BATHURST BURR: At Picton, near the NSW coast at the prize-winning Country Valley Dairy, about 350 kilometres to the east of Jemalong and 60 km west from Sydney, fifth-generation farmer John Fairley has not had good rain since July 2017. For the first time in five generations the farm’s creek has stopped running.

It was fun, but the weather turned around

“… My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

… There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings …

… And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.”

Poem in October by Dylan Thomas

It was fun.

Water chased our feet, fresh like us, childlike. We took off our shoes, touched it with our bare toes then stepped back as it kept coming towards us, gently persistent – water filling cracks in the ground, then covering the grass as more followed.

Then the water was between us and the farm gate, covering the road. Then, rising up, covering fences.

Then water surrounded the house and us on the hill, the cattle and sheep brought up to be with us on dry land.

Water that became a flood, farms around us under water further than our little eyes could see. At Jemalong. (Just a name, no shops, no village, a small school.)

1956.

When I was six.

The Lachlan River in Australia’s state of NSW had burst its banks for hundreds of kilometres and we at Jemalong, downstream from the town of Forbes, were flooded in.

The ’56 flood stayed on the farms for four months, draining slowly from that flat country. The Sydney Morning Herald said:

Farms become islands – among 181 families were “Michelle Alcorn and her family of four plus three dogs, who are now set to be isolated for the next month after already enduring a week stranded on their farm in Jemalong, 30 kilometres south of Forbes.

Beaut. No school, we thought. Floods were good.

But soon kids on horseback and row boats came to a makeshift school set up in the abandoned old farm house on our hill.

Like so many Lords of the Dry, we played war games on the hill, made bows and arrows from thistle stalks and tree branches.

The Gypsy Moth bi-plane would bank, the pilot would throw out a sugar bag of tinned food, we’d wave, he’d fly on to the next farm to drop more food there.

No money from the farm during this time but I knew nothing of that until years later.  Knew, though, Dad and other farmers had been up nights taking the tie wires off the bottom of the fencing so when the timbers washed down the fences would lift and didn’t bank up and, pressured by floodwaters, break down.

By the next flood farmers on the other side of the river had put up a levee bank to keep floods off their places. This would flood our farms more.

You get three or more weeks warning another flood’s coming, it’s so flat out there.  Forewarned of the next flood, farmers on our side of the river decided to put up their own levee bank before the next flood reached us, a bit higher than the one on the other side.

Some engineers from the council came out and blew it up. (The mayor of the council lived on the other side.)

Farmers on our side fixed it, got out the .303 rifles they’d brought home from the war, whistled up blue cattle dogs and patrolled our bank.

The engineers came out to blow it up again. My Dad, as he told the story, went and sat on it and said, “You can blow it up, but you’ll have to blow me with it.” The bank stayed and that year the other side got flooded and our side didn’t.

After taking the fences up 17 times our parents sold the farm and bought hill country land away up north of the state.

Now I’m 68, a city boy these last 40 years. Dipping my toes in other waters.

Where I live in Sydney, NSW, only half the usual rain has fallen these first six months of 2018. Street trees and plants have died or look poorly. It’s got me thinking back to those Jemalong days.

If the money we make depends on the weather, or on rain to grow crops or feed livestock the weather is our life and we truly live in it.

On a farm, family stories about weather are like the white lines marking driving lanes on a road.

The weather is something farmers steer by, just as a sailor does. To stay inside our farm “lines” is to know where and when to expect rain or water or droughts or pests and what to do about them. So it’s real to a farmer if the weather is unusual, has changed, and is not something remote like research in a university book or government report may be.

I’ve kept talking to farmers. They’re saying the weather’s turned around, is nothing like it was in ’56 or generations ago.

At Picton, nearer the NSW coast at the prize-winning Country Valley Dairy, about 350 kilometres to the east of Jemalong and 60 km west from Sydney, a fifth generation farmer John Fairley has not had good rain since July 2017.

For the first time in five generations the farm’s creek has stopped running.

Several months into the year-long drought Fairley got someone to find springs in the farm creek which silt had blocked up. Six springs were exposed to give cows access to water. A dairy cow drinks around 90 litres of water a day so the 100 cows need around 9000 litres of drinking water a day.

A few months ago, after using up his reserves of cash and grain and stockfeed, extending his overdraft a few times, unable to sow feed crops and importing hay becoming unaffordable, Fairley sat down with his 83-year-old father and his young son and asked the question, “What can we do to stop shutting down the dairy?”

