I had first arranged to speak to Nicholas Christensen at five in the afternoon. He’d agreed to call me from work, a bull stud near Warwick, some 130 kilometres south-east of Brisbane. We were to talk about the drought – specifically, how months of below-average rainfall had impacted the lives of young Australians like him. But Nicholas didn’t call.
The clock crept towards six. I rang first.
“Sorry mate! I have to be honest, I flat out forgot,” Nicholas said. “I just got back from putting out a bushfire.”
His blunt explanation framed our talk. Australia is in the grip of the most severe drought in nearly twenty years, and suffered through the driest autumn in over a century. An entire state is drought-affected. And there’s little sign of improvement any time soon.
Nicholas, 24, found work on the bull stud after a few seasons further south, when opportunities literally evaporated. Now at Warwick, the water troughs are full for the livestock, but the dams have run dry.
“Everyone’s on edge,” he said.
Although he regularly works 90 hour weeks at the bull stud, the way others used to get by – by pitching in a day here and a day there, for whoever needed an extra hand – is over. There’s little money to bring on extra help when farmers are taking on so many losses. Nicholas described buying livestock for $400 a head and, faced with skyrocketing feed prices, being forced to sell them for $100 each.
“We’re all doing it tough, no doubt,” said Thomas Tourle, 27, whose family has tended to a swathe of land south of Dubbo for six generations. The 10,000 acre property would usually hold just as many Merino sheep; feed prices and a lack of grazeable land mean they’re keeping just a fraction of that number in cattle.
Thomas said his operation reacted relatively well to the parched conditions, especially after a string of below average seasons. “First to adapt, first to survive,” he told me. But that isn’t the case throughout the region. While other poor years had pockets of relief, Thomas said, very few farmers south of his property have produced worthwhile crops. Then there’s the double bind of either writing off a season and salvaging the seed for use as fodder, or holding out for the prospect of tortuously delayed rain.
The stress of a profession which exists at the mercy of the weather is only compounded by other material factors: Thomas explained a farm that hasn’t been handed down the generations can easily fall back on mortgage repayments. A farm in that position can struggle to pay its workers. And those effects ripple through communities, and into the regional centres.
The strain can be monumental, especially on young people. A recent study published in the Medicine Journal of Australia found that farmers under the age of 35 in regional and remote NSW report drought-related stress at a much higher rate than their older, more metropolitan peers.
“Depression is so prevalent in rural Australia,” Thomas said.
Nicholas admitted the same.
“It’s terrible. Sometimes you just feel like giving up,” he said.
“I don’t talk about mental health, but if I didn’t have my friends, I wouldn’t be here.”
But the drought has impacted areas even closer to the coast, far away from Australia’s traditional agricultural heartland. Maddy Braddon, 23, lives and studies in NSW’s Northern Rivers region, one of the state’s last hold-outs against drought-affected status. One year ago, the area was hit with major floods. Now, not a day goes by where she doesn’t worry about the parched earth.
It was on her mind when she sat in the Q&A audience in Lismore earlier this month, where Agriculture Minister David Littleproud proclaimed he “doesn’t really give a rat’s” if climate change is man-made or not. For Maddy, an avowed member of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, the drought isn’t just a temporary aberration, but part of a longterm trend towards temperatures incompatible with agriculture – and incompatible with us.
Maddy didn’t get a chance to address Littleproud, but she shared her tabled question with me. “Climate science is showing that droughts will be longer, more frequent and more severe without drastic reductions of emissions,” it read. “How do you reconcile with the Nationals continuing to support the expansion of new coal and gas [power plants], fuelling future disasters?”
“He was just ignoring the issue,” Maddy said. “We would be ignorant not to pay attention.”
Maddy’s view that Canberra lacks a long-term vision to deal with climate change was echoed in some small way by Nicholas, whose concerns are more immediate.
“The government has no idea,” he said.
“They need to come out here and have a look. They don’t understand. They need to listen to the farmers.”
I thanked Nicholas for his time and let him go. There’s work to be done, and more fires to put out.Image: Dan Peled / AAP Images