What is so different this time round? Why has the proverbial hit the fan across such a wide area of Eastern Australia from NW Queensland to SE New South Wales. As you can see from the graph of our Bloodwood rainfall, we are going through a dry period in what is normally the dress circle of agriculture around Orange. It’s not quite as dire as the millennium drought yet, but the rainfall trends are similarly worrisome.
But somehow, this time round, it feels different. The totals only tell part of the story. There’s an understanding in conventional agriculture of effective rainfall. A fall of 12 mm (half an inch in the old money) is considered effective. If I look at rainfall from January 1st 2016 to 8th August 2016, I see 96 rain days and on 30 of them (31.25%) we received 12 mm or more. If I look at this year’s corresponding figures, I see we have had 56 rain days and only 10 (17.8%) were effective falls. In our most recent dry year in 2013, the corresponding period shows 78 rain days with 14 (17.5%) effective including a registration record of 110mm on 1st March 2013. Combine this with an average temperature for the corresponding period in 2013 of 14.2C; 2016 of 14.4C and 2018 of 14.7C and the temperature trends are similarly worrisome. If we look at the annualised average temperatures even since 2012, the worrisome trend remains.
What does this all mean for we frogs in our worrisomely warming pots out here in agricultural Australia? At an accelerating pace over the last couple of generations, traditional agriculture has transmogrified into agribusiness. The number of family farms has dropped by 70% over the last 70 years and this is another trend which is accelerating. Unlike traditional family farms, large agribusiness, with its reliance on capital markets and shareholder dividends exists exclusively for profit. They are an efficient and dominant part of agriculture across Australia and depend on maximum exploitation of our commons; i.e. our natural environmental capital for continued financial success. But natural systems are not machines. There are limits in environmental systems which, when stretched beyond their breaking point means the entire system collapses. Increased temperature and concomitant evaporation rates at a time of decreasing effective rainfall and an ever increasing need to extract even more dollars from our natural environment means something has to give.
So what can be done about it all. For better or worse, Australian agriculture is a market based activity. In the trickle down mentality of a market based economy, prices of goods and services are determined in a free price system. In agriculture, the environment should be a significant component of the price of this exchange. Until we accept costs of natural capital in everything we do in the agricultural sector, the free market is a sham. The free market says farmers in extremis through drought should simply go out of business and this will allow a more efficient enterprise to take over the asset. The sight of farming families, (and it is always farming families not agribusiness organisations) in despair every night on our TV’s pulls at the heart and purse strings of voting public and politician alike. As of writing this, the NSW Government has allocated one billion dollars to this drought relief effort. Add to this the Queensland and Commonwealth support and this figure balloons. With the addition of all the very generous community derived hay drives and donations and we’re talking very serious amounts of cash. All for a good cause you say? Well, unless we change agriculture this will all happen again. We, as customers of farmers need to pay the real cost of our kilo of beef or broccoli and this increase in price needs to go directly to the producer. For the sake of the proposition, building in all the natural costs in your food shopping and paying $20/kilo instead of $10 would mean more money in farmer’s pockets and little need for taxpayers subsidies during droughts. As taxpayers, we are all paying the real cost of producing our food through our taxes providing drought subsidies, so why not operate a true market taking into account the natural capital losses and help solve this increasingly common rural disaster? This would help ease the pressure on our environment and give our struggling farming families back some of their dignity.