Sunday, May 12, 2013

Everything I know about rain…

Lemme tell you everything I know about rain…

I grew up in a country Victorian town where shop assistants made small talk about the weather and everyone went around saying how lovely the days were before adding, “but I really do hope it rains… for the farmers.”

“Oh yes, they need it,” came the standard reply, which I soon parroted too, despite not really having a clue whether it was seeding time or harvest time or whether the farmers really did actually need it to rain at that exact moment. The perception was that they always needed it, because of that other faceless, more nasty, identity everyone talked about, “The Drought.”

Thinking back, I can’t actually pinpoint what years of my childhood would have been considered drought years. Although we had cousins with cropping properties not all that far out of town, my day to day existence revolved around in-town happenings and I can’t seem to differentiate between the years when it rained and the years when it didn’t. That is, aside from the memory that we used to be keen water skiers, spending weeks camping and skiing at the local lakes during summer, and one year the lakes started to go dry, one by one. And we couldn’t go skiing any more. One winter we visited our favourite lake and saw that “Mr Farmer” had put a crop in… I must have been a young teen, or tween even, but before that I really don’t recall registering that the lake might have even been owned by Mr Farmer or that you could put a crop in a lake!

When I was 15 my family moved to the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, where, ironically, it rains A LOT. But The Drought was definitely still going on then too because people from “the other side of the highway” used to talk about how dry it was over there, out west.

Soon after that I was living in Brisbane for Uni and there was lots of chat about water restrictions and which numbered days we were allowed to water the lawn. It was during this time that the nearby city of Toowoomba started hitting the headlines. They were fast running out of water and were pursuing plans to use recycled sewage water in their houses – there was lots of scaremongering and I recall the plans were nixed after a referendum, due to people not gelling to the idea of essentially drinking their own reconstituted, purified, excrement. But there was still water coming out of my kitchen and bathroom taps, and flowing down the Brisbane River as I walked to work in South Bank every weekend… so I wasn’t really concerned.

Then I moved to Darwin. There, as a general rule, it’s blissfully sunny and 27 degrees for half the year, and sultry hot, sticky, 33 degrees and raining for the other half. I spent 12 months in Darwin, including a wet season and a Cat 2 cyclone, and was thrilled by the magnetic force of wild wet-season storms and monsoonal evening downpours which could cool off the night like a blissful climatic release.

After Darwin came Townsville, or, as it’s less affectionately known by many North Queenslanders, “Brownsville”… the capital of the Dry Tropics. But still, even in Brownsville the yearly average rainfall can be measured in metres rather than millimetres.

If I list the years of my life by notable moments – things that stick out in my mind about a certain year – then it goes a little something like this: 2003, moved to Queensland; 2005, graduated high school; 2006, moved to Brisbane for Uni; 2007, moved to Darwin; 2008, met ST, and moved to Townsville; 2010, graduated Uni and got my first full time journo gig; 2011, moved to Burragan; 2013, got married.

Conversely, if I were to ask ST to list the years of his life, he could tell me exactly which years were drought at his parent’s property, and which years were heaven sent with the liquid of the Gods. He could tell me which years the Sandy Creek ran (a once a decade occurrence), and which years the dust storms were so fierce the sheep yards disappeared beneath a sandhill. Which years it was kinder to shoot sheep than watch them starve, and which years the roo, rabbit, and snake numbers sky-rocketed with an abundance of fresh feed.

I interviewed enough “cockies” during my first 12 months at Burragan (while I was still working full-time as an online rural reporter) to know they can list the dates of drought and flood better than if they were their own children’s birthdays. Even those of an age when memories fail to recall what they ate for breakfast can tell you which years The Drought broke.

Sometime between the years of 2008 and 2011 ST and I drove from Townsville to visit his parents for a week or so on the property. While I was “on holiday” – reading books and drinking champagne in the garden - ST was put to work as his parents relished the extra set of capable hands to help put new tanks and troughs in. Meanwhile, ST’s Mum and I were feeding hay to the cattle every morning. And one day we pulled two stuck goats from a dry dam.

