03 Nov Aussie Farmers – Through Drought And Endurance
Aussie Farmers – Jean and Herb of Deiran
The first outback farm visit on our road trip was to Aussie farmers Herb and Jean Martin. We wanted to hear first-hand, just how much the drought is affecting our Aussie farmers. To put it into context for you, Cunnamulla has been in drought for the best part of 9 years. Its annual average rainfall is supposed to be around 375 mm, however this average has only been reached 11 years out of the past 20 years.
The impact on the countryside was evident. We passed the remains of cattle and wildlife by the side of the road; victims of either drought or roadkill. The ground we walked on was hard and cracked, wide-open, desperately waiting for much-needed water. We wondered just how our cattle and sheep farmers coped without rain for so long? So, we were eager to meet Jean and Herb and hear stories from some real-life Aussie battlers.
The Road Trip
Now, we’d made vague plans to call into their property Deiran early afternoon on our way into Cunnamulla. However, Kylie and I were waylaid in St George when Kylie decided on an impromptu shopping expedition for an Akubra hat. And we were barely 2km from town when I suffered a case of whiplash after spotting a sign for Riversands Wines.
What’s a pair of wine-loving girls to do? So, being firm believers of buying locally, supporting small businesses and drinking before noon, we finally bid farewell to St George around 1.30pm; Kylie now sporting a rather stylish Akubra hat, me a little merry from sampling some fine shiraz. And both of us now owning few bottles of Riversands wine.
And of course, it’s not a photographers’ road trip without stopping to snap a few images along the way. We both became quite adept at hitting the brakes, chucking the proverbial Uey, or deftly reversing up the road to photograph that “AMAZING TREE!”.
However, we kept on driving with one set of eyes scanning the red Aussie landscape, while the other set of eyes kept a keen lookout for a sign indicating we’d finally arrived at Deiran. Our directions were clear, the Aussie farmers’ property was exactly half-way between Bollon and Cunnamulla. If only we’d remembered to look at the odometer before we left Bollon!
We Made It!
And just as we were about to test our 4-wheel-drive capabilities and chuck another Uey, we saw a sign! Like literally, a sign… DEIRAN. We’d finally arrived at our destination and were about to meet the first Aussie farmers on our outback adventure.
We pulled into the driveway and I, being the passenger, was on gate duty. That’s the rules in the country; the passenger does the grunt work. We drove up the red dirt driveway for about 10 minutes, through two gates and passing nothing but mulga trees and a few stray sheep; with a cloud of red dust billowing behind us. It was about 4pm by the time we arrived at Herb and Jeans’ outback farmhouse. A quaint little house with its corrugated iron roof and original asbestos walls. Herb and Jean were outside feeding the pigs and doing some yard work while the weather was a slightly cooler 35 degrees.
An aussie farmers Warm Welcome
They greeted us like long-lost friends, and welcomed us into their kitchen. The kitchen was a perfect mix of pioneer Aussie farmer meets today’s property owner. The original woodfire oven had long been replaced by a new oven and stainless-steel appliances adorned the recently replaced benchtops. And just like in the old days when the woodfired stove would’ve warmed the kitchen, the smell of a roast wafted from the modern oven, filling the room.
“Do you girls want to stay for dinner?”, Jean asked, while pouring us a cold drink.
And although dinner smelled amazing and in hindsight, it would’ve been so much nicer than the sandwich, salad and out-of-date cheese and crackers we resorted to buying from the petrol station later that night. We politely declined Jean’s kind offer and gathered around the kitchen table to hear all about the story of these two aussie farmers.
What year did you buy this place? How long have you been here?
Jean: “The beginning of 2001 was the official takeover, but we didn’t come out here to live until September 2009. Herb was a linesman in town, and I worked at the servo. And we worked weekends, but you can’t successfully do that and run a property. And so, in September 2009 we both retired from our jobs and came out here to officially run the property.
How long have you been aussie farmers?
Jean: “Herb moved out in 1980 and we got married at the end of 1980. We went back and lived in Brisbane, while Herb did his wool classing course. I’ve been out here since 1966 and I only moved from Bourke to Cunnamulla. My Mum and Dad managed places around Bourke before that”.
Herb tells us about his days working as a sheep shearer on the property and how the original property owners’ grandfather fought in the Palestinian war. During the war, the Aussie soldiers would take their recreational leave at a place called Deiran, a Jewish village in Palestine that was the headquarters of the desert mounted corps in 1918.
“It was paradise for the Aussie soldiers during that time”, Herb said.
Jean says when some of those people returned from the war, they were given their own piece of paradise in the outback, hence the name Deiran.
“There was nothing on the land. No fences. No sheds. Just a bare block”, she said.
Herb says before the drought, Deiran, a 31,000-acre property, was a prosperous sheep farm with around 6,000 head of sheep on it.
“But there’s no way you could do that many now. 3000 is about all you could run. You’d need consistent rain. The country’s good, but you just don’t get enough rain”.
For the past 20 years, most of south-west Queensland has suffered back-to-back droughts.
“When we first came here, we kept it at 2000 sheep, because we still both worked in town.
“At one stage we were running about 300 cattle and about 1800 sheep”, said Herb.
“All that’s left now is 44 head of sheep. The place is making nothing, doing absolutely nothing because there is nothing to eat”.
Herb says they had a good year in 2010 with significant rainfall, but in 2011 it started to dry up.
The Great Artesian Bore
Jean explains that it’s not lack-of-water that is the problem. All the outback farms have a plentiful supply for the animals with bore water from The Great Artesian Basin which holds 64,000 square kilometres of water. However, because bore water is highly mineralised it only provides a short term solution for drought conditions.
“It’s the lack of rain the area has had over the past two decades”, Jean said.
Jean pulls out the rain book they’ve kept since their arrival almost 20 years-ago. Every precious millilitre of rain is logged into the little red book.
“We had 8.5ml of rain last Thursday night. But when I came out Friday morning, except for a few spots and indentations on the ground, it didn’t look like there’d been any rain”, Jean said.
The rain is so infrequent, that even when it does rain it doesn’t do anything because everything is dead.
Herb says they’ve seen a lot of people come and go in the 20 years they lived on their outback farm.
“People come here thinking it’s cheap land. ‘We’ll buy this land, and we will show these people how it’s done’”, said Herb.
“But they’ve come and gone. Because you cannot make money off this land because you don’t get the rainfall. If you got the rainfall, it’d be worth thousands of dollars an acre”, he said.
At the present time, properties in the Cunnamulla area are on the market for around $30 an acre.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do because everything’s running out. Someone once said to me that we’re unpaid caretakers. That’s not a bad statement because no one out here is making a profit now”, Herb said.
If the property’s not making any money, how do you get by?
Jean: “The coffee shop. Thank goodness we bought the coffee shop.”
The coffee shop is the Cunnamulla Coffee Shop, a family owned and operated business in the heart of the small country town. It’s famous for its healthy cooking, friendly service and its delicious Cunnamulla camel burger. Jean and Herb bought the coffee shop to survive the financial strain inflicted by the drought.
However, Herb says that not even the coffee shop is keeping the property afloat.
“We’re going backwards and we’re losing money every year. I’ve cashed in my super, Jean’s cashed in her super.
“We cashed in my life insurance and that finished last year.
“I’ve joked and said you’ll have to throw me under a gidgee log when I die. Now they’ll have to because there’s no money left”, Herb said.
Is there any government funding for aussie farmers?
Herb: “Yeah, the government have this family farm assistance, which is really good. And we both get it, because even though the shop does well, the property tacked on to it means it runs at a loss”, said Herb.
Herb says they receive $500 each a fortnight from the government, which they use to pay the interest on their loan.
“We’re on an interest-only loan because we haven’t made any money for about eight months”, said Herb.
What do you foresee in the future for yourselves?
Herb: “We’ll sell. We’ve always got to keep thinking of where, where’s the next lot of money coming? And at the moment, I can’t see where the next lot of money is coming”.
“People are going to be walking off the land and we might be one of them”, said Herb.
When there’s no rain, there’s no feed for livestock. So, during droughts, Aussie farmers resort to pushing over the mulga trees which provide a valuable food source to maintain their livestock.
Herb says he spent two years cutting down mulga trees, desperately trying to keep his livestock fed.
The Hardest Day
“The hardest day I ever put in, and I’ll remember this to the day I die, was the day we had to sell all the cattle”, Herb said.
“We made the decision. We couldn’t keep going because we weren’t getting any money coming in.
“The hard part isn’t cutting down the trees. That’s not hard, especially when you’re doing it for a family member. That’s the attachment and compassion you have for your livestock.
“I would get up at 3am or as soon as there was enough light in the sky and start cutting down trees”.
Herb says the cattle recognised the sound of his old Nissan and would run down to meet him.
“I was like the pied-piper with the cattle following me around”, he said.
Jean says it was a hard decision to sell the cattle as the cattle were doing well, despite the drought.
“Herb and I were working out in the yard and we both looked at each other, but neither of us said anything.
“We just went on putting them on the trucks and sent them to sale. We didn’t know where they were going, or who would take them”.
Jean says even now when they travel to Brisbane, they’re always looking to see if their cattle are in someone else’s paddock.
Herb: “It’s better than letting them die, and I was never going to do that.”
The Longest Drought
Herb says they’re no worse off than during any of the other droughts. In fact, the area was in drought when they first arrived almost 20 years ago.
Herb says their daughter Becky, who now runs the coffee shop with husband Rob, was two-and-a-half years old before she even saw rain.
“So that was quite a long drought back then but this one has gone on far too long.
“We’re approaching 8 years in drought now”, said Herb.
Jean walked over and checked on their roast dinner.
“Are you girls sure you won’t stay for dinner?”.
Aussie Farmers True Resilience
We politely declined. It was dark outside, and we still had another hour until we reached Cunnamulla. We left Herb and Jean to finish feeding the pigs and water the garden, while Jean phoned ahead to the Hotel Cunnamulla to make sure they’d be open when we finally arrived. Waving goodbye to our Aussie farmers, we promised to pop into the Cunnamulla coffee shop for breakfast the next day.
And as we drove back down the driveway of Deiran, through two gates, passing nothing but mulga trees; a cloud of red dust billowing behind us, we couldn’t help but feel inspired by the resilience, strength and warmth shown by these Aussie farmers. They certainly make them tough in the outback.
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Redheads on the Road is the creation of Kylie and Alison – red wine loving writers, journalists, photographers, superstar mums and fun and fiery redheads. We are hitting the road to tell the stories of real, everyday Aussies. Tell us your story here.