ADAPT NSW TALK: by Robert Lee

The below is my dad, Robert Lee’s talk from the ADAPT NSW Conference November 2019.

My name is Robert Lee. I farm sheep and cattle just east of Cumnock in central west NSW. Coorah is a beautiful farm on the slopes just north of Orange ranging in elevation from 500 on the Bell River to 600 metres. Inside country I’ve always been told; although I’m a bit worried that the outside country is moving in. My family have been there for four generations prior to me; about as long as descendants of the British settlers can be, given that my Great Great grandfather was one of the original 10 settlers in Bathurst in 1815. He must have quickly ranged down the Macquarie River valley to Wellington and then up the Bell River to Larras Lee where he duly squatted. It always amuses me when Australian media reports that a certain farmer is from so many generations on the land. What is 5 or 6 generations when the previous owners had been managing quite well for well over a thousand generations? Anyway.

I have been asked to talk about the measures that I have taken to adapt to climate change. At the moment that probably means my attempts to adapt to drought, heat waves, high evaporation rates, severe and out of season frosts, extended bushfire season …. I think that’s about it. Oh and one other thing, I have had to adapt to some of my friends and acquaintances deep seated scepticism to any scientific study that they perceive as a threat to their way of life.

But mainly the drought. This drought. I’ve learnt a bit about drought since 1986, firstly they’re all a little different from the last one. I will quickly list the physical changes we have made on “Coorah” with a view to managing the changing climate.

  • We have changed our enterprise structure to enable us to destock and restock with great flexibility. This has been quite a long process.
  • Laid kilometres of pipe and dozens of troughs to improve stock water delivery.
  • Decreased the size of many paddocks and increased mob size to enable longer rest periods for pastures after grazing.
  • Built drought lots so as to remove sheep from the pasture altogether when necessary and when they are not lambing. This was done with assistance of the CTLLS, much appreciated. They also provided training as part of that program which was worthwhile.
  • Planting thousands of trees, although it has been difficult at times keeping them alive. This is to keep me sane as the dust roils in over the horizon and to provide shade and shelter for livestock as well as unknown benefits to other creatures. Landcare funding has helped with much of this, dating back to the late 1990’s
  • Run a rigorous business to ensure that our financial position does not deteriorate. This has been very important.
  • Although not directly related to climate change, we have recently contracted with The Biodiversity Conservation Trust to manage 160 Ha of grass box woodland and some rocky outcrops in a manner to try and preserve the biodiversity. This means basically that on the grazing land we only graze for 30 days a year and only in winter. They pay us a small stipend for this effort in perpetuity. I think this sort of thing could become more common if we can ever develop a viable market for carbon sequestration services.

Linked to all this adaptation to the farm and business is the adaptation going on in my head. In 2001 my dad died. I don’t think he and his brother ever really recovered from the 1982 drought — which by the way still stands as the single worst year on record at home. The drought in 2002 wasn’t far behind in the “worst” stakes and I was on my own. My wife says I was like a bear with a sore head and she decided to get a job well away from me. We got through to 2010 better off financially and as a couple but it wasn’t a good way to start.

Fast forward to 2019, the 3rd (or 5th depending how you look at it) 1 in 100 year drought that I have put up with in the past 17 years, my wife is semi-retired and my son is home helping me make decisions. He reaches for his phone to gather the necessary information rather than listen to the crap his father has pulled together over the years as I did with my dad. We have Google sheets on our phones to monitor the hand feeding regimes. We have Agriwebb on our phones to monitor everything else. We make decisions together. My wife organises strategy meetings so that everything can be laid on the table.

I think this is the number one adaptation:-
• Plan, plan a bit more and monitor the plan,
• Plan with someone else; if you have your wife or partner at home, engage them in the decision making or if you have a workman perhaps engage them in some degree of planning. It helps enormously.

There is a lot of talk about the mental health of farmers particularly during times of drought and I think that when things seem beyond your control and a few decisions have gone awry it can be very tough. I suspect that if you believe that the recent spate of seasons is just an aberration and that things will soon get back to normal, then you are leaving yourself open for a nasty shock;- or a slow moving run of nasty shocks. You may have heard stories like this where someone, clearly uncomfortable about the state of their paddocks and cows says to you that the last spring had taken them by surprise. “The heat and the dry in spring just didn’t let us get a start and I’ve been playing catch up ever since.” That was four years ago and the cows are still as poor, productivity is shot and the paddocks are still bare. This is a recipe in my mind for stress.

I think it is critical for the farming community to recognise that the climate is changing, to learn as best as possible how it might affect them and what techniques are available to help them adapt. I have found a group of people who have given me an opportunity to make a difference. FCA are an organisation dedicated to this goal.

If the Government is planning a national drought strategy, it needs to incorporate overtly or be linked to a national strategy on climate change. Once this happens — especially if it comes from a conservative government — then farmers will have a chance of getting their heads around the massive change that is happening to us that is climate change.

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Tom Lee

Technology, landscape, narrative, poetics, design. Senior lecturer in Design at UTS, author of Coach Fitz. https://giramondopublishing.com/product/coach-fitz/