We moved to Burragan at the start of a brilliant season. There’d been significant rainfall during the summer - before we arrived at the very start of March - and the dams were full, grass was long, wildlife was plentiful, and the sheep were plump and happy. It wasn’t until I saw the countryside like this, green and lively, that I had a little epiphany and realised my previous experience of ST’s mum and dad’s place had been during The Drought… I’d kind of just been thinking “cattle eat hay, that’s what they do, so we have to feed them”… Well, no. I was wrong. Cattle eat grass – when it has rained and there’s enough grass for them to eat – usually they can feed themselves.

Burragan is in an 11inch annual rainfall band; that’s just less than the length of a 30cm ruler. That mightn’t sound like much (and it’s not) but we’re in the same boat as more than 50% of the continent… and most of the time that boat’s in the shed, out of use. Any cockie will tell you that if you get the annual average that’s a good year, any more and it’s exceptional.

Lemme tell you everything I know about rain at Burragan…

A ground tank (or dam) doesn’t just catch whatever rain falls within the space of the hole in the ground that is the tank/dam. I can hear the farmers laughing at me, but yes, this is what I believed happened. Again, I was wrong. There are actually “drains” which are like shallow little channels built all around the tank to collect the rain run-off from around the paddock and channel the water all the way downhill to the “catch tank”. The catch tank is a shallow little dam right beside the big dam which obviously, as the name suggests, catches all the water. There’s then a “fluming” – very, very large pipe – which runs through the bank of the tanks, draining all the water from the catch tank into the big tank. Magic, isn’t it? (Yeah, yeah, I’m the idiot who never knew all this. Laugh it off folks.)

Lemme tell you everything I know about tanks…

At Burragan we don’t have any working bores (that’s where groundwater is pumped up to the surface for use), and due to disrepair following from the previous owner we also have very few poly tanks and troughs, so all of our sheep and cattle drink straight from the ground tanks. Some of them hold water better than others… some of them go dry far too quickly.

Water won’t run into a ground tank every time it rains. Of course, it depends how well set up and maintained your drains, catch tank, and fluming are, and also the soil type surrounding the tank… but at Burragan we’d probably need a good heavy 35 to 50mm (1-and-a-bit to 2 inches) in one rain event to run water into most of the tanks.

Also, (farming folks, please politely restrain your laughter) I was unaware that the high water level of a ground tank is NOT the top of the bank… Apparently it’s the top of the fluming, which is often MUCH lower than the top of the bank. So why is the bank so high then? Good question. I’ve voiced that one myself and got laughed at so let me save you the same embarrassment by sharing the secret with you here. All that dirt that makes up the bank is what is taken out of the hole that is the tank. And every time the tank is cleaned out (which can only happen when it’s dry), then dirt gets piled up on the bank and the bank gets higher! Magic, isn’t it?

Lemme tell you everything I know about water…

Having taps that have water come out of them is quite the awesome privilege. Because sometimes I turn the tap on and no water comes out, or sometimes the water stops soon after I’ve turned the tap on – this is usually when I’m halfway through shampooing my hair in the shower, or when my hands are covered in meat juice while preparing dinner.

This requires a trip the House Tank – about a three minute quad bike ride away – with the jerry can of petrol to start the pump, which fills the Overhead Tank at the house, which gravity feeds water into the taps in our kitchen, bathroom, toilet, laundry and yard. Magic, isn’t it?

A lot of the time House Tanks are fenced off from livestock to keep them cleaner but ours isn’t , meaning the sheep and cattle call all drink, defecate and die (ok, that’s a bit overboard but I couldn’t resist the allure of a possible alliteration!) in there as well. But truthfully our dam water is exceptionally clean and clear… you could drink it, if you were desperate, but instead we drink rain water.

