A Voice for All: Balancing the Drought Narrative (UPDATED)

For most Australian farmers the heartbreak and cruel reality of drought is nothing new – generations of rural families have toiled through the stress of thirsty paddocks, expensive feed, and ever-mounting bills.

But, over the last few months there’s been a heightened interest in the plight of the agricultural community as drought enters successive years in Qld and Northern NSW in particular. Media outlets are actively focusing on individual stories of the desolation of drought, but are also reporting on possible solutions and support options for Australian farmers. They’re also providing a platform for drought-stricken communities and businesses to educate the average Australian consumer about the costly flow-on effects of drought, and are encouraging a discourse regarding the strengths (and the flaws) in our country’s fundamental drought management processes.

For the average Australian who buys their milk from a fluorescent-lit shop or purchases a merino jumper from Myer, the idea of drought doesn’t really touch their everyday conscious. So, mainstream media becomes a vital and highly effective delivery mechanism to drive drought awareness and increase support for drought-focused programs.

However, because of widespread reporting, different nuances and agendas have crept into the conversation, creating debate and conjecture on how the portrayal of drought in the media may affect the Australian agricultural industry in the future.

Emotions are running high on all sides and as Lynne Strong noted, “It’s hard to get the right balance between looking after those in dire need and the images and perceptions of an industry that wants empathy, not pity.” Farm Tender rightly pointed out that self-righteous judgement isn’t helpful either – “Let’s put all the ‘I told you so’ stories down for now and try and get through what is right here, right now. Let’s take the judgment off the table.”

So, here at the Farm Table, we want to do our bit to clarify the issues around drought and drought management, and present a variety of opinions through a special series that we’re calling “Balancing the Drought Narrative”.

This series has and will continue to round up articles and video clips, breaking them into six (EDIT: now nine) key themes for ease of review, specifically:

  1. Devastation and Heartbreak 
  2. Preparation and Action
  3. Generosity and Support
  4. Drought and the Broader Community
  5. Assistance Packages
  6. A Balancing Act: The Emotional Portrayal of Drought
  7. *New*: Drought Policy
  8. *New*: Climate Change
  9. *New*: Weather & Seasonal Updates

Of course, although we will do our best, we do not expect to capture every single piece of media that’s available in the public domain. But, at the least, we hope this series will act as a virtual repository for as many different voices and experiences of drought as possible. We hope that “Balancing the Drought Narrative” will serve as a form of support for those experiencing the devastation of drought, will champion the stories of triumph and resilience, and will eventually act as a tool for posthumous review when the drought finally breaks.

1. Heartbreak and devastation

As noted The Guardian, currently, over 57.4% of Queensland is drought-declared and 21% of NSW is suffering intense drought. It’s not exaggerating to say that no one in these areas has been left unscathed – even the well-prepared operators with strong management plans in place have been affected deeply. These raw and devastating stories of drought are brought into Australian homes via televisions, newspapers, radios and the internet every day. Stories of heartache and desperation are everywhere and this is just a small subset of them.

“For the farmers, there is the grief of seeing their animals die, of seeing the rivers and creeks sink into their beds and disappear, the pain of brutal economics that sees money pouring always outwards. The desperate scrabble to keep stock on their feet, up early in the morning to distribute what feed remains; the glances to the sky in search of clouds, then dragging their gaze back to the harshness of dust under their feet. The watching of the radar when rain is forecast, only to see that hope evaporate like the water in their dams. A drought in winter is particularly harsh – the loss of pregnant and feeding ewes and the lambs, and the calves and cows – new life being created only to die in the dust.

But there is a universal heartache felt across the countryside – because the country itself is dying in this drought. (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August 2018)

News like this can seem like a harsh truth for many urban-dwelling Australians. But, the unfiltered reality of drought has spurred an outpouring of public support. Goondiwindi Argus said

“Caring makes us human. When we stop caring we lose our humanity. We can see the pain beneath the stoic smiles plastered on the faces of those braving a very difficult situation, and bracing themselves for the worse. If there’s a silver lining during this testing time, it’s the strong lessons in compassion and humanity to be learnt from the drought.”

