While much of the state still battles with persistent drought, we thought we’d made it through storm season without any major, damaging outbursts in Queensland. Mother Nature had other ideas, it would seem. Just as we entered the milder conditions of Autumn, the state was struck by one of the worst cyclones in recent decades. Already-struggling farmers across the north, central Queensland and northern NSW have been hit hard.
Debbie blasted records from previous Queensland cyclones, as she tore through the north and central coasts of the state. Previous record wind gusts of 208kph from cyclone Marcia back in 2015 were smashed by over 50kph—with winds up to 263kph recorded on Hamilton Island on Tuesday the 28th of March.
While other recent cyclones, including Yasi and Larry had estimated higher wind gusts (not officially recorded), and had destructive capacity beyond anything in living memory, the slowness with which Debbie approached the coast and tore through the landscape were what set her apart from other large storms.
Damage in the towns of Mackay, Bowen, Proserpine and other Queensland regions was extensive, as were the numbers of homes and businesses left without power. Her effect on farming however, was just as catastrophic. Some farmers lost entire crops, while others suffered millions of dollars’ worth of damage to their crops, stock and infrastructure.
Central Queensland property Foleyvale Station, of the Woorabinda Pastoral Company suffered considerable damage. According to general manager, David Hughes:
“We know we’ve lost a bit over 6,000 acres [2,428 hectares] of summer crops with a value, at today’s prices, of around $3.8 million worth,” he said. “I guess we expected the worse and hoped for the best. It could have been worse … but as far as damage to the crop, it couldn’t take any more because there is no more to take.”
The winds and rains were not the only factor affecting crops and properties around the state. The extent of the rains meant that waters took longer than normal to subside. This left many crops marinating in flood waters and mud over several days, rendering them nonviable.
The Queensland Farmers Federation has estimated that as much as 20% of Bowen’s vegetable crop (a value of $100,000,000) has been wiped out, and a further $150 million has been lost in the sugarcane industry. According to Canegrowers CEO Dan Galligan, around 90 percent of Mackay’s and 100 percent of Proserpine’s cane crop was lost.
“While that is a huge blow to our members, and the cyclone has shattered some family homes and left significant damage to sheds and other farm infrastructure and machinery, we are hearing no reports of serious injury,” said Mr Galligan said.
Luckily, the incidence of personal injury and death were few and far between this year, as Queensland farmers and the general public become accustomed to the severity and risks that cyclones and storms pose.
A bid by the Queensland government to fast-track relief packages for affected farmers was rejected by the federal government. Meanwhile, plans are being made to reinforce riverbanks and build flood levies to protect farmers and property from major flooding events in the future. However, are these mitigation measures merely band-aid solutions to the much larger issue of climate change and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns?
According to the Department of Environment and Energy, incidences of extreme category 3-5 cyclones are likely to increase due to the effects of climate change, however overall tropical cyclones will decrease. Severe storm intensity is predicted to rise by 140% by 2070. Along with increased sea temperatures and a general southern movement of cyclones, the increased severity is set to make preparations more difficult. The unpredictable nature of tropical cyclones only adds to the pressures already faced by Queensland farmers. Drought, extreme temperatures and intense rainfall events are all issues that farmers face with increasing uncertainty.
A recent survey by Rabobank (The Rabobank Rural Confidence Survey) found that positive sentiment around the future of agriculture in the next 12 months had dropped from 41 to 23%. With farms in the south of QLD suffering crippling and lasting drought, the north of the state haven’t received the wet season they were hoping for. Then along came Debbie; and when it rains, it pours, as they say. While many of the most drought-effected farms missed out on much-needed rainfall, others were, as we’ve discussed, devastatingly flooded.
While, bafflingly, climate change is still a political play-thing within the Australian government, there is no doubt that farmers are among some of the most forward-thinking in terms of environmental change. After all, their very livelihoods depend on it. Farming innovation moves at warp-speed, when compared with many other industries, and farmers are often some of the earliest adopters of new technology.
The Farmers for Climate Action association are at the coalface of climate change and the challenges it poses. As an alliance of farmers and industry leaders, the group have a keen eye on the weather patterns in Australia and their effect on farming.
“Damage to our climate has forced us to adapt the way we farm, but science tells us worse is on the way if the world doesn’t act. Aussie farmers are rightly proud of feeding and clothing millions of people around the world. Australia needs to address climate change so we can keep farming well into the future.
That’s why we are collectively calling for stronger action to reduce carbon pollution from all levels of government, and in our sector.”
Their aim is to enable farmers and land owners to make informed decisions, based on the best possible information available; to respond to ‘unavoidable changes’ and make ‘every effort to limit further damage to our climate.’ Their recent Australian Farmer Climate Survey involved over 1,300 farmers and has released some interesting results.
Clearly, Australian farmers are not only concerned with climate change, but are taking measured action to mitigate its effects. They are also aware, perhaps more than the rest of the population, just how damaging climate change can be on our very way of life.