Which brings me back to everything I know about rain…

On the last day of February last year it started raining at Burragan and didn’t stop for seven days and seven nights… I’ve since referred to this time as “The Big Rain” when we received 8.5inches of rain in one week. That’s more than three quarters of our annual average! Some friends just 100km south received more than 20inches and watched their wool shed, shearer’s quarters and house go under. This was once-in-a-lifetime stuff…

ST, his parents, and I had just finished cementing the base of our intended-to-be snake-proof fence all around the perimeter of the house. Yes, essentially we’d built a dam wall with ourselves on the inside! Braving the elements ST and I spent hours trudging through the mud, digging trenches across the yard, underneath the cement fence base, trying to drain the water away from the house.

You might have heard me mention previously that the Burragan house is in the middle of an old “dry” swamp… that week the swamp certainly wasn’t dry and I was monitoring the rising water level daily, wondering when I should start suggesting it might be time for ST to consider servicing the motor of the tinnie.

Rob Dog plays in the then full swamp beside the house

When the downpours eased ST and I would don our gumboots, wading through the water to check out the levels on all the nearby ground tanks. With what looked like rivers of water barrelling down the slopes around the house paddock, the tanks were all filling quickly, as were our gumboots when the heavy showers would start again before we made it back to the house. Low lying areas became makeshift dams of their own, with water pooling around the outside of dams, old creek beds and clay pans for months. One spot where there are four dams in a row flooded into one massive lake which became known as "The Big Water" - even the old windmill on its bank was underwater. It was an amazing, instant transformation, with the sudden deafening chorus of frogs of a night time and bird life and insects of a day time.

On the seventh day, when the sun came out, we could honestly hear the angels singing and a string quartet accompaniment. But since then they've obviously cracked the shits, shut up shop, and gone to sing on some other street corner.

Although we’ve had a few showers since then to keep the grass from completely dying out, we’ve now not had any rain run-off into tanks since The Big Rain… That's, ohhh… 14.5 months. Too many dams are now empty, with sheep and cattle getting bogged in the ones that aren’t quite. A quick look at the rain record tells me we’ve had 61mm for the year so far (and unfortunately I can’t locate last year’s record.)…but for January to May that’s about half of what we “should” be according to the last 134 years of recorded averages from the Bureau of Meteorology. There are people worse off - heaps of them. But honestly, now would be the perfect time for that 8.5 inches to become twice-in-a-lifetime rain…

In Dubbo last month during the usual trip to Town the Woolworths cashier was chatting to me about how lovely the Autumn weather was. Spending so little time in shops these days I'm no longer accustomed to making small talk, and it was a blast from the past when she added the line, “but I really do hope it rains… for the farmers.”

I smiled and replied, “I am a farmer. I hope it rains too.”


  1. Replies
    1. Thank You BushBelles, I love having you here reading! :)

  2. yes, up here our "dams" haven't had a fill for two years (despite not bad rain in the start of 2012, just none heavy enough to run into them) but this year? woeful. 3" to date for the year. Lucky we have a bore.

    1. It is difficult times Sharon isn't it... but ST's Dad always says that it always does rain again, it's never going to forget how to... so fingers crossed your time will come soon! Chin up x

  3. Who’s that handsome man rescuing the goat? Not sure about the joggers in the tank though… must be from “town”. ;)

  4. Bess, it has been real pleasure to findyour blog and be able to look lightly upon the life that I grew up with through your eyes. I grew up on a place in the nsw corner country and so many memories are hard ones its nice to hear a lighter version.
    I will take exception however to the ease with which the word farmer is bandied about these days by all and sundry as if it applies to any man that makes a living from the land. This is of course incorrect, farmers are people who generally work or till the land and crop it. The business you are in dear Bess is much more civilised. You are a Graziers wife and 70000 acres would entitle you to call your little slice of heaven a "Station".
    Being a newbie to this station life and a journo, you are forgiven for the obvious artistic license and taking advantage of the gross commercialisation of the words "farmers wife" ( tongue in cheek ) just this once.
    I am a graziers daughter but also a ( insert groan ) a cotton farmers wife, so thankyou for the giggles and I look forward to the next installment. Gidyeagirl.

