How drought laden farmers are coping in tough times

Categories: On The Farm

For some farmers water is one of the most important commodities, and with drought striking large parts of the United States, Canada, Australia and other parts of the World, the strain for crops to grow is felt. Farmers have to become very creative in the way they manage water resources.


In Victoria’s north-western grain belt, farmers are seizing ways to beat the dry, reports Derrick Krusche.

Standing in a chickpea field on the sprawling plains of Victoria’s Wimmera district, 38-year-old third-generation farmer David Jochinke picks up a clump of dry soil before crushing it into dust, symbolic of an extreme dry spell that has brought back terrible recent memories.

Mr Jochinke, whose 2200-hectare broadacre farm lies just north of Horsham, says he has only seen three good years of rain since taking over in the late 1990s.

This makes him anxious, especially as many farmers in his region are still carrying debt from the so-called Millennium Drought, which gripped the state for more than a decade until 2009, causing widespread crop failures and livestock losses.

The politically active Mr Jochinke, who sits on the board of the National Farmers Federation and lobbies hard for families on the land, says he has revolutionised the way he farms in order to alleviate the effects of drought – in fact, to save his livelihood.

“We’ve tried different crops, we’ve tried different farming systems, we’ve tried different technologies,” he says. “Whether you’re a climate change sceptic or not it doesn’t really matter in my book, because we’ve all changed how we farm to adapt.”

Drought has been an ever-present threat for farmers since European settlement, but now climate experts are cautioning that harsh dry conditions are the new norm, not the exception. Increasingly, farmers are opening to new strategies necessary to protect themselves from this risk while increasing productivity and profitability. Crop diversification, smarter planting, risk information and social media are all playing a role in insulating farmers against the ravages of drought.

Underscoring the message was the hottest October on record, which scorched crops throughout the northwest of the state ahead of this month’s harvest, and led to predictions that the extended dry could slash more than 1 million tonnes from Victoria’s grain harvest.

In response, the State Government announced $30 million in loans for farmers to help cover financial losses, a move welcomed by Victorian Farmers Federation president Peter Tuohey. “A significant proportion of Victoria has fallen within a one-in-10 or one-in-20 year rainfall deficiency, so these loans are extremely timely.”

Mr Jochinke also serves as the vice-president of the non-politically aligned VFF, and recently added his voice to calls for State Government investment in water infrastructure to further bolster parched regions. But the strategies he puts into practice on his own farm at Murra Warra, 30kms north of Horsham, are what farmers can expect to find increasingly necessary in future.

Mr Jochinke says it is hard to determine how much money he has spent — and how much he has saved — as a result of his drought mitigation strategies. It costs him between $400 and $500 per hectare to grow a crop and so losses can compound quickly.

“It is very hard to put a number on it, as our system revolves around water conservation and sustainability,” he says. But the heat wave in October changed everything. “It really has been a kick in the guts. I’ve never experienced anything like this. There’s no way we are even going to get close to breaking even.”

However, the Nuffield Scholar, who graduated dux of the historic Longerenong Agricultural College in 1997, says this year’s losses are unlikely to be as bad as last year due to the measures he has adopted.

With help from a retired farmer and part-time apprentice, Mr Jochinke says he regularly trials new crops to determine whether some varieties fare better in drier conditions.

“Every year, as part of our strategy, we get one tonne of the latest and greatest variety of wheat, barley or even legumes,” he says.  “In 2014, we trialled a barley called Compass. It looked so good that I’ve now switched to that for 50 per cent of my barley this year because that variety performed well in my environment.”

Developed by researchers at the University of Adelaide through selective breeding, Compass is a high-yielding variety that suits the drier growing areas throughout Australia.

Agricultural scientist Snow Barlow, of the University of Melbourne, endorses Mr Jochinke’s approach, saying farmers by necessity had to reconsider their operations in a biophysical sense.

“It could be that with more frequent droughts the sort of species that farmers usually grow as part of their production systems may not be the most suitable,” says Professor Barlow, who is a key figure with the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation(link is external).

Mr Jochinke has also changed his seeding process and says using a no-till farming method is one of his most effective strategies to avoid loss of soil moisture. No-till farming involves planting new seeds in-between old crops, which reduces erosion and wind damage while allowing the soil to retain moisture.

“Our seeding system is probably one of the biggest revolutions . . . since I started farming,” Mr Jochinke says. “The no-till has been a huge adaptation because it works, and it works because of the moisture conservation.”

Agricultural scientist Richard Eckard believes farmers must rethink their drought mitigation strategies into the future.

“I think we’ve been on a very long trajectory to do the wrong things about drought, and any good farmer will tell you that it’s the bad farmers who get the payouts from the government,” says Professor Eckard, who heads up the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre(link is external).

In fact, as Australian farmers grapple with weather volatility, agricultural science and climate science are increasingly intersecting in a research sense.

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