Opinion: Five things you need to know about drought

As both a farmer and a journalist, it’s been frankly frustrating to watch the national media coverage of what has been a tough and, for some, devastating natural disaster.

Let me say from the outset there is no easy fix for drought. No government assistance package or media campaign can make it rain and in the end, that’s the only way to end a drought.

While the outpouring of support for farmers has been largely welcome, most farmers would trade the kindness in a heartbeat for a better understanding of what they do, year in, year out.

Farmers yearn for a better connection with the wider Australian public.

Yes, the business of farming makes you more practical about death. But equally, it makes you more respectful of life.

But we don’t want that connection to be based on sympathy generated because of images of starving stock and failing crops. That’s not a real reflection of our industry nor our way of life.

Drought is brutal business and there’s no doubt some people will lose their livelihoods simply because of factors outside of their control. It’s not fair but that’s the reality of most small businesses - not just farming.

So what do farmers want the rest of Australia to know about their industry and their businesses?

Here’s what I think.

  1. Stock deaths are not the norm - even in a drought. While some circumstances may unfortunately lead to stock deaths during drought (such as stock getting bogged in dams that are drying up) most farmers won’t lose any stock to starvation during this drought. The vast majority of livestock producers closely monitor their feed supplies and will begin selling stock long before they become too weak. 
  2. Your farmers are world class. Despite the many production challenges around drought, most farmers are still producing top quality food and fibre. It’s no cliche - your farmers are among the smartest, most progressive and sustainable in the world. Be proud of them. We have learned much from recent droughts and become far smarter in our grazing, cropping and water management. 
  3. The majority of farm businesses are still going ok financially. Sure it’s no boom time but many of our big commodities like lamb, wheat and wool have enjoyed record or near prices this year. Others like beef are also at historically high levels while grain and chickpeas are traveling ok too. Those high prices are no accident. They are the result of careful planning and hard work from our peak lobby groups, funded by levies paid by farmers, and a testament to the quality of the food and fibre we produce. Unlike some other droughts, these prices are helping to offset increases in production costs, such as higher fodder bills. 
  4. Farmers care deeply about animal welfare. The messages we get about farmers not caring for animals completely confuse us. Yes, the business of farming makes you more practical about death. But equally, it makes you more respectful of life. Farmers and those within our supply chains have made some great strides in animal welfare in recent years.  In markets such as live exports, Australia truly leads the world. You might not believe that if you had seen the 60 Minutes report on live sheep exports earlier this year but it’s a fact. Not many other countries do it as well as we do. The public and media are right to hold farmers and live exporters to account. But don’t let the few bad examples become your only reference point for debate.
  5. Please inform yourselves before you form an opinion. Issues like the use of glyphosate and tree clearing are perfect examples of where debate, and sometimes policy, has been hijacked by those with the least experience of the subject. Most farmers are happy to respect others’ opinions if they are based on fact, not emotion. So do some research - ask farmers some questions and become informed before you speak out. At the moment, it seems the debate on many issues is being driven not by science or common sense but by ideology.

Finally, please know we are deeply grateful for the help you’ve sent to those who need it. I may come under some fire for this editorial but the purpose is not to criticise the work that has been done for farmers in need. The purpose is simply to highlight the tremendous work Australian farmers do, every day, drought or no drought.