Opinion: People are suffering in a sunburnt country

Hard times: Farmer Ian Cargill inspects a flock of sheep on Billaglen farm near Braidwood, NSW, last week. The NSW government on Wednesday declared that 100% of the state was impacted by drought.
Hard times: Farmer Ian Cargill inspects a flock of sheep on Billaglen farm near Braidwood, NSW, last week. The NSW government on Wednesday declared that 100% of the state was impacted by drought.

Much of Australia is shrivelling up like pork crackling, in a drought made worse by the driest July for 16 years, and the worst ever in parts of NSW. People are suffering.

Every day farmers see their stock die, their dams shrink, and their overdraft grow.

Australians are a very charitable people, they appreciate farmers, and a lot of them want to chip in to help. There are many organisations out there collecting money to help farmers.

Our Community’s donations platform GiveNow has recorded a ten-fold increase in donations across drought-specific causes in the past three months, coinciding with public awareness about the issue.

There are certainly good reasons for chipping in.

It wasn’t, by and large, the outback that burnt the coal that brewed up the carbon dioxide that’s driving the thermometer up, and we should all be contributing to fix what we’ve done.

Changes have to be made, but we can’t let accidents of geography determine who’s going to suffer most from them. We’re all in this together.

Most Australians won’t mind contributing, either personally or through their governments.

Changes have to be made, but we can’t let accidents of geography determine who’s going to suffer most from them. We’re all in this together.

Most of us – whether we were born here or came here voluntarily – don’t have to go back far to find an ancestor in the agricultural trades, because in our grandparents’ time there were a lot more people on the land.

Our grandchildren, however, may have more trouble tracing their line back, because there are far fewer farmworkers now.

There’s been an enormous game of musical chairs for several hundred years now in which, in every generation, a significant number of people put down the spade and gravitate to the cities.

In 1970, 8% of Australians worked in agriculture; now just 2.5% do.

That’s not just because of the droughts, either – it’s a worldwide phenomenon, a function of increased investment and increased productivity.

Exactly the same thing has happened in manufacturing, and the percentage of workers employed in those industries has dropped over the same timespan from about 30% to 7.5 % – again, about two-thirds.

The name of the game, Australia-wide, is services, even for farmers.

Back in 2001, the average family farm income was $30,000 from agriculture and $29,000 from outside income, generally from family members finding work in town.

This tendency may have become even more pronounced since. One 2012 study found that, “only 28% of family farms were of sufficient scale and profitability to earn enough income to support the families owning them”.

The task of keeping farm families going is very difficult at the best of times, and private philanthropy – that is, you and me handing over some of our pay cheque for the cause – is only going to be effective at the margins.

That isn’t a reason not to help out: it’s precisely at the margins that we need the flexibility and social judgement that these situations require and which the community sector, to whom most of us channel our donations, can provide.  

We need that flexibility because the drought isn’t affecting all farms, because some farm owners (Malcolm Turnbull, to name but one) have enough capital behind them to wait for better times, and because the drought is affecting a lot of country people who aren’t farmers.

When farmers sneeze, country shops catch cold.

It’s in the towns, too, that you’ll find the social support services that back up the farms – the churches, the medical services, the associations and sporting clubs and school councils and cemetery trusts that build a local identity and a consciousness of solidarity.

They’re vital to the flourishing (or even the survival) of country towns, and they need all the support they can get.  

It’s like wildlife conservation - you can’t just preserve the animals that look cute in photographs, you have to preserve the habitat that allows them to flourish.

If you are giving to the farmers’ cause, spend some of it on those irreplaceable rural not-for-profit institutions.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of Our Community, a social enterprise and B-corporation providing help to not-for-profits.