Phillip O'Neill | Drought no longer news but farmer pain persists

TORTURE: Drought is now no longer a newsworthy item and farmers are expected to drought-proof their properties rather than receive government support.
TORTURE: Drought is now no longer a newsworthy item and farmers are expected to drought-proof their properties rather than receive government support.

Childrens’ books that tell the story of a year on the farm are a way of teaching city kids about the seasons, how the weather changes across a year and how this affects what is done on the land. The farm animals are cute. Daily life has enjoyable, predictable patterns. There are jobs to do and places to be at different times of the day. The rhythm of farming life is secure and satisfying.

We live at a time of mass urbanisation. For kids growing up in the city, increasingly in air-conditioned, multi-storey apartments, a story about farm life is a charmer.

However, many of the realities of farming are omitted from childrens’ books: rising costs, mean banks, dodgy telecommunications, pot-holed roads and evil supermarket buyers, for instance.

Avoided too is reference to drought, farming’s slow torture.

Drive through the Hunter and you’ll see the cruelty of drought up close. Winter rain didn’t fall in the valley meaning ground water was not replenished after last summer’s scorching heat. Then early summer days above 40 degrees Celsius stripped away the last soil moisture. The heat persists and the rains won’t come.

Hunter vignerons have taken advantage of a sunny, low-humidity harvest. Winemakers are happy with their early pick, but other croppers and graziers stare at the heavens in dismay.

The Bureau of Meteorology currently classifies most of the Hunter as experiencing a 1-in-10-year rainfall deficiency, with the Hunter’s northern and southern edges experiencing 1-in-20-year deficiency. Merriwa, for instance, has only received 56 per cent of its usual rainfall since April last year. Dungog fares worse with only 50 per cent.  Even Newcastle’s gardens are thirsty with Nobbys receiving only two-thirds of average rainfall since last autumn.

We live on a continent where the absence of rain is nothing new. What is new, however, is how little coverage the mainstream media give to drought. There are two reasons for this neglect.

One is pretty straight forward. Drought isn’t an official thing anymore, so there’s no press release from a minister or government department to announce its arrival. In the past, there was a formula for classifying an area as being in drought. Farmers in a drought-declared district were given access to emergency relief funds and to low-cost finance. Now governments take a longer-term view. Farmers are expected to drought-proof their properties and improve farming practices to minimise the damage that comes with dry spells. Instead of dishing out cash, financial assistance is steered to land modification investments and farm management training – which makes sense given the recurring nature of drought in Australia.

The other reason why we hear so little about drought is Australia’s pre-occupation with urban living. The 21st century urban Australian sees and hears nothing of the rhythms of farming life, nor of jolts when drought descends.

Urban life is different. The daily rhythm of a city recurs, 24/7. Shopping malls are constantly cool. Supermarkets have annihilated seasonal availability. Processed, packaged and take-out meals strip away the idea that food is grown and comes from an actual place. And city dwellers are tuned into rolling news on their smart phones, staring at the most dramatic event of the hour.

But the slow pain of drought in the countryside: no story there.

Phillip O’Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University.

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