Drought, flood and a whole lot else: the lived experience of farm households

How do farmers cope with the cycle of floods and droughts? recoverling/Flickr

It has been a summer of flooding for farmers in northeast Victoria and NSW. Reporters talk about the effect on crops, pastures and yields. But what about the effect on farming households? How do they cope with these severe weather events? We can get an insight from research into similar experiences in northwest Victoria in 2011.

The recently launched report “Critical Breaking Point? The effects of climate variability, climate change and other pressures on farm households” is a detailed picture of the diverse and far-reaching influence of the recent drought and extreme wet on farm households in the Wimmera-Mallee region of Victoria".

While results are diverse, the effect of the drought can be summarised as the erosion of reserves. Many businesses had adopted a range of valuable drought-proofing techniques. But virtually all reported that the long stretch of dry and drought years (more than 15 years in some cases) had eroded not only their financial reserves, but their physical reserves or capital (with lost soil fertility and failing equipment) and their social or personal reserves (they were suffering from reduced social interaction and demoralisation).

As one woman explained:

We lost confidence more than anything. We actually lost confidence in our ability to make the right decision, because everything we seemed to do was wrong […] in the end it didn’t matter what we seemed to be doing. We’d say “are we making the right decision here?” We just lost confidence.

By 2010, many farm businesses and households were in a relatively precarious position. The financial and mental risks inevitably involved in gearing up for the season that year were accentuated by the financial and mental strain under which many were already labouring.

As the season unfolded, their commitment began to be rewarded. Conditions were favourable: more favourable than they had been for a very long time. Hopes began to gather as rain fell in an uncommonly abundant and timely fashion. Many read the signs and decided to go for it, putting in more crops.

…and then the locusts appeared. Andrew Kneebone

Then locusts appeared, young ones proliferating among the plentiful foliage and spreading down through the Mallee into the Wimmera. For most, disaster was averted as farmers responded aggressively, investing weeks and considerable resources into monitoring and spraying the locusts as they appeared. For most, a bumper harvest – a record-breaking harvest – continued to beckon. So too did a bumper income.

Although the dollar was strong, prices were, unusually, on farmers’ side and began to soar. People began to allow themselves rough mental calculations of the financial recovery they would enjoy, tempered by the substantial amount many had invested throughout the year.

All that was needed for them to cash in was for the heavy, mature grain heads to ripen ready for harvest. A stretch of warm, dry weather of the sort so regularly experienced in previous years was required.

What arrived instead was rain: lots and lots of rain. It was patchy, so not all were affected and some had their longed for bumper year. As one woman explained:

This year came just in time […] Things are now much better but not good. We are on our way back but have a long way to still go.

By bringing longed for water, the rain also led to some jubilation. But for the many with promising, expensive crops still in the fields the immediate response was more disbelief and panic than celebration. Grain quality deteriorated rapidly under a series of heavy rainfall events.

Some farmers responded by quickly beginning harvest, doing their best among the difficult wet conditions, stopping and starting as conditions fluctuated. Others decided to wait for the crops to dry out, desperate to be rewarded for the top-quality product they had grown and perhaps disbelieving that such unusual rain would occur again. It seemed to work and drying began, but then more rain fell.

Flooding made it hard to transport crops that had been harvested. AAP

Increasing numbers of farmers decided to harvest immediately to save what they could. But the conditions for harvest deteriorated together with the grain quality. Contractors were quickly booked out. Neighbours helped each other as people worked day and night, fighting equipment failures caused by the wet and waiting impatiently in long queues at the local silos to unload each truck.

As the water accumulated, many of the huge crops sitting out in the paddocks simply became un-harvestable. Large areas of pasture were ruined.

This was especially the case for those who copped not only the local rainfall, but the results of the unprecedented falls further north. Any farmers near (or even not so near) water courses – including old water courses barely noticed or forgotten for years – found themselves fighting the more immediate challenge of flood waters spilling out of their local area or the broader catchment. Roads were cut off and harvesting equipment, trucks, houses and stock stranded. So too were vast areas of promising crops.

The rain brought a long series of flow-on effects: months of repairing fences and equipment; managing a proliferation of pests, weeds and disease, including flyblown sheep; the threat of locusts returning. These tasks were compounded by the need to work around damaged and closed roads, maintain existing off-farm work commitments, and cope with foregone holidays and rest.

And farmers had to rapidly prepare for the 2011 season, given the promise of soil moisture and the sense that the longed for recovery year may finally arrive if people could get ready in time.

In the aftermath, some people were shell-shocked by the magnitude of the losses they had suffered and the strange timing and manner in which they had occurred. Others were ebullient with the realisation that “it could rain again”.

Some farmers were shellshocked. AAP

In some cases this was accentuated by the belief that the rains proved wrong the unwelcome messages about climate change (misinterpreted as a constant drying). The strangeness of the weather was for others further evidence that something is indeed happening to the climate.

Overall, farm households became more aware of the potential for extreme variability, and have accommodated it as a piece of farming lore.

Extreme conditions like drought and flood reveal the strengths and weaknesses of existing systems. Positives such as previously unknown depths of personal resilience or conservative cropping choices were brought to the fore.

Likewise, negatives such as the vulnerability of existing business strategies to unexpected downturns or dependence on road and train infrastructure for off-farm work or grain sales were also bleakly exposed.

The longitudinal nature of the research also challenged ideas of what is positive or negative, with different system characteristics performing differently under different conditions. While some drought adaptations were valuable in increasing resilience to dryness and related loss income, some also inadvertently worsened the impact of the extreme wet. For example, because of their off-farm employment some people had to drive vast distances to avoid closed roads, while sheep (a popular insurance against drought-induced crop failure) created difficulties with lost fencing and flystrike.

The growing awareness of the need for a systemic and dynamic perspective among many farming individuals represents an important adaptation; one as valuable as the popularly promoted adoption of “drought-proofing” techniques.

This research was commissioned by the non-profit farming organisation Birchip Cropping Group and sponsored most recently by the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform Australia.