Getting to Know our Region’s Broad Acre Farmers 

In November and December 2021, friend of NACC NRM, Rachel Mason, and our Sustainable Agriculture Project Officer Anna, interviewed 72 broad acre farmers in the City of Greater Geraldton, and Shires of Chapman Valley and Northampton as part of the Regional Drought Resilience Plan.

The interviews were conducted with the aim of documenting farmers’ personal experiences with drought and the effect it had on themselves, their businesses, and their wider community. The results from Rachel and Anna’s interviews will be used to inform the Regional Drought Resilience Plan (RDRP) that NACC NRM is currently developing in partnership with the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) and the Mid West Development Commission.

The farmers they interviewed ranged between 20 – 70+ years. Most of them were between 40 to 60 years old (64%), with roughly 11 to 30 years of experience in the agricultural industry (65%).  The businesses that were owned or managed by the farmers were majority (64%) mixed operations, having both cropping and livestock enterprises. Farm sizes ranged from 1,200 ha to 26,000 ha. Most of the farms were 1,200 to 5,000 ha in size. As it was harvest season, 41% of the interviews were conducted inside a header!

Out of the 72 farmers, 98% experienced the 2006-2007 drought. Some remember the late 1970’s as being a notable drought period, and others recalled the 2010’s as a sequence of dry seasons. 

The farmers were asked how they would define the difference between a dry season and a drought. The two main responses for this question were that a drought and dry season could be defined by how much rainfall you received or by how much your production was reduced. The clearest explanation that a farmer gave was to split a growing season into 3 parts: the start, middle and finish. If rain is received in all parts, it is a good season. If rain is only received in two of these parts it is a dry season, and if rain is only received in one part it is a drought.

During the 2006-2007 drought the main reoccurring experiences were financial worries and being very conscious of spending money, selling/agisting livestock, buying in livestock feed at very high prices and putting in a reduced cropping or full cropping.

70% of farmers either themselves or had someone in the family go off farm to work during the drought. Working off farm was beneficial for their mental health and it provided an alternative income source.

The biggest concerns of people during this time where their finances, the welfare of their livestock, the amount of soil erosion that was occurring and the viability of the business and if it would survive through the drought.

Most farmers said that the main effect the last major drought had on their community was that people left the area or community. The community shrinking in size took a severe toll on people’s mental health. Small businesses and agricultural support businesses within these communities suffered during this period and young people were not coming back to the family farm.

Majority (85%) of farmers believe they have changed the way they run their businesses now due to their experiences during the drought, and many (30%) remarked that they believe it has made their businesses stronger. Ways that people have changed their practices since the drought include keeping more livestock feed on hand or reducing their stocking rates. Majority (80%) of the farm businesses interviewed East around Mullewa and farms North around Yuna, permanently destocked during the drought or shortly after. The majority (90%) of these businesses never returned to livestock.

The farmers are now more conscious of making risky decisions like having large input costs at seeding or leaving minimal ground cover. Others are more conscious of getting into large amounts of debt. Farmers are dry seeding more of their program or making sure they can seed their program quickly to take advantage of any early rain. Businesses have also become conscious of their soil moisture and water use efficiency, and have adopted practices such as soil amelioration, liming, fallows and perennial pastures.

The main response (60%) for how farming businesses can prepare for droughts was to be financially strong, have minimal debt and lots of cash on hand. Others believed that only the experience of a drought can prepare you for another one. Many of the farmers believed that the government can support a community to prepare for drought is to ensure that community resources and services are maintained and that community events are supported. Many believed having a better understanding of the season outlook early on would make their business more resilient and reduce their risk. Some other common responses were investing in agricultural education and research, and financial support/schemes.

We would like to thank everyone who was involved in these interviews as they were incredibly generous with their time and knowledge, during one of the busiest times of the year for their business. People were also very understanding that we were asking about their experiences during drought, in the best season on record for many businesses. Anna is still out and about currently interviewing horticulture growers and First Nation landholders and allied organisations this January.

For more information, please visit the Future Drought Fund website, DPIRD Drought Resilience Program website, Regional Drought Resilience Planning webpage or contact NACC NRM’s Senior Conservation Planning Officer, Dr Amanda Bourne (0474 652 595; amanda.bourne@nacc.com.au).

This program supported by DPIRD, through funding from the Australian Government’s Future Drought Fund.

Anna Cornell – Sustainable Agriculture Project Officer

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1 comment

Great snapshot you’ve captured there Anna. Well done. I particularly like the largest slice of the pie feedback in your question regarding what could governments do to support the community to prepare for future droughts? 31% responded:Supporting community infrastructure, services & events. Personally I’d love to read more info on the dynamics of this concept, examples of what previously projects with this aim looked like at the interface between govt & community, see or read more about examples of dynamic approaches, how to bring a variety of service providers together to chase a common goal. Grass roots community development upward approaches. Thanks for the great read.

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