The entire Australian state of New South Wales is suffering one of the worst droughts in history. So what’s the best way to help the farmers and communities that have lost livelihoods and income? Visit them, says Jennifer Ennion.
Green grass isn’t what you’d associate with severe drought. Cracked earth, gaunt cattle, yes. But farmers in Australia’s New South Wales Central West say we shouldn’t be fooled by top soil, nor recent rain. Large swathes of the country are still suffering through what politicians are calling “one of the worst droughts in living history”.
On the driest inhabited continent in the world, Australians are no stranger to drought. Challenging weather conditions are relentless, water security is a major concern, and the situation isn’t improving in spite of billions of dollars of government funding. The global climate emergency is being felt profoundly in this part of the world.
To put it into perspective, the state of NSW alone is more than three times the size of the United Kingdom—and nearly 100 per cent of it is in drought. Of Queensland, a state larger than Alaska, two-thirds is in drought. The drought is also affecting parts of Victoria and eastern South Australia—and the Bureau of Meteorology clocked record-breaking heat across the country in 2018.
Australia’s cotton production has halved as a result and a 2018 report found that some 84 per cent of local businesses are reported to be struggling with one in three believing the viability of their business was at risk. Despite these harrowing figures, regional NSW is still very much open for business, and locals are urging people to visit.
Simon Staines, co-owner of Artisan on Lewis, a café and art gallery in Mudgee, NSW, says while the drought is challenging, locals rally together to help each other. “We keep upbeat and proactive when it comes to tourism,” Staines says on a busy weekend in the café. “We’re committed to driving visitation to our area; after all, Mudgee region is a wonderful place to be.”
Simon isn’t the only Mudgee resident with a can-do attitude in such tough times. “It’s all good,” says David Sargeant of Karrabool Olives, an award-winning producer of extra-virgin olive oil. “You gotta be positive. If you’re not positive, then you shouldn’t be in the game.”
That’s not to downplay the tough times at Karrabool. Storm patterns have changed and there’s been no winter (June-August) rain for around three years. There was also no rain this past 2018/2019 southern summer, with the clouds refusing to open up until March of this year. As a result, the olive harvest has been pushed back to late fall/early winter when farmers face another challenge: Frost.
The Central West is a major food tourism destination and annual festivals such as Orange F.O.O.D Week are proof of its success.
Although Mudgee is into its fourth year of drought and producers face obstacle after obstacle, Sargeant considers it “blessed” because of the little rain it has received, compared to neighboring Victoria and Queensland, and smaller towns in the Central West.
On the outskirts of Mudgee, broken bitumen and pot-holed dirt roads slice through golden plains. Fields are mostly barren, but on some, cattle and sheep stand in a hot fall sun. Dilapidated farm sheds lean in paddocks; farmers remain unseen.
A great way for travelers to meet farmers, listen to their stories and spend a few dollars is by following the Mudgee Farm Gate Trail. Karrabool Olives is on the route, and Sargeant also mans a stall at the monthly Mudgee Farmers’ Markets, which showcase regional produce in the picturesque grounds of St Mary’s Catholic Church.
The markets are a popular attraction in a region reputed to be one of Australia’s prized food bowls. Cattle, lamb and pigs are reared here; hazelnuts, finger limes and pomegranates are grown; and cheese, chocolate and wine is made. The Central West is a major food tourism destination and annual festivals such as Orange F.O.O.D Week are proof of its success.
A favorite stop for tourists is Heifer Station, on the outskirts of Orange, two hours’ south-west of Mudgee. As the sun beats down on the 65-acre vineyard and black Angus cattle farm, co-owner Michelle Stivens speaks of her struggles through the drought: A dry dam and a reliance on inconsistent bore water.
While it’s easy to think of a flash of greenery as an indicator that the land is recovering, conditions are actually worsening.
During the final six weeks of Heifer Station’s most recent vintage, a property upstream drained the bore and Stivens couldn’t water her grapes. It’s resulted in a 40 per cent reduction in yield and, therefore, income.
It’s a harsh reality, and Stivens urges travelers to show their support by road-tripping through drought-affected areas and helping to prop up fledgling businesses feeling the brunt of a downturn in spending. And while it’s easy to think of a flash of greenery as an indicator that the land is recovering, conditions are actually worsening, says Stivens. “It looks green at the moment, but that’s ‘cause we’ve had a shower,” she says. “What we need is a really heavy snowfall so it slowly fills our dams.”
In the long term, Heifer Station is playing its part by collaborating with Rotary Australia to host the annual Feast for Farmers, held during Orange F.O.O.D Week around April. In 2019, the station raised more than AU$40,000 ($28,000) for drought relief, and that money gets issued to farmers in the form of vouchers to spend at businesses in their towns.
Such initiatives help places including The Agrestic Grocer, a nearby restaurant, gourmet food co-operative and live music venue. Since opening in 2013, Beau Baddock and his business partners have been staunch supporters of local farmers and producers.
However, their loyalty is not always enough and compounding stresses have led to businesses folding, an impact that has a flow-on effect. “I know for us we’ve felt a little bit of a pinch from people further out west who are drought-affected,” says Baddock. “There’s a lot of regular faces that we haven’t seen.”
Back in Mudgee, a new farm-stay experience is garnering attention and proving there are alternative income streams for entrepreneurs in country towns. Mudgee Silos is a hip Airbnb offering on a 250-acre estate.
Three corrugated tin grain silos have been converted into a bedroom, dining room/kitchen, and bathroom for travelers who tire of stock-standard hotel rooms. They’re marketed at couples who love the outdoors, with wheelbarrows of wood and bags of marshmallows ready for the campfire.
In drought-stricken times, with their livelihoods and incomes on the line, rural families are looking at alternate ways to keep their heads above water.
Owner Elizabeth Brennan came up with the idea after purchasing Melrose Park, a former deer and dairy farm while searching for a tree change from Sydney. With a background in farm accommodation and small events such as weddings, Brennan immediately put the wheels in motion to repurpose the silos. She believes diversification is key to getting through tough times. “Farmers are thinking about utilizing their land for other purposes for when the water supply is really low or there’s not enough feed for the cattle,” she says.
Melrose Park, which dates back to 1870, is no longer a traditional commercial farm, with Brennan keeping the remaining deer along with some goats for her family’s consumption. But water security is still important. With no access to town water, Brennan relies on rainwater and, when that’s low, she makes the most of rights to a nearby river from which she pumps water to her dam.
Although her situation is more positive than that of some of her Central West neighbors, she is still conscious of consumption. “We’re definitely more aware of water here,” she says, as the sun sets behind nearby farms. “You can understand the importance of water, and also electricity.”
The fact the silos have been given another lease on life is indicative of the farming situation not only in Mudgee but Australia-wide. In drought-stricken times, with their livelihoods and incomes on the line, rural families are looking at alternate ways to keep their heads above water, so to speak.
Making a concerted effort to visit a region in the throes of a record-breaking drought might seem counter-intuitive. But for those looking to travel with a little more purpose, the region represents a unique opportunity to have a tangible and lasting impact on local lives and, of course, to have a fantastic time in the process.
The writer traveled as a guest of Destination New South Wales.