Even if clouds rained their hearts out that meeting day there was nothing to keep the farm going until the rain and sowing produced stockfeed.

The Fairleys came up with an idea they called, “Adopt a cow” and asked people to donate money to feed the cows. Publishing Adopt a Cow on Facebook has so far produced over 500,000 hits, dozens of media stories and has saved Country Valley Dairy farm.

For the last 14 years Country Valley Dairy had provided free milk and yoghurt to local schools, churches and local charities to sell to raise funds, and John found that many decided of their own initiative to donate, too.

“I thought people these days didn’t care so much. What I’ve seen has amazed me.  School kids donated their pocket money, students donated their allowances, and the local charities gave back as much as the dairy has given them over the last 14 years”, Fairley said.

Fairley continues his family practice of spreading composted chook manure on his paddocks.

He is a carbon farmer, dedicated to growing carbon in his farm soil by putting compost on it instead of buying chemical or other fertilizers that don’t grow soil or carbon. “One gram of soil carbon keeps 8 grams of water in my soil”, Fairley told me.

He’s keen to take food waste from chain stores to compost on the farm (Woolworths and Coles say they’ll end food waste this year), but thinks it’s unlikely his farm will be allowed to support this initiative. Fairley understands the NSW Environment Protection Authority has banned farms from composting food waste because of the risk of meat contamination..

Fairley’s farm partnered with Sydney’s Waverley Council and others to take composted food waste from the five restaurantsat the Bondi Pavilion at Bondi Beach.

Each fortnight Fairley would drive his ute 60 or so kilometres to the Pavilion and load it with two tonnes of compost for his paddocks. He asked for no money, just the compost.

The trial to compost the Pavilion’s food waste was initiated by the council, Fairley, myself and others. The trial removed three 660 litre waste bins a week from the Pavilion’s waste stream and prevented two tonnes being carted away in council garbage trucks.

But the council stopped composting the five restaurants’ food waste. It refused to reduce their waste bills and to lose the garbage fee income it was getting from the tenancies they occupied in council buildings. So the council returned the three 660 litre bins, “restored” the old waste stream, kept its income and the restaurant waste now goes to landfill and then to Earth’s atmosphere to join the rest of the decaying food waste, which is changing the way rain falls on farms and cities around Earth:

Without rain to grow stockfeed the farm’s future is now uncertain, its capacity to build reserves of feed and cash for droughts remains in the hands of the clouds.

Fairley told me, “This year for the first time ever we haven’t been able to over-sow the paddocks with rye grass, which is rich in food for the cows. It’s too dry.”

Fairley’s observations of changing weather, drawing on those five generations of previous family farmers, his 83-year-old dad and conversations with other farmers, are similar to other farmers’ stories I’ve heard while researching this story.

Fairley is clear. All of us, city and country folk, have put our hands in the clouds and are mucking them around.

“[After] they put that freeway in at Campbelltown 25 years ago a farmer up there told me it’s hotter and drier at his farm now. All these new roads and suburbs have changed the weather here. They’ve made it hotter. The rains skitter around us, storms go past the Sydney basin and rain we used to get falls out to sea and we’re missing out.”

At Wagga Wagga they’re cutting down the trees (and changing the local climate) 

Further inland, farms around the regional city of Wagga, halfway between the big cities of Melbourne and Sydney are also getting no rain. Last year many farms did not harvest or sow crops, earned no money.

But there are lesson-giving farms out there such as, Berryjerry Station. It fronts the Murrumbidgee River which has a constant flow. An ad to sell the station says reliable water and plenty of it is what makes it a valuable farm:

Excellent situation agriculturally and commercially, with access to markets, grain depots and feedlots, ideally located 33km from Wagga which has multiple flights daily to Sydney and Melbourne and via road is 450km from Melbourne and 490km from Sydney.

Area: 2,169ha (5,362 ac)

Berryjerry Station captures the essence of pastoral and farming life in Australia…

The reliable annual average rainfall of 525mm – 550mm is underpinned with irrigation that has been strategically established utilising Murrumbidgee River general security water of 880 mgl & bore licences of 526 mgl. Centre pivot irrigation covers 323 acres on alluvial soils. With river frontage and 15 bores there is absolute security of water for livestock & irrigation.

The station is heavily treed with five forests shown on the advertising map.

A local told me that each day three double bogie semi-trailers leave the station property for the cities loaded with firewood cut from trees beside the river. Apparently this tree-cutting is approved by the state agency, NSW Forestry.

A blind rider on a galloping horse can see cutting down trees changes the local climate, increases evaporation of groundwater, increases the vulnerability of farm crops to insects.

Berryjerry station map

But with the flowing river water guaranteed(for now)beside it there’s no financial incentive for the owner to keep the trees –  rather, a disincentive.  And the city-bound forestry folk approving the logging get paid from income they earn permitting the logging so they don’t see the water for the trees.

Away from the station and the river’s flowing water, other stations around Wagga also had no rain and did not sow crops last year. Earned no money.

A few hundred kilometres north, a Mudgee farmer by the name of Col Seis told me the story about his property, Winonain 2012.

It shows potential farming solutions to drier times and I wrote this in my book, Sustainable Food:

One night about 19 years ago, Col Seis decided he would not get on his tractor and join his fellow farmers whose tractor lights he could see in the dark as they ploughed their paddocks. ‘It was the hardest thing,’ he told me when we stood in the middle of one of his wheat paddocks. But, he explained, it was the only way he could see by which he could keep his farm going. His farming costs on his farm, Winona, were going up – petrol, fertilisers, pesticides – and his cropping rate and income were going down. As I stood there in the overwhelming summer heat surrounded by his paddocks all I could sense was abundance and a feeling of amazement. His brothers’ farms adjoined and, while his crops were high around my thighs, their crops were barely out of the ground, patchy and sad-looking. White butterflies filled the air, a sign, Col said, of the health of his soil and the many types of insects, birds and little critters now populating his soil and the air above his farm.

While his brothers and most of Australia’s wheat and grain farmers will go around their paddocks about seven to nine times, Col only goes around twice; once to sow and once to harvest. With their heavy tractors the farmers compress the soil, use ploughs to break open all the soil on several occasions, put pesticide into the dirt, and use far more petrol and diesel. But Col’s single tines will cut a narrow 3-5 centimetre wide furrow for the seeds, leaving about 100 centimetres untouched. In this soil the native pastures, often having paused there as seeds for a hundred or more years, will grow strongly in winter while the oats or other grain crop is at its lowest growing phase. These pastures put roots down as deep as a couple of metres. They cool the grain crop during the summer and provide a rich and porous web of holes into which rain will soak and not evaporate. As roots of the pastures die off they create little underground reservoirs to hold rainwater and moisture. Col has invented a pasture harvester and sells the seeds for $60 to $80 a kilogram to other farmers who are turning to carbon farming and wish to restore native pastures to their farms, too.

Berryjerry pivot irrigation

Colin is one of the country’s leading carbon farmers. Data collected by the CSIRO show his farming methods extract greenhouse gas CO2from the atmosphere and increase the carbon content of his soil to improve pastures and grain cropping rates. Using this data Seis estimated in 10 years he sequestered a total of 73,786 tonnes of CO2equivalent, or 7386 tonnes each year. As he only emitted 2200 tons farming, he has a credit of 5186 tonnes of carbon.

Seis has cut the size of his paddocks and rotates his 4000 sheep regularly. This is called, high-density short-duration grazing or pulse grazing. It gives paddocks long periods of rest from grazing and lets the soil take up the natural fertilisers left by the stock and turn that into vegetation, and increases the soil and resilience of the soil.

Despite drought, Seis has enough groundcover to last the dry winter and no need to buy in feed. He can also run two sheep per acre [8100 square metres],double his brothers’ stocking rate.

A one per cent increase in soil carbon means an extra 144,000 litres per hectare water capacity, according to Seis, who has increased his soil carbon from 2.5 to fourpercent, giving him an average of 300,000 litres extra water per hectare.

“It’s like putting your farm under a different rain zone. Carbon farming means your farm comes into drought later and comes out of drought sooner,’ reckons Louisa Kiely, who with her husband, Michael, is a fellow sheep farmer and founder of the lobby group Carbon Coalition.

On the island of Bali, rice growing, bare-footed farmers with almost no machinery are more successful producers than Australian farmers with government forestry and agricultural agencies, boots, Akubras, pivot irrigation and tractors.

Berryjerry fronting the Murrumbidgee river

I saw their inspiring skills when I visited the rice farms in 2010 and wrote about them too, drawing on research into them by:

… an American, Stephen J Lansing, who’d been studying Bali’s rice farmers for over 20 years. From them I discovered that Bali’s rice farms may be the world’s most sustainable food system. Despite our wealth, universities, research, machinery, engineers and experts most of our Australian farms are not their equal. They’re a long way from being as self-repairing.

Here’s why.

The 260,000 rice farms in Bali have renewed their soil and water and maintained production for a thousand years. The farmers have built and maintain a highly engineered and sophisticated irrigation and farming network.

Water runs down several volcanoes through very steep and narrow valleys to the sea. Most of this water passes through the irrigation systems. Some tunnels are three kilometres long and 40 metres below ground level. Some aquaducts are three kilometres long. Modern studies show a continuous minimum flow of over two to five litres a second a hectare, which is maintained each year.

In stark contrast to Australia and most countries where experts, consultants and agricultural businesses dominate food production, Bali farmers own and manage the water and soil with little involvement of government. This, according to Lansing, is one of the key reasons Bali farmers succeed while “modern” western systems are failing; Bali farmers own and manage the resource – they only have themselves to rely on, to plant their food, to manage their water, soil and pests. With self-reliance, it seems, comes more responsibility by the farmers for their actions.

All over Earth changing weather is making it harder to farm and to grow food.

Studies reveal winters to the east of Australia in the islands of New Zealand and on the opposite site of Earth, in the United States are getting shorter.

Winters there are now 100 days less than they were a 100 years ago.

Brett Mullan from the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research found winters there have contracted after comparing data over the last 100 years.

Winter has contracted about equally from both ends of the season, he said.

“I was quite surprised to get essentially the same results as the US – a decline of a month… It will certainly affect things like kiwi fruit production because the north of the country is becoming too warm, they are gradually moving kiwi production south Wintertime is also very important for famers when it kills pests. If it stays too warm pests can reproduce right through the year.”

May I offer some hope, a couple of solutions and some comments about these stories?

Firstly, what I remember as normal in the 1950s is not normal for someone born later, say, 20 years ago. This difference is simply because our sense of what is normal in our physical would depends on our experience of it.

If today was Dylan Thomas’ 30th birthday and were he to walk abroad he would see none of some and far fewer birds and may not be able to say, “My birthday began with the water-Bird and the birds of the winged trees flying my name.”

Since 1970 Britain has lost 90 million wild birds, many are extinct or at a few per cent of their original numbers and about to die out. “It’s catastrophic and that’s what we’ve forgotten – our generation is presiding over an ecological apocalypse and we’ve somehow or other normalised it.”

Similar figures apply to insects and birds around Earth.

Where I live in the City of Sydney blue wrens and willy wagtails are gone or rarely seen.

In Singapore most birds and insects are gone as the city sprays nightly to kill mosquitoes and the spray kills birdlife.

Stories of disappearing weather, soils, farms, insects and birds around Earth are abundant, perhaps in greater numbers than birds and insects in some places.

Secondly, I agree with Fairley about two things. It’s our hands making these new clouds, just as it’s our mouths which drink the milk. We humans have turned clouds around, broken their rainmaking ways with our cities, roads, cars, wasted food.

And, the response by city and country people to the Fairley farm invitation to adopt and feed a cow proves people do care about farmers and their livelihood.

Thirdly, where there are governments selling land, water and resources they have incentives to sell but not to conserve those resources. They are the problem, and have failed us all. Their memories of what is normal are as dry and barren as so much Australian farmland:

For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constantly reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.

The Moth Snowstorm by Michael McCarthy

I place little hope in governments where they have no incentive or mandate to sustain the weather, the soil or water or nature’sinsects and birds.

The government person in a city office selling publicly-owned river and groundwater located hundreds of kilometres from their city desk does not live with the water, the farmers, fish, trees and plants which may be deprived of the water or trees being sold, and, having no neighbour has no emotional or financial incentive to “love thy neighbour”.

The income from the sale of the water goes to fund the government person’s administration, not to sustain the river or the trees, soil and catchments that create or sustain the water.

The money being promised by politicians today to Australian farmers who can’t farm or earn money because there is no rain or water in the ground or rivers will come from outside the land, water or forestry agencies, from our general taxes.

When city-dwelling pollution agencies put a blanket ban on composting food waste they deny farmers who would grow carbon and soil and fail to partner with farmers.

Government agencies and local councils which choose garbage income over turning food waste into soil are stifling a new business potential that would increase farm productivity and stabilise the weather.

Fourthly, there is hope, and some change that may matter for the clouds, farmers and city folk.

The weather agencies are a source of data that is driving change, and are agencies widely used by farmers and city folk as well as by media.

For a terrific, factual explanation of Australia’s widespread drought this year and details of the 2018 winter temperatures, rainfall and water storages see the Bureau of Meteorology’s video Climate and Water Outlook

And farmers, seeing the weather turn against them, may at last be influencing change in some politicians and, critically, in areas of political behaviour, thought and administration which may reduce the damage being done to Earth’s resources.

In Australia, in June 2018, the main party set up to speak for farmers, the National Party, at the instigation of its new Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, agreed with other Australian minister to accept the science of changing weather and to use the words “climate change” in place of “climate variability” which had been insisted upon by its former leader, Barnaby Joyce.  The journalist Phillip Coorey who noted this change commented, “Fundamentally, the Nationals are shifting their attitude, partly because the party’s core constituency – the farmers who know the weather better than most – acknowledge things are not normal anymore.”

Perhaps hope may be found in the simple fact that so many more city and country people today are saying they, too, think the weather has turned around.

Will they, though, vote to change the politicians, government agencies who cause so much destruction to the weather?

Weather agencies publish data that, read closely, tell us we only have a few elections and a few turns left of the Earthbefore farmers’ stories of lost food and water become country-wide stories. I’m with the farmers and Dylan Thomas:

“O may my hearts’ truth

Still be sung

On this high hill in a year’s turning.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who designs, specifies manages systems using water, energy, recycled water, materials and food for houses, units and subdivisions. In 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner Sydney terrace into a sustainable house, which is disconnected from mains water and sewerage and electricity, and is powered by solar energy and rain water. For the last 22 years, with three to four people, the house energy and water bills have been less than $300 a year. Details are in two books, Sustainable House, and, Sustainable Food.Michael offers four-day intensive courses to anyone wishing to achieve low bills living.

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5 replies on “When the rains stop”

  1. Hi Michael,
    Thank you for your sharing…..has motivated me again!
    Have been mulling over soil carbon and the built environment for quite a few years…..I hope to help promote this more as I’m totally with you in seeing this as the number one issue.
    Mark’s comment on stormwater reminds me of the article you wrote on this matter some time ago…..I can’t believe this is still the situation!
    All the best. Peter

  2. Michael, can you believe those same government officials want to make local Council’s like Blacktown buy stormwater that Council wants to harvest! We have demonstrated to them time and again that urbanised areas shed water at 2 to 3 times the rate a rural area does and that this water is well and truly in excess of rural flows and modelled water allocations which pretend the city is pervious. In fact stormwater is so abundant that it is a problem. Councils want to harvest this excess water because it is has so much energy it is ripping the life out of creeks. It is like an enema leaving our creaks squeeky clean. We need this water to help cool our overheated city and keep playing fields green. The irony is that when it does rain, the sheer volume of water generated is a pollutant in its own right. The cost of having to buy a licence kills any such projects. Open, blatant, civil disobedience seems like the only reasonable response to this madness. Ask a Council to buy a Water Access License for $1,000/ML for polluted stormwater destined for the tidal Nepean River while the Minister’s mates sell licences in western NSW where there is no real water for double their recommended valuation.

    The NSW Government promised years ago to write a stormwater harvesting policy and never did. Michael, it is hard to believe that after so long we still battle the unadulterated bullshit. How bad is going to have to get before they wake up?

    Thanks for again igniting some passion!

    Best wishes,

    Mark Liebman

  3. John, thank you for feedback and for your interesting suggestion; food for thought and I’ll think about it. I appreciate the time you’ve taken and will ponder. Work in progress, Michael

  4. There is a financial answer. One that will help farmers save their farms from overexploitation.
    That answer is a monthly stipend from the Federal Government covering all the valuable farmed land in the nation. Someone would have to do the stats to see how much to offer, but the principle is this:
    The Federal Government is Monetary sovereign. It has the constitution making it the monopoly creator of our currency, the Australian dollar. In these dollars the government can never be made bankrupt, except by order from parliament. The government also does not use Tax dollars to fund anything,[long story but true] This means the farmers can get a stipend which will allow them to husband their land, nurture it and restore it to productive good health. No more risky crop planting hoping for rain in a drought. All farmers can be schooled in the best known ways to look after their farms and stop them having to just walk off. Money will be there for basic essentials and to survive droughts and floods. It will be cheap at twice the cost, whatever that is. Nothing to stop it but the political will.!

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