Drought Resilience Strategies for Farmers in South Australia

If agriculture-dependent communities are to be resilient, they need to be able to respond to drought preparedness needs at a grassroots level. This can be achieved by leveraging community assets, knowledge and networks.

FRRR, with support from the Australian Government’s Future Drought Fund, is working with communities to develop and implement regional drought resilience planning programs.

1. Invest in a Drought Management Plan

Since the last drought, many farmers have been looking ahead to ensure they are better prepared. One way to do this is by investing in a drought management plan. This can help them minimise the impact of the drought on their livestock and improve their overall profitability. Additionally, they should work to diversify their income sources as this can reduce their dependence on government assistance. This will also help them to cope with periods of low income and increase their resilience to future droughts.

Drought management plans should include strategies that improve soil water storage and use. These can be achieved through a variety of techniques, including water conservation and deficit irrigation. Another important aspect is the development of a support network. This can be done through family, friends, and community members. Having a strong network will make it easier for farmers to deal with the stress of a drought and ensure that they have someone they can turn to for advice or assistance.

Previous drought policy in Australia has largely been focused on the definition of Exceptional Circumstances (EC). This approach entailed the declaration of a drought-declared area and the provision of a range of programs that provided financial assistance to farm operators. However, it was found that these programs were often ineffective and perversely encouraged poor management practices.

The SA Government has partnered with the Australian Government to develop regional drought resilience planning pilots across South Australia. The pilots will be led and owned by the community, with local stakeholders participating in a co-design process to develop each region’s plan. They will also take into account the specific needs and challenges of each area.

2. Reduce Debt

The Australian and SA Governments are currently working on regional drought resilience planning programs for the Murraylands/Riverland, Yorke Peninsula/Mid North and Far North/Outback regions. The regional plans will be a roadmap of actions that will focus on innovative ways to build drought resilience across agriculture and allied industries.

This program has partnered with local communities, enabling them to co-design their own plans for building drought resilience. The program has also been able to engage a broad range of participants, from farmers and service providers to community members and the wider public.

One of the key barriers to increasing drought preparedness has been a lack of business management skills. Lower performing operators tend to be more reactive in times of crisis, resulting in snap decisions that may not always be in their best interest. This has been particularly evident when organisations such as the Rural Financial Counselling Services (RFCS) experience influxes of farmers seeking assistance during a severe drought period.

Smart operators use a range of strategies to increase their ability to manage risk and withstand drought periods. These include investing in property improvements such as dams, water tanks, silos and fodder sheds, restocking their enterprises with livestock and re-establishing cropping rotations, taking on off-farm work to diversify income sources and saving a portion of their farming returns during good times to bolster their resiliency in dry periods.

Many farmers are looking to reduce their debt levels in order to better prepare themselves for the next drought. It is important to understand the challenges that are facing these farmers and support them in their efforts to improve their resilience. It is also essential to ensure that short-term assistance does not adversely disincentivise producers from finding more efficient and effective ways to manage their risks and boost productivity in the long term.

3. Increase Income from Off-Farm Sources

One of the most important things that smart farmers do to increase their drought resilience is diversify their income sources. This may include establishing new sources of revenue, increasing off-farm income or building more resilient farm infrastructure such as dams and water tanks. In addition, many will put money aside during high farming returns in order to be able to sustain themselves during periods of lower income.

A lack of business management skills has been found to be a significant barrier for some farmers in increasing their drought preparedness. In addition, the ability to access and understand climatic information has also been found to be an important factor. It is also important that farmers take advantage of the opportunities offered by non-drought periods to reassess their business viability, as this provides them with an opportunity to avoid costly disasters.

It is important that farmers receive early warning about drought conditions in order to make informed decisions about their operations. However, it was found that the ability to make critical decisions in this environment is often compromised by emotional distress and uncertainty. This can be minimised by devising a system for identifying trigger points for action well in advance of the start of drought, so that these can be reviewed when a farmer is able to rationalise their options and weigh up costs and benefits.

Results from the research suggest that organisations such as RFCS should be involved in encouraging this type of planning. However, it is important that they do so in a proactive way and not simply by helping farmers fill out application forms for government assistance during drought periods. This approach can have similar negative effects to EC assistance, as it can discourage self-reliance and shelter unviable operators from the need to reassess their management practices.

4. Build More Resilient Farm Infrastructure

As drought conditions return, it is imperative that regional communities and their farmers are prepared. A drought resilience strategy can help to minimise the impact of drought and prepare communities for future dry seasons. Flinders University experts have developed a toolkit with strategies that can assist community leaders, local government and farmers to develop and implement drought resilience plans ahead of time.

In previous research, Flinders University researchers found that a key factor in drought resilience was strong community networks and informal community based groups. These were the people that helped families to overcome adversity and to find solutions. This work supports the growing understanding that resilience is a social, not an individual characteristic.

Other factors that can help to build drought resilience include diversifying income sources, investing in new farm infrastructure and putting money aside during high farming returns. Investing in new farm infrastructure can reduce reliance on government assistance and decrease the impact of commodity prices. This could include investing in dams, water tanks and silos. Putting money aside during high farming returns can also help to avoid debt and increase cash flow.

Many farmers are trying to become more self-sufficient and less reliant on outside assistance during times of hardship. This trend is largely driven by the low levels of direct producer support that Australia offers in comparison to other countries (Greenville 2020). It is important to ensure that short-term drought assistance does not disincentivise farmers from seeking better ways to manage their risk and improve productivity.

Developing drought resilience is an ongoing process that requires a commitment by all stakeholders. The SA Hub’s long-term vision is to grow future investment in drought innovation and resilience across the region. This will be achieved by establishing a network of regional nodes collaborating with grower groups, agribusinesses and RD&E partners to co-design and deliver demand driven activities.

5. Put Money Away

Aside from reducing debt, increasing income from off-farm sources and building more resilient farm infrastructure, smart operators will also put money away during times of high farming returns in order to be prepared for drought. This enables them to maintain cash flow while still making a profit and reduce the risk of bankruptcy during dry periods.

A shift towards a landscape approach to agricultural sustainability and rural multifunctionality has been encouraged by the State government, with the adoption of a New Landscape South Australia policy (Government of South Australia 2019). It emphasises the importance of a wide range of local development initiatives and encourages coordination between different actors in regional areas.

Interviewees in the Spalding region emphasized the importance of community involvement and participation in the agricultural transition. They pointed to the role of community groups, such as Landcare, in facilitating relationships between farmers and providing a platform for sharing information. They highlighted the articulation between scientific knowledge and on-farm experimentations as key mechanisms for agricultural sustainability, such as the uptake of more resistant plant varieties or crop rotations (Natural Resources SA Northern & Yorke 2018).

Water management is another major factor in efficient resource use, with many farmers focused on moisture conservation strategies. For example, one of the interviewees explained how they fenced off areas in their paddocks to maintain native grassland, which is essential for moisture retention and soil stability.

The interviewees discussed the challenges of implementing such sustainable agriculture practices, including the limited financial support offered by the government. They also expressed the need to further develop their agricultural networks and increase their access to financial and market support. Moreover, they highlighted the need to address mental health issues caused by climate change and drought through education and support services, such as the Unbreakable Success Matrix program.