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Perspectives on drought in the Australian landscape. Paper presented at the National Drought Conference: Science for Drought, Brisbane, 15 April 2003

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C h e c k a g a i n s t d e l i v e r y

Perspectives on Drought in the Australian Landscape

National Drought Conference : Science for Drought

National Farmers’ Federation CEO, Ms Anna Cronin

15 April 2003, Brisbane

ABN 77 097 140 166

NFF House

14 -16 Brisbane Avenue BARTON ACT 2600

PO Box E10

KINGSTON ACT 2604 Australia

Telephone 61 2 6273 3855 Facsimile 61 2 6273 2331 Email Web

• Thank you for the opportunity to speak this evening at this very important and timely


• Obviously as the drought continues to grip many areas of Australia, and predictions of the

likelihood of a break eventuating in many important cropping zones linger precariously close to

the 50 percent mark - the issue of drought science remains acutely topical.

• I don’t need to tell the people in this room that Australia is a country of climatic extremes.

• In an environment where 80 percent of farm profit can be made in 30 percent of years, climate

variability is not an anomaly, but a reality.

• Droughts, as epitomised by this current event are a recurring phenomenon - and success in

agriculture is dependent on farmers taking measures to actively manage the business risks

posed by such events.

• Good farmers recognise these challenges and structure their farming operations to maximise

resilience to adverse climatic events.

• Clearly a strong understanding of the science behind drought provides added certainty to

farmers undertaking risk planning and implementing measures to “drought-proof” their


• Despite the severity of the drought, and much sympathy expressed by urban Australians, there

has been the usual media fuelled mythology developing.

• Myths such as that:

- “farmers have failed to learn from past droughts”;

- “the second the clouds part farmers start shaking the tin for government assistance”;


- “given there is always some part of Australia under drought, how can agricultural

producers justify farming anywhere outside the Goyder line?”

• This illusionary rhetoric is both poorly timed and ill conceived.

• Despite this current climatic event being unprecedented against a range of measures, there are

clear signs that farmers have learnt from the disastrous droughts of 1982 and 1994.

• Australian farmers have modified their business philosophies to better withstand climatic risks

- hard lessons have been learnt.


• NFF has always encouraged a risk management approach to climatic adversity - recognising

that farmers, as business managers, have a role to play in actively preparing for the eventuality

of drought.

• In support of this, the Federation has welcomed the Federal Government’s promotion of self-reliance and risk management through programs such as Farm Management Deposits, Farmbis,

the Rural Financial Counselling Service and Farmhelp.

• But clearly there are extreme conditions, such as severe drought, that even the best farm

manager cannot be expected to plan for, or predict.

• In these cases, NFF believes that Governments have a responsibility to act through the

provision of drought assistance and Exceptional Circumstances support.

• In an effort to make EC a more responsive, equitable and effective system, NFF has worked

with the Federal Government since mid-2000, throwing strong support behind Minister Truss’

proposal for EC reform.

• Despite a strong lobbying effort at the both the Federal and State levels, State Governments,

while recognising the need for reform, have not been prepared to commit, rejecting at the

proposed cost-sharing arrangement for business support.

• Frustrated at the two-year stalemate, the NFF Council recently passed a motion urging the

Commonwealth to take full control of both the welfare and the business support components of

EC assistance.

• The message from Council to both the Federal and State Governments was simple:

• “Take the politics out of EC..…take the politics out of drought policy”

• In calling for the Federal Government to take control of EC, the Council recognised in the

strongest possible terms that the States must have continued responsibility for general drought

assistance prior to the point at which circumstances can be described as exceptional.

• Only this afternoon in Canberra, NFF representatives met with Minister Truss to reiterate the

Federation’s strong concerns over the operations of the EC framework, making particular

mention of:

- the restrictive nature of off-farm income and asset limits in terms of access to welfare;

- the regressive and inflexible nature of business support, where funds are paid directly

to banks; and

- the confusion arising from the Government’s differentiation between various

production systems in declaring EC within individual regions.

• In meeting with the Minister, NFF reiterated the need for the Federal Government to forge

ahead with EC reform to ensure that the framework efficiently and effectively delivers support

to farmers genuinely in need.

• To date governments have responded through policy measures such as:

- The Farm Management Deposit Scheme encouraging farmers to accrue financial risk

management reserves;

- Farmbis - aimed at fostering the capacity of farmers to more actively management

business risks; and

- A strong and targeted welfare and adjustment system for farmers facing irreconcilable

circumstance to trampoline back into rural communities; and importantly.

• However NFF believes more can be done and governments must devote attention to


- Reforms allowing accelerated depreciation on fodder and grain storages;

- Incentives to promote the uptake of more efficient irrigation systems;

- Refinements to the Farm Management Deposit Scheme to allow larger businesses

increased deposit limits, and to allow companies and trusts access to FMD-type

accounts; and importantly from an NFF point of view;

- A secure framework of resource security, pertaining to both water and land resources.

• In NFF’s view the current drought has only served to highlight the value of Government

programs focused on promoting increased self reliance amongst farmers and given this, it is

important that existing programs are consolidated and new reforms are considered to further

support farmers in this meeting this objective.


• A clear theme dominating this Conference is, “what can we,

- as scientists,

- policy makers,

- government and industry leaders,

• ……….learn from this current drought” and “what can be done to ensure we continue to

improve our capacity to respond to and deal with drought within the Australian landscape”.

• While recognising that we are not out of the woods on this current event, I will touch on some

of the reasons why Australian farmers have been better prepared for the drought of 2002-03.

• The emergence of new techniques and technologies, underpinned by a better understanding of

agricultural production systems, has contributed to increased efficiency and drought resilience

within our farming operations.

• Some advances that have assisted farmers in these areas include:

- The broad scale adoption of minimum tillage farming systems, resulting in greater soil

moisture retention and a reduced requirement for rainfall for replanting activities;

- Improved water use efficiency within farming systems; and

- A clearer understanding of the nutritional requirements of stock during times of

drought and stress, resulting in improved efficiency of feeding regimes.

• While the transition to these best practice techniques has been progressive over the last decade,

we have been encouraged by the strong role that State Agriculture Departments, including

QDPI, have played in providing advice on these matters over the course of this drought.

• In a risk management context, many farmers have also drawn upon predictive climatic tools

and forecasts within their own decision-making.

• The current drought event has highlighted the great value of these predictive tools in assisting

farmers to make the right decisions.

• Decisions on:

- crop selection and planting strategies;

- destocking and the trading of livestock; or

- the purchase of farm equipment or inputs; and importantly

- financial strategies

• There is clear evidence to suggest that producers who heeded the warnings of climatic

forecasters in the early phases of this drought, will be at a significant advantage when the

current conditions subside.

• It is also worthwhile noting the effect of macro-economic conditions, particularly commercial

interest rates, on the plight of farmers over the last 12 months.

• With commercial cash rates currently in the order of 8-10 percent, clearly farmers are at a

significant advantage compared to previous droughts, such as in 1994, where cash rates were in

the order of 14 percent and 1982, where rates were in the order to 16-17 percent.

• These conditions, combined with evidence of compassion on the part of commercial lending

agencies, have taken significant pressure off farmers challenged with lop sided balance sheets.

• While drought has clearly posed major challenges from both the agronomic and economic

viewpoint, we must not underestimate the emotional and social effects that have been


• Although not always acknowledged in Forums such as this, an essential factor that has helped

farmers remain strong in the face of drought has been community spirit and mateship.

• NFF’s State Member Organisations, including AgForce in Queensland must be commended on

their excellent efforts in this area, primarily through initiatives such as AgForce’s Raise your

Spirits evenings.

• As noted by AgForce President Larry Acton in launching the Raise your Spirits Initiative:

- “camaraderie and friendship are essential ingredients in persisting through times of



• While the most recent El Nino wrap-up suggests that the El Niño is almost finished, NFF has

been advised that the National Climate Centre is being increasingly cautious in providing a

definitive answer to this critical question.

• At a meeting only last week, NFF was told that predictions are less clear about whether

improvements in weather will be forthcoming in the short-term.

• Although many farmers in some areas have taken advantage of the reasonable rains

experienced over February to sow grain and fodder crops, many others are waiting for follow-up falls in order to commence planting.

• The fact that the majority of rural merchants in southern Queensland have sold out of

glyphosate is a clear reflection of the level of recent cropping activity that has taken place.

• While it is encouraging to see this optimism amongst farmers, realistically it will be May or

June before we can predict with any certainty the likelihood of the drought breaking.

• The consequences of further widespread crop failure in this coming spring does not bear

thinking about, however it is a scenario that we can not dismiss and therefore contingency

plans must be put in place.


• The true value of drought science will only be realised if we can bring together the variety of

relevant scientific disciplines in considering practical strategies that are relevant at the farm


• Scientific effort must focus on integrating the disciplines of:

- climatology and meteorology;

- animal and plant biology;

- agronomy and ecology;

- sociology; and

- economics.

…… generating practical information and applications relevant to both farm management and

farm policy.

• In relation to climatic predictions, we must draw on existing scientific understanding in order

fine tune the tools and applications currently accessible to farmers, focusing on:

- Expanding the predictive horizons of on-farm tools and systems;

- Increasing the reliability and accuracy of models; and

- Broadening the relevance of such tools to farmers across a wider area of Australia.

• While good science is important, good scientific communication remains the key to achieving

genuine outcomes at the farm level.


• One theme I wished to touch on is the importance of collaboration.

• In this regard, I am encouraged to see Dr John Sims from the Bureau of Rural Sciences has

made the trip up from Canberra for this forum and will be briefing delegates on BRS’s efforts

in developing a National Natural Resource Management Monitoring and Forecasting System.

• In considering the potential of the Forecasting System, I urge all government and portfolio

agencies to move beyond the culture of competition, towards a culture of collaboration,

• Recognising that drought does not conform to State borders, there is a genuine need for an

integrated framework allowing the ‘realtime’ monitoring and forecasting of natural events and

natural resources.


• While developing strategies to allow farmers to survive periods of climatic adversity may be

important, the concept of survival becomes somewhat immaterial if what we are dealing with is

in fact climate change, rather that climate variability.

• The key question is:

• “Has / or will climate change fundamentally alter the operating environment for Australian

agriculture and how well is industry prepared for this revolution?”

• Over recent months NFF has been involved a process convened by Federal Environment

Minister, Dr David Kemp, known as the Government-Business Climate Change Dialogue.

• NFF has taken a lead with me chairing the Agriculture and Land Management Working Group

and only yesterday I briefed Ministers on the key findings of the Group’s work.

• The Report’s findings were straightforward: Australian farmers will not accept abatement (or

other greenhouse-related) measures being imposed without a clear scientific justification.

• Essentially the position is that significant further research must be undertaken on the impact of

climate change on agriculture for different enterprises and different regions and locations in


• While tonight is not the time to detail the Working Group’s recommendations, the Report has

now been released and I encourage interested parties to pursue a copy through NFF or the

AGO’s website.


• I trust that my comments this evening have reaffirmed the fact that good information and good

science will continue to be essential in underpinning farm-level risk planning and management.

• We must continue to learn from drought events and work cooperatively to ensure that we can

continue to improve in our ability to farm productively in the face of climatic variability.

• There is probably no better way to foster this collaboration than to convene a ‘National

Drought Summit’ and in January NFF made representations to the Deputy Prime Minister on

the need for such an event, once the drought had broken.

• However given there are at least five national drought conferences set to take place in coming

months, it is essential to minimise duplication and to ensure that the findings of individual

events can be brought together into an integrated national strategy for drought.

• We all have a valuable contribution to make on these important issues and the National summit

to be convened by Warren Truss in September will provide the best opportunity to draw

together the lessons we have all learnt from this drought to help the blueprint for future drought

policy in Australia.

• We all share a common commitment to ensuring that things can be done better next time the

spectre of drought grips this land.

• So it is critical to recognise that through coming together and sharing this wealth of knowledge

and experience, genuine strategies can be developed and we can be comfortable in the

knowledge that Australia will be better prepared.

• Thank you once again for the opportunity to speak at this important event and I wish you well

in your deliberations tomorrow.