Jennie Hawkins was a highly valued and innovative member of the Climate Champion program since its inception in 2010. She passed away in 2015. This case study is from a 2010 interview with Jennie and her husband Jack.
Region: Finley, southern New South Wales
Commodity: Canola, wheat, rice and prime lambs
Farming area: 1200 hectares
Rainfall: 200–396 mm per year
In the past I think we just made farming decisions that were based on weather rather than climate. It’s only been in recent years that we started to address managing some of the environmental resources that we use as part of our business process.
See what Jennie has to say about:
- How a changing climate has changed the way we irrigate
- Living with reduced water allocation during the drought
- Trading water to make a living during the drought
- Becoming flexible to manage a variable climate
- Improving our drainage to make better use of summer rains
- Retaining stock through the drought to help with recovery
My husband, Jack, and I have been working on our farm in the Riverina for 25 years. In that time we’ve gone through some wet years and a couple of dry periods.
Up until 2002 the seasons were fairly consistent. We had hot summers, wet autumns and very temperate winters. The most important thing was that we always had water and were lucky enough to almost always irrigate in the spring to finish our winter crops.
However, we haven’t had this luxury since 2002, when the drought started.
In the past 8 years we have only received about half our annual rainfall and we haven’t irrigated a winter crop. During most of these years we didn’t have a water allocation at that time of the year to be able to do so. But even if we did, we chose to save the water for the following autumn to establish the next winter crop.
The reason for this was because our traditionally wet autumns have dried up and, in turn, placed more pressure on our storages. We have been irrigating earlier in the season, at the time when crops are able to survive mainly on the rainfall.
Our entire farm has been set up for irrigation. We have access to water from the Hume Dam through a private irrigation scheme called Murray Irrigation Limited. The State Government scheme allocates and delivers water to individual farms.
Each farm has a legal property right to a water entitlement. However, the Government only apportions some of that entitlement, from the water that’s available in the dams.
This farm has an entitlement of 2100 megalitres, but because of the drought it’s been 6 or 7 years since we have received our full allocation.
On average we have received about 20% of our allocation during these years. But there have been some years where we have received no allocation and had to rely on our storages and the little rain we had in those years.
Because we have a property water right, we can trade that water. If we don’t use it on our farm, we can sell our water independently in a temporary water market.
During the drought, some farmers closed up shop while others sold their water as their only source of income. Because of that, there was a lot of water around if you had the money to buy it.
Some farmers use more water than others—they factor it into their budgets and buy it in. They use more water than their entitlement allocates.
The value of our water entitlements and our capacity to store and use our water efficiently gives us great security and more flexibility with what we grow.
If the drought has taught Jack and I anything, it’s that we need to be flexible enough to be able to change and adapt to variable conditions, whether they are climate or economic.
During these 25 years we have tried to develop our farm’s infrastructure and systems to manage variable conditions.
However, in the past we just made farming decisions that were based on weather rather than climate. It’s only been in recent years that we started to address managing some of the environmental resources that we use as part of our business process.
We do things like no-till farming, chemical fallowing, and land forming. These are common practices now in Australia. To be able to preserve any moisture in the soil profile has been very important—mainly because we haven’t had access to our full water allocation.
During the drought, we started to look ahead to see how we could adapt our business to secure our water for the future. We considered how water was being delivered to us, as well as how we could improve our own systems to make every drop count.
In 2008 we received an 80% contribution from the Government as part of the Land and Water Management Plan to improve irrigation practices and irrigation management on our farm.
With this contribution we developed a whole farm reticulation system that allows us to control every drop of water that comes onto our land, either from our allocation or rain.
All of the paddocks have been laser-levelled to allow water to run into surrounding channels. These channels all flow into major arterial drains that come back to a centralised dam in the middle of the property.
Between the dam and the drainage channels we can realistically hold and control 120 megalitres of water. It’s been a fairly big investment in terms of infrastructure, but we’ve already seen its benefit.
In recent years we have noticed an increase in summer rains which, without the reticulation system, would significantly impact on our summer cropping and summer pasture programs. It has allowed us to drain excess water off paddocks quickly and efficiently and also saves paddocks from waterlogging.
A lot of people in this area de-stocked during the drought—that’s the first thing they tended to do. We were lucky because we went into the drought with good stock reserves and the ability to grow grain to feed them.
We were trying to think of the positives, and saw that keeping our stock would enable us to generate some income to pay our debts. Also, it would give us the capacity to recover quickly from the drought once it had finished.
During the worst times of the drought we had to look at having distinctive stock-containment areas on the farm. It allowed us to ration and control our feed, and we were still able to produce prime lambs. The lambs bought in good money during hard times. It also put less stress on the land that they normally would have been grazing on.
After a couple of years, our finances and feeding systems were under a lot of pressure. We’d had a couple of failed winter grain programs, gone through our fodder reserves and started purchasing grain.
After getting this far into the drought, we felt we had to keep the stock because they were going to provide us with the quickest turnaround capacity to move us out of the drought. That was even though we didn’t know how long we had to go until the drought broke. So we ended up leasing another farm in a higher rainfall area and moving our stock there until the drought eased up.
Interview date: 2 June 2010
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