; his number of lambs is now down to 100, from 3000.

It comes as a result of nowhere near enough flora on the ground to feed the ewes (female sheep) let alone their offspring, and with many producers in the same boat, it’s no wonder the cost of purchasing feed has become a backbreaker for farmers all over the region.

Todd’s nearest neighbour, Leon Clapp, of Ucolta Downs, tells me he has spent somewhere around $60,000 on feeding his sheep this year.

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Neighbours Todd Casey and Leon Clapp discuss all things farming over a cup of coffee (Image Source: Riley Walter).

To put things in perspective, Leon and his wife Maggie have never had to spend that kind of money on feeding their stock.

And, if it wasn’t for the money they set aside during the good years, things may have been much worse for the husband and wife of 35 years.

Even still, Leon estimates they will lose somewhere around $40,000 this year.

Though you wouldn’t know things were tough talking to him.

“What drought? We haven’t seen drought yet”, is Leon’s response when I ask how the recent dry-spell has affected him.

Maybe Leon’s attitude is a product of living alongside drought his entire life, as he tells me he’s seen much worse seasons; or maybe it’s the resilience he’s developed living off the land his entire life, along with his faith that things will turn around.

He and Maggie are deeply religious, as are many farmers of their generation.

It makes sense when you consider that their livelihood depends, almost exclusively, on factors beyond their control.

Faith can’t count for everything though, even someone as devout as Leon knows that.

It’s why years ago he made the decision to concentrate his efforts on livestock as well as cropping.

He says breeding “crossies” (sheep that can be bred for their meat rather than just wool), as well as the world-famous merino, may have been the move that saved him financially,

After the price of Australian wool plummeted in the mid-1990s, Leon looked to diversify his income as a hedge against the effects of drought that those on his side of Goyder’s have become almost accustomed to.

The white Suffolk-cross-merino sheep that he introduced to his property have managed to survive through the harshness of drought mostly because they will eat just about anything.

That pre-naughties drop of wool value is but a distant memory for now, with some farmers still riding the wave of a three-decade high in fleece price, peaking in 2018 at just over $18 per kilogram.

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The price of Australian wool peaked in 2018 on the back of overseas demand (Image Source: Riley Walter).

But to enjoy the benefits of those record numbers, farmers still need to keep their sheep alive, a task where, at the moment, the cons far outweigh the pros for people like Leon and the Casey family.

Producers are faced with two options: continue to wear the costs of feeding stock and hope that the season will turn, or sell off what stock remains to recoup their losses.

The latter is a “band-aid on a bullet wound” solution.

If the conditions improve, and supporting livestock is again viable, farmers would be forced to buy their stock back at a time when livestock prices, much like wool, are close to their summit.

It creates a “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t” scenario, or as Todd puts it, “a double-edged sword”.

And although financial struggles are one of the toughest aspects of living in drought, there are much more severe battles being fought behind closed doors—and brave faces.

About 30 kilometres from Amelia Park, this dry-spell has hit Michael Burford hard, as much in the hip-pocket as it has mentally.

Michael’s station, Merngenia—which was originally meant to be named Mungunya, meaning “big hill”, before a typo in the telegram that would have been sent sometime around 1895 unintentionally rewrote history—is 36,000 acres of saltbush, bluebush and rolling hills just over 40 kilometres from Peterborough.

Merngenia is one of the worst-affected properties in the region, so much so that all of the dams on the station have been left bone-dry for the best part of two years.

The drought has transformed the garden of his home at the end of a snaking nine-kilometre driveway from what he described to me as an “oasis”, into what now looks more like a scaled-down model of the Sahara Desert.

Sheep numbers have been slashed almost in half, lambing rates are down to 10 per cent (from at least 100 per cent), and last year, Michael was forced to let his only worker go when the cost of her salary was no longer affordable.

Mix all of that in with a divorce and losing his father during one of the worst droughts he can remember, and you’ve got a man who has had a tough time of it.

He tries to stay positive though, which he knows is half the battle.

For many farmers, the isolation of living on the land can be one of the hardest parts of the job, and tackling it alone can be a real struggle.

“That’s where a lot of blokes get stuck with it, especially in the hard times, the drought and whatever else is going on…when you’re by yourself, you sort of think about everything a bit too much,” Michael says.

Thankfully, unlike generations passed, Michael has no qualms about discussing mental health in a time where research shows people living in regional and rural areas are at a far greater risk of suicide than those in major cities.

“More help on the ground” is what he thinks is needed to alleviate the pressures that farmers in regional areas face, and while mental health awareness among men is certainly on the rise, there is still much headway to be made into the subject.

But despite the challenges, Michael tells me he isn’t going anywhere; farming is “in his blood”.

It’s what his family has done for 120 years, and it’s what he will continue to do until, he hopes, his sons take over.

He is one of the countless farmers who will continue to live on the land and go about their business as the backbone of Australia’s economy until the last of their days.

There’s one thing I’m told regularly by the farmers I’ve met, and it’s a saying that speaks volumes of their mindset in the adversity of drought.

“We are one day closer to the next rain.”

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