As the rainfall started in northern New South Wales last week, I received a survey from the NSW Farmers Association about the big issues in agriculture.
It asked me to rate the issues in agriculture, which it listed as biosecurity, road and rail infrastructure, workforce, land use pressures and farm productivity, all of which are big. But there was not a mention of the biggest issue of all: extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change.
On Friday, nearby Moree had 107mm of rain and forecasts show there is more to come. The long-term average for October is 46.7mm and the previous wettest October had 115.6mm in 1999. The total this year for October, as of Sunday night, was 199mm.
We have had about 215mm of rain on my farm since the start of October. We were as prepared as we could be for the most recent forecast of potentially biblical rain. We have fodder stored out of the way. We moved vehicles to higher ground.
We are now waiting to see just how much we will lose. It will be what it is.
I continue to get frustrated by adjectives used by farm leaders and the general public that the climate and the weather is “shocking” and “extraordinary”. It is not. No one should be surprised or shocked by these events.
Scientists have been telling us about the impacts of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere for decades. What surprises me is the idea that some farm leaders and politicians continue to feign shock at the weather as we seem to be perpetually lurching from crisis to crisis.
People often say farmers just need to prepare better. The truth is, apart from what we have already done, I don’t know how else to prepare. In recent years, increasingly volatile weather is a far greater arbiter on crop outcomes than my management.
The weather is undermining even best management practice on the land.
Last year I took out weather certificates, which are effectively an insurance policy that says if there’s a certain rainfall in a certain period I get paid to offset crop losses.
I covered a two-week harvest window. If it rained above a threshold in that period I got paid. It was a way to insure against possible downgrades to a ripe crop.
This year’s crop is not yet ripe and I have not got weather certificates in place to cover this kind of event. This weather risk is not the same kind of beast. It is not viable to insure for constant rain for months rather than weeks because the cost of the insurance would simply be too high.
Roads and infrastructure, particularly unsealed roads, will create the next challenge in many places due to the constant rain in this third La Niña. If trucks with heavy loads cannot get out, harvest will be severely disrupted whether the crops survive the wet or not.
If crops fail or cannot get to market, that does have implications for price and food supply for Australia.
Australia knows about drought and flood, but we are indeed the lucky country in that we have never suffered through genuine societal hunger associated with an agricultural collapse as has happened in other countries.
More recently, international concern has risen over humanitarian crises emanating from disruptions to export of wheat from the Ukraine conflict region.
Likewise, Australian society is really only just beginning to understand the implications of the pandemic and recent flooding associated with food supply chain disruptions for food security and cost of living.
Politicians and the public need to think hard because if widespread rain continues, farmers are likely to lose a good portion of an entire year’s income. I don’t know many business people who can afford to do that in any sector.
This loss of income isn’t quarantined to farmers. It has a direct and immediate flow-on effect to the local community. The strain on many regional communities will be extraordinary and as a country, we need to get our head around the size of the problem in the recurring crises.
I regularly hear some farmers and farm leadership suggest that farm innovation ensures we stay ahead of the game.
It is true Australian farmers are world leaders in managing weather volatility. We have had to be, because we receive next to the lowest levels of government support in the OECD. Innovation and genetic improvement in Australian agriculture has so far managed to largely mitigate climate change in terms of overall production.
The problem though is that we are losing on profitability which undermines our resilience and capacity to continue to innovate into the future.
What we are witnessing with the weather right now just reinforces that these events are moving beyond farmer innovation.
The scary thing is that the nation seems to be less prepared than dirt-under-the-fingernails farmers for what that actually means.