2. Preparation and action

Positive stories of preparedness and resilience are less common in the drought discourse, perhaps cynically because they don’t inspire sensational picture-worthy pieces of journalism. But, we also believe these stories are not being told out of respect for those struggling – ensuring that we empathise, rather than criticise.

Amongst all this, there are some wonderful accounts that we can learn from, and be inspired by. We have rounded them up here and we fully expect this collection to grow as we move towards a successful drought break. Why do we at The Farm Table believe stories of triumph over adversity are so important? We particularly like the words of Lynne Strong:

“When farmers share stories of hope they are not ignoring the fact that the drought is tough.  They are NOT saying, “It’s hard, just get on with it.” What they are doing is sowing seeds of resilience.

When you share positive stories of drought farming strategies that have worked for you, there is a chance somebody, maybe several people, will read your story and think, “Maybe that might work on my farm.”  They are not saying they have all the answers, but they may have one. Not everyone’s farming situation is the same, so we need lots of farmers from everywhere sharing their drought strategies. The more we share with each other the more we can learn from each other.”

3. Generosity & Support

Individuals, communities, and organizations across Australia are working tirelessly to support, raise awareness, and raise money for those in drought. Everywhere we look, we see amazing initiatives being led by wonderful Australians – from CWA, Drought Angels, rural photographers, Aussie Helpers, bikers, airlines, pre-school children, pubs, urban councils, singers, actors, and football players to name a few.

There are projects aimed at recycling formal dresses for drought-impacted schoolgirls, concerts for drought relief, Adopt a Town initiatives, convoys of hay from across the country, donations of fodder, Parma for a Farmer fundraising in many Australian pubs and clubs, and personal donations of money through drought appeals. We collect and celebrate these stories here.

4. Drought and the Broader Community

Drought is not just confined to the farm. The emotional and financial effects trickle down to rural and regional businesses, schools, organisations, and consumers, as well as to those employed within associated agricultural support industries.

Walcha Mayor Eric Noakes says:

“The flow on effects from farms through to small businesses and workers who rely on rural industries complicates any calls for government assistance. The state and federal governments are between a rock and a hard place in working out what assistance to apply and who should be the beneficiaries….Needs are so varied and far reaching that it is difficult for any relief to be all encompassing.”

Who do we support in need? How do we define and rank the “most needy” to the “least needy”?

John Gladigau from Bulla Burra Farms mused on this issue:

“Where do you start and where do you stop? It can certainly be argued that it is especially the farmers trying to feed livestock which have the greatest immediate need. But those farmers and their partners have already stopped buying that extra pair of boots from Elders, not taken that planned holiday, extended the period between haircuts, permanently delayed changing over the Commodore, put off the purchase of a new tractor and chosen to buy less coffees and vanilla slices from the local bakeries. Local rural businesses are also suffering, and their financial hurt is only going to grow as farmers belts continue to tighten. They are the unseen casualties of this drought. So, should the federal and state governments also be helping them? And then what of the farm workers who are put off because there they cannot afford to be paid – how do we support them? Should the local machinery dealer or auto mechanic have low interest loans made available to help them through this cash crisis? Should $12K grants be made available to the local dress shop or pizza bar because their patronage has diminished to alarming levels because the local farmers cannot afford to buy? And, if the answer is yes – then how do we as a country pay for this? There are many on social media who argue that we should completely cut foreign aid to look after our own – but is that who we want to be as a country?”

THE DROUGHT – WHO SHOULD BE HELPING OUT?Like most of you in Australia, my newsfeed has been overflowing with posts and…

Posted by Bulla Burra on Sunday, 5 August 2018


Here at The Farm Table, we’re not pretending to have answers to these nuanced, difficult questions. But, we hope that by creating this special series, we can shed a brighter light on the far-reaching struggle of many regional and rural communities, and perhaps encourage new ways of looking at this incredibly important issue.

5. Assistance Packages

There is movement nearly every single day at state and national levels around drought assistance and support. Keep up to date here. Also, check out our Funding and Assistance database on the Farm Table – you can save down items to look at later if you are on the go.

 6. A Balancing Act: The Emotional Portrayal of Drought

In response to the overwhelming number of emotionally-fraught stories that focus on drought, there has been increasing concern regarding the possible exploitation of tragedy for ratings, as well as the need for a more balanced discourse when reporting on the effects of drought.

We have rounded up these such articles here, which include headlines such as “No more Pity Parties”, “Our concern about drought isn’t fair dinkum”, “Agricultural leaders push back against drought panic”, “We are not all welfare cases”, and “Drought handouts hurt marginal farmers but hurts the rest”.

In particular, the following articles bring up issues around social license and dangers of stereotyping:

  • ‘Drought Survivor’ shouldn’t chase ratings: “The dry is real, tragic and devastating for those affected and touched by it. I’m just unsure what an outpouring of national grief from our media is going to do about the situation. To go further I actually think it is damaging to agriculture’s profile. This doom and gloom outlook does nothing to inspire confidence around our sector.”
  • Farmers speak out against starving stock drought stereotype: “Farmers are concerned the media is focusing too heavily on drought disaster stories that are damaging the reputation of Australia’s livestock industry. They also say the majority of farmers are not shooting their animals or letting them starve in paddocks.”

When we originally shared these articles to our Farm Table social media accounts, the feedback was polarising:

  • “The media are trying to get the message out for drought donations, don’t bite the hand that feeds you”
  • “Look I’m glad this farmer is doing just fine, well done to him. Obviously not every single farmer is in dire straights but there are PLENTY who are, don’t ruin it for those guys by telling people not to help! Perhaps the media have focused on the most harrowing stories, but that’s the only way to get the public & governments attention. Without the stories of those farmers doing it so tough there would be no awareness, no help and no support!”
  • “Sadly without some of the more extreme coverage the state and federal government wouldn’t have done anything! (Not that they have done much)”
  • “Agreed, we question how this portrays our industry. The controversy that could follow these images could be a mind field.”
  • “It’s hard to get the right balance between looking after those in dire need and the images and perceptions of an industry that wants empathy, not pity”
  • “Great article. Do believe that we must help all that are struggling now. But good planning, business/farming models and infrastructure should be looked into going forward.”

***New themes***

7. Drought Policy

Where do successive Australian Government’s stand on drought policy? What work needs to be done? What is the opinion of farmer’s?

Here, we round up news and opinion articles on the state of drought policy in Australia.

The agriculture sector is calling for an overhaul of drought policy that factors in a changing climate and ways to help farmers plan for and manage future dry periods.

Farmers have been hopeful of a new national approach to preparing for drought since former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull toured drought-affected communities in June. (ABC, Marty McCarthy, 31 August 2016) 

8. Drought & Climate Change

Here we round up articles that discuss drought and climate change; the past, present and future. Headlines include:

  • What farmers think of climate change (Sheridan Stewart, ABC, 3 September 2018)
  • Drought Crisis – Farmers call for Climate Action (Rod Quinn, ABC, 1 September 2018)
  • If you’re talking about drought but not climate change, you’re not doing your job, PM (Greg Jerico, The Guardian, 30 August 2018)
  • Issue has proved too big for run of Australian leaders (John Hewson, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 August 2018)
  • Climate change is World War III, and we are leaderless (David Shearman, ABC News, 28 August 2018)
  • ‘No real appetite’: former farmers chief lashes ministers over climate link to drought (Gabrielle Chan, The Guardian, 28 August 2018)
  • Australia struggles with a devastating drought while the government ignores climate change (Richard Glover, The Washington Post, 14 August 2018)

9. Weather & Seasonal Updates

Is there rain coming? Has the drought broken? Keep up to date on weather and seasonal news here.

We believe it is important to include articles and differing points of view to accurately report on all voices in the drought discourse, rather than to cause a divide in industry ranks. Reporting is often on the extremes – from each side – which can drive negative perceptions of our industry from the inside out.

Access the six themed (now nine!) timelines via the links below: