Farming the land of drought
| Photography: Brook Mitchell |
“In Australia farmers joke that every drought is the worst one anyone has ever experienced, but the general consensus is that the current one really is as bad as it gets. Ambrose Doolan’s family have been farming the same patch of land since the 1800s, each generation has kept personal records of rainfall and he says that this is the worst drought they have ever recorded, with no real rain for two years.
“Farming here is on a whole different scale – you are talking about huge properties covering thousands of acres. These places are so big they can have their own microclimates, so the situation can vary from one property to the next. I had a vision of everyone in the countryside being one big happy family and all helping each other out – and the families I photographed got on with each other well enough. But it’s not always like that – your neighbour is also your competitor and the money’s drying up along with the land. One farmer told me he hoped a rival went under. It would mean one less competitor for him.
“These are tough people. Most farmers, particularly in Australia, are pretty stoic; traditionally they don’t talk about their problems. I was surprised when I got out there just how open they were about needing help. I think for them to open up the way they did and let me see just how bad things are says a lot about how dire the situation really is.”
“You have to drive 20 kilometres off the highway just to get to the gate of the Taylors’ property. It is then another 15 minutes’ drive on dirt roads to get to the weatherboard shack on the top of a dusty hill where they live. It’s pretty old-fashioned, but I’ve never met a warmer family.
“The father, Robert, has taken on work shearing at a different farm as they need the money, so the mum, Jessica, is pretty much running the family farm on her own while looking after their four kids. It’s a tough existence, but I was amazed at how happy they seemed despite the worry.
“The bones of dead livestock have become a common sight on the Taylor family farm and towards the end of the tour one of the kids, Harry, ran off saying ‘there’s my monster hat’ and picked up a skull and held it over his face. It was a bit of light relief on what had been a tough day.
“The Taylors used to have six reservoirs on their property, but now only one has any water left in it and they can’t use that because it’s full of silt and would be toxic for the cattle. Without any water left on the property they’re having to pay to have people bring it in using a tanker.
“The family has been on the land for four generations and they don’t want to move, but you can tell the parents are struggling and might not have any choice. When Harry turned six recently he said he wanted rain for his birthday. It didn’t come.”
“Coral Jerry is an incredible lady. She’s 80 years old and has lived on the same property all her life. Her husband of 55 years passed away in 2015 and she’s been on her own there ever since. Her sons come up from the township every day to help her run the farm, but at night she’s there by herself. I arrived there at first light and she bounded out of the house and said ‘right, let’s go’. She has a straighter back than I do.
“The ewes on Coral’s farm can’t produce enough milk so their lambs need to be fed by hand or they’ll die. It’s almost a full-time job: there are around 40 lambs that need to be fed with formula day and night. It’s a constant process to keep them all alive. Coral was tired and stressed, but still waking in the middle of the night to feed these little lambs. I think it shows how much the farmers care for their animals. Even if they are going to end up in the slaughterhouse, they don’t want them to suffer.
“In August the government announced it had set aside a further A$140m (£80m) million to help farmers survive the drought, bringing the total amount of government funding to A$576 million (£330m). It’s a fairly significant amount of money and a lot of it is being offered to the farmers in the form of interest-free loans. Many people were reluctant to take on more debt, but the Jerrys were applying because they would go under otherwise. The relief packages have caused a lot of controversy across the country – a lot of people are arguing that farming is a business like any other. If it’s not sustainable then why does the government keep helping it out?
“Coral was also getting some help from Buy a Bale, a charity through which people can donate food for drought-stricken animals, but it’s not enough. The Jerrys’ farm was the most upsetting to shoot. The animals looked so thin and many were on their last legs. People had told me to prepare myself, that it was going to be worse than anything I’d seen before, it was.”
“The Jerrys and the Taylors had offloaded as much stock as they could, selling animals that were ready for slaughter even if it meant accepting a reduced rate as they were still small. The Doolans, however, are gambling on holding on to their cattle until they are fully grown. Ambrose, who runs the farm, had the largest operation of anyone I met. He’s got a couple of thousand cattle over 10,000 acres and he has to feed them every day by shipping in food from up to 400 miles away. He didn’t want to tell me the cost, but it must be astronomical. It is a massive risk, because if it doesn’t rain it’s not sustainable and he’s going to have to sell the cows off at poor prices anyway.
“You can see the strain all this is placing on the guy. He’s got a couple of generations’ worth of savings tied up in the farm; his kids have left their jobs in the city to come back home to help him out and he has literally bet the farm on it raining within six months.
“June 2018 was Australia’s driest month since 2002 and this September was the driest September on record. Most of these shots were taken during winter and in spring there was some rain, but not enough. When I photographed the local town of Coonabarabran’s reservoir in June it was at 22 percent capacity. On 1st November it was at 21 percent and that water is mostly unusable.
“Despite the drought, most of the people I spoke with didn’t believe climate change was a factor. I think it’s a bit of denial because they don’t want to consider that [if drought becomes the norm] they might have to do something else. One person I spoke to was talking about using his land for wind turbines or solar panels instead of farming, but most have known this way of life for generations and don’t want to give it up. You’re talking about people whose families have been living in the same house for more than 100 years, so it’s very difficult for them to picture a life where they’re not doing this. They are just getting their heads down and hoping there’s a change in the weather. There’s a saying out there that ‘you’re just one day closer to rain.’ But nobody knows how many more days they can wait.”
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