    1. Hi Gidyeagirl,
      Thank you so much for reading, and for your comments! While I know that you would obviously know that I know (wow, how confusing is that!) that Burragan is a Station (that is my address afterall, "Burragan Station") and that we are graziers (that's what we put when we have to fill in occupation on a form)... you are very correct in your comment that I'm taking advantage of commercialisation and artistic license. However it's nothing to do with being a newbie or a journo.
      As a journo I've interviewed wheat farmers from southern WA, beef producers from the Kimberley and Top End, veggie growers in tropical North QLD, cotton growers in northern NSW and fruit growers in Victoria... my agricultural vocab and understanding is rather wide ranging!


    2. But I hope you'd be pleased to know my reasons for using the term farmer rather than grazier were well thought out and the decision was not made lightly.
      My thoughts were something like this:

      1) Grazier, to me, is a subcategory of Farmer. Farmer is the overarching term which covers ALL food and fibre production. A bit like someone just introducing themselves as a Doctor rather than a dermatologist. So I believe farmer is correct - just not specific.

      2) I see the word Grazier as being more "jargon" than is necessary for many of my readers. I have lots of friends who read the blog, from school and uni who spend most of their lives in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. Saying Grazier to them rather than Farmer would be like me using words like presser, grab or par (press release, quote and sentence) when talking to someone with no media experience. As a journo you're taught to write so that someone in grade five could understand your stories. I'm trying to be more accessable and less exclusive...meanwhile the graziers still know what I'm talking about anyway, so it's no harm to them.

      3) To those not in the know, I believe the term Grazier can conjure a simplistic view that our livestock just grazes on the bushland and we just sit back and watch. We are every bit a farmer as one who tills the land. We are growing something (wool and lamb) every bit as alive and in need of care and "farming" as a cropping cockie. We prepare our paddocks and our mobs, we join the ewes and rams at certain times, we monitor the mobs as lambs are born and wool is grown - making sure there are no pests or diseases, we have periods of busy times when lamb marking and crutching etc, and then our "harvest" of shearing... All of this is "farming".


    3. 4) In real life (rather than blog world) we pick and choose our audience of when we call ourselves farmers or graziers, just as anyone does. In fact there are also times we refer to ourselves as Wool Growers too!

      5) I've had this conversation with many people on facebook and find it endlessly interesting...(I am a lover of language after all!)... Last year I asked ST if it worried/concerned him when people called him a farmer rather than a grazier. It went a little something like this:
      Bess: "Babe, do you mind when people call you a farmer rather than a grazier?"
      ST: "No, why would I?"
      Bess: "Well I've noticed a lot of graziers don't like being called farmers, because they say farmers are people who grow crops or plant pastures."
      ST: "Well yeah, techinically that's what we call a farmer I guess. But we're all farmers, it's just that specifically we have grazing country. I guess it depends what kind of country you have as to what specific type of farmer you are. But in the end aren't we all doing the same thing?"

      So if the man calls himself a farmer, that makes me a farmer's wife!

      Station, on the other hand, I have a different thought process on. I do try not to call Burragan a farm, I don't like calling it a farm, because to us it is indeed Burragan Station...but I also more often refer to it as a property rather than a station. There are often times I'm willing just to call it a farm and not worry about it, for ease of conversation with those who aren't up with the lingo.

      Thank you for giving me the chance to explain my thoughts. I'm not trying to change your mind - just giving you an idea of where I'm coming from when I use the terms, and letting you know I'm not throwing the terms around due to lack of understanding. You have also reminded me I should add Station and Grazier to the Urban Dictionary. Thank you! x

  5. Hi Bess,
    In this world of instant gratification and have it done yesterday, you bring a breath of fresh air and sunshine to my day. Thank you.

  6. