- April 3, 2017
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The Tyranny of Distance: How Farmers Overcome the Struggle
“I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!”
– Dorothea Mackeller
Australians know better than most, the tyranny of distance. Our wide, sweeping plains and sandy desserts are the stuff of dreams and nightmares, depending on your perspective. Our farmers eke out a living in some of the toughest of conditions on earth, with distance playing a significant role in both their profits and their struggles.
Farming in Australia
Some two thirds of Australia’s land is used for farming, 90% of that being dedicated to grazing or native pastures which are largely across arid landscapes. Outback Australia has a strong association with the farming community, and much of Australia’s tourism is dedicated to highlighting these Aussie legends and their vast properties.
Ask any foreigner about the outback, and they’ll likely imagine limitless copper-tinged prairies, scattered with dusty cattle and the occasional cattle dog; rugged, hard-knuckled farmers in broad Akubras and blue jeans, looking out across their lands, brows wrinkled in the harsh afternoon sun.
These isolated properties and their proprietors account for over 12% of Australia’s GDP ($1.55 billion); lower than both manufacturing and construction. However, when you consider what our farmers contribute in terms of food for the nation, they are worth their weight in gold. According to the National Farmers Federation:
“Each Australian farmer produces enough food to feed 600 people, 150 at home and 450 overseas. Australian farmers produce almost 93 percent of Australia’s daily domestic food supply.”
Australia boasts some of the largest farming properties in the world. In fact, South Australia’s Anna Creek Station, owned by the Williams family, is the world’s largest working cattle station. At 6 million acres, the station is larger than the state of Israel and is a whopping seven times larger than the biggest station in the United States.
For the families who run these enormous stations, distance is one of the major daily struggles with which they deal. The 2,834km Stuart Highway, which runs through central Australia from Port Augusta to Darwin, is a lifeline and major connection to the outside world for many outback farming families. Driving to the ‘local’ mechanic for a tractor part or to the pharmacy for a medical prescription is no simple stroll into town, however. That’s where Australia Post contractor, Peter ‘Rowie’ Rowe comes in.
Back in 2002, Peter began as a contractor for Australia Post, after moving to Coober Pedy on an opal-fossicking endeavour. Originally a Melbourne man, Peter took one look at the outback and never quite managed to get it out of his blood. Fifteen years on, Peter is still delivering mail for Australia Post, to those along his 600km round-trip mail run, and now also runs tours of the area.
“It’s a pretty easy job,” he humbly admits “you just sit back and drive around, and see your friends.”
Those friends are farmers and property owners who’ve become reliant on Peter’s twice-weekly run of their area; without which, their lives would be all the more challenging.
“If they need a loaf of bread,” says Peter “It’s a 200km round-trip. I bring out whatever I can for them, but I can only carry a certain amount. If they’re desperate, they’ll ring me up and ask me to check on their recent order, brought up by bus. But we keep things pretty simple, they order what they need and I deliver it.”
Peter is one integral and indispensable part of an outback network of farmers, businesses and locals who support each other—an activity which is necessary for their very survival. As Peter explains, the distance can be an issue, not only for picking up the weekly groceries, but in cases of emergency also:
“If they’ve got to get things in a hurry, it’s a long drive. Quite often, they need batteries, or medication or the like.” Peter explains “Station people rely heavily on the Royal Flying Doctors service. They have a pretty comprehensive medical kit, and all of the stations have air strips.”
And what about community? With health services, including doctors and dental facilities being limited, and several hours drive away from many properties, the ability to rely on your neighbours, as well as the flying doctors, is crucial.
“Out here, you can’t just ring up and say ‘can you bring me something [from the local shops]?’. If you break down, or something else happens, you rely on your neighbours. I grew up in the city, and the first thing that struck me was that people wanted to know about me when I got here. People care.”
Innovation making life easier in the Outback
Managing properties such as Anna Creek and the like has always been a difficult and back-breaking task. From overseeing crops, to managing cattle, farming life is neither an easy nor simple task. Grazing lands occupying millions of acres have presented challenges for farmers since their inception in Australia. However, technological advances are increasingly providing new and innovative solutions to not only simplify and automate these tasks, but to increase yield and profitability as well.
Drone technology has made monitoring crops and livestock a much easier endeavour, and are also providing previously inaccessible data to farmers around soil & crop health, weather conditions, livestock whereabouts, breeding conditions and more. This information, gathered quickly by the drones, and analysed via a number of new technologies, saves farmers time and allows them to gain insight into conditions which affect their investments; ultimately resulting in more informed decisions and increased efficiency.
A recent study by drone service provider Informa Economics and Measure in the USA has estimated that this kind of technology could save farmers around $1.3USD billion, annually; an average of $11.58 per acre in the USA alone. Those are some impressive numbers.
Driverless tractors, which are able to follow programmed routes, are already revolutionising many farms around the world as manufacturers (such as John Deere) fight to stay ahead of the curve in these technological advances. Further advances such as robotic milking stations and drone-herding of cattle are yet more examples of how automation is beginning to assist farmers to manage their colossal properties; staying connected, receiving detailed, important information, and improving safety.
Education and staying connected
Distance education has long been a part of the day-to-day lives of outback farming families, whose access to teachers and study materials were traditionally cripplingly limited. The advent of satellite internet, as well as services like Skype, have meant that these families are now not only able to put their children through formalised primary and secondary education, but also access health services.
Online visits with doctors, and even mental health professionals, are now a reality for those living in remote locations—an important and life-saving modernisation. However, these innovations are not only benefitting Australian farmers. Online portals are being utilised to service farming communities in developing countries; and farmers are sharing wisdom and experience, and ultimately educating, via these gateways.
The Graham Centre and Central West Farming Systems are collaborating to share knowledge between female Australian farmers and Indian women’s farming groups, via the internet.
“The conception of distance is not just the physical distance that has to be overcome, but includes social and intellectual distance” says Graham Ramsay of the Graham Centre.
While there’s no doubt that distance will always present a significant challenge for our farmers, it is heartening to know that technological innovations are enabling them to be gradually more connected with vital services. However, the old-school mail delivery by Peter Rowe, in his trusty 4WD are no less critical to the daily lives of our most remote farming families. He and his compatriots are sure to be a part of remote farming community services for years to come.
“Out here, people are the most important thing” says Peter.