The best time to manage a drought is before a drought

Farmers urged to act now to get ahead of the cycle while times are good

Yields are high and commodity prices are generally strong across the board. Rural confidence is at a 20-year high(i). So many are saying ‘let the good times roll’.

Well, yes and no – that’s according to Professor Tim Reeves, Co-Director of the Victoria Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub, a new collaboration between government, academia, industry and community to ensure farm and related businesses are better informed, more productive, and more profitable in the face of future droughts.

Professor Reeves urges producers to act when their farming business is in a favourable position to enhance future drought resilience, as this is when farmers can have the biggest impact in preparing for the inevitable, difficult times.

“It’s wonderful to see Victoria’s farming communities generally doing well. Part of our job now is to ensure this continues when the seasons inevitably turn,” Professor Reeves said.

“It is critical farmers take action regarding decisions or investments that can set themselves up for the long term, while cash flow is good and there’s opportunity to invest.

“It could be long-term fodder supply, building stock containment infrastructure or looking at options to diversify the farming business, through geographic location, or transitioning into different production systems. Renewable energy could also be an option, reducing energy bills while investing in environmental outcomes, while other off-farm investments can deliver a return, spreading risk.

“Planning for the future is fundamentally important.”

Professor Reeves said there are four key stages of the drought cycle, and steps must be taken at each stage of the cycle to truly build drought resilience and preparedness.

“There are the good times when there’s a dollar in the pocket, and there are the uncertain periods, where an El Niño might be forecast and the future is uncertain. It’s during these periods where the rubber hits the road, with prompt, effective decision-making essential to limit drought’s impact on a farming business.

“There is the drought itself, where risk and cost are front of mind – and mental health must be looked after – and the recovery where ‘green shoots’ are signalling things are possibly on the way back. Here, farmers can ramp up effectivity, generate cash flow and set themselves up to go again.

“The Victorian Drought Hub will give farmers and rural communities tools to address vulnerability to drought through this cycle, with five regional nodes developing new ways to collaborate and drive on the ground outcomes for farmers and communities.”

Cam Nicholson is part of the Hub’s South-West node led by Southern Farming Systems and said an essential aspect of drought preparedness is to put in place clear decision-making metrics for when things start to turn.

“The most critical period for drought resilience is where you reach that fork in the road moment where critical decisions need to be made. Hesitation or ‘decision paralysis’ in this point can be extremely damaging,” Mr Nicholson said.

“Farmers need clear decision points and metrics so they can shut out the noise and focus on what matters, be decisive and take effective action.

“My message to farmers is to ask themselves is that new piece of machinery or equipment really needed, or could you be investing in fertiliser, fodder and storage infrastructure to set yourself for the years ahead?”

The Victorian Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub is funded by the Commonwealth Government and will contribute $8 million over four years through the Future Drought Fund.

The program is led by the University of Melbourne’s Dookie Campus and is conducted in association with Deakin, La Trobe, and Federation University and Agriculture Victoria; and is supported by five regional nodes across Victoria. These regional nodes are all led by highly respected farming/industry groups – BCG (NW Node); Riverine Plains (NE Node); Food & Fibre Gippsland (Gippsland Node); Southern Farming Systems (SW Node), and Mallee Regional Innovation Centre (NW Irrigated Horticulture Node).

Each node is currently consulting the agricultural industry through farmers, councils, businesses, health organisations, and community groups in their region about how to meet local needs best.

Professor Reeves said the feedback was already uncovering key priorities for action and possible seed funding, from learning from the last drought, new R&D priorities, extension and capacity building, community development, and health and mental health support.

“To get involved and to share your thoughts or ideas for building more resilient farming businesses and communities, get in touch with your local node or any other Hub partner that you wish.

“Together, we will deliver the biggest impact for producers and the community. That’s what this is all about,” Professor Reeves said.

Anyone interested in getting involved in the consultation is encouraged to contact their node at:
Gippsland, Food and Fibre Gippsland: Julian Hill, julian.hill@foodandfibregippsland.com.au
South-West, Southern Farming Systems: Bret Ryan, office@sfs.org.au
North-West, Birchip Cropping Group: Tom Draffen, droughtinnovationhub@bcg.org.au
North-West Irrigated Horticulture, Mallee Regional Innovation Centre: Rebecca Wells, rebecca.wells1@unimelb.edu.au
North-East: Riverine Plains: Emily Thomson, emily@riverineplains.org.au

(i) https://www.rabobank.com.au/media-releases/2021/210615-expectations-of-another-big-year-fuelling-confidence-in-australias-farm-sector/

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