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The Milk House: Dry times Down Under

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 September 2019

In case you missed it, recently there was the Tibooburra Butchering and Golf Day in New South Wales, Australia. Over 150 people gathered to tee off at the state’s only desert golf course, followed by watching a live demonstration on cutting up beef.

Instead of grass, the fairway consisted of only brown dirt, with the tees placed on artificial mats. The course hadn’t been used in 20 years, and cattle had to be chased out of the clubhouse. Every swing brought a cloud of dust that drifted over the landscape. Still, by all accounts it was a success, providing the only thing the community had to offer local farmers: a distraction.

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Earlier this year, climatologists declared that the Murray-Darling Basin in New South Wales – one of the major agricultural regions of Australia – is now experiencing its worst drought in recorded history. Three years into a continually worsening dry spell, the continent is predicted to see a 23% reduction in crops this year and a 17% increase in animal slaughter. Most farmers in the heavily affected areas have already culled more than half of their livestock population because they could not find enough feed or water to sustain them. Some have eliminated them entirely.

The images associated with the drought are gruesome and, at best, include gaunt cattle and frustrated farmers. Some farmers have had to dig pits for the carcasses of sheep or cattle that died in the heat, as nine out of 10 of Australia’s hottest summers have occurred since 2015. Sometimes dehydrated livestock wander into dried river basins and get stuck in the mud, where they have been known to have their eyes pecked out by crows or been eaten by giant monitor lizards. Even worse than stumbling upon such a scene is knowing there doesn’t appear to be any rain in sight.

Australia is no stranger to drought. Since 1860, when significant meteorological data was first recorded, the continent has, on average, experienced a significant drought every 18 years. Some of the worst examples include the Federation Drought (1891-1903), occurring when Australia first became a commonwealth, and the Millennium Drought (1996-2009) at the turn of the century.

Warm conditions in the Indian and Pacific oceans leads to less rainfall during the wet monsoon seasons, all of which is exacerbated by global climate change. The hot temperatures evaporate water quicker, making plants less water-efficient. In addition, livestock and wildlife need to drink more fluids in hot weather, further stressing water supplies. Droughts are getting worse and more frequent in Australia, threatening the long-term sustainability of agriculture on the continent.

Under these conditions, suicides among the Australian rural population have increased. Like farmers anywhere, they tend to define themselves by what they do. As their farms struggle, so do they. The pressures brought about by the drought have been taking their toll. Recently, the importance of mental health has become a prominent part of the conversation in agricultural communities.

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Farm accountants serving in the rural areas are now receiving mental health first aid training in order to help their clients cope with emotional stress. While they are not expected to give counseling or act as psychologists, they are being asked to participate in useful dialogues, should the farmer initiate them, and be able to point to resources from which the farmer might receive assistance.

Perhaps one reassuring byproduct of these present difficulties in Australia is how local communities have come together to support their farmers. While the Tibooburra Butchering and Golf Day may seem like a pointless event while farmers are busy trying to keep their livestock alive, it instead brought levity in stressful times. The people of Tibooburra couldn’t make it rain, but they could offer a diversion.

An organization called Drought Angels organizes Rural Days Off (RDO) events, inviting farmers to free lunches, massages, haircuts and “goody bags” containing hay and dog food. These occasions are intended to remind farmers that they are not alone but, instead, are part of a community that values them. Other charities, such as Buy A Bale, try to provide hay and water directly to farmers through outside donations.

No one knows how long Australia will go without rain. What is sure, however, is that droughts like this one will be continue to become more frequent and increase in their severity. This is part of a global shift in climate that is affecting agriculture around the world in one form or another. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has reported that while some regions will receive more favorable growing seasons, others will eventually experience too much or too little rainfall. Weather will continue to become more extreme and unpredictable across the planet. As for Australia in particular, their hopes of supportable long-term agriculture may one day dry up entirely.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the son of a former dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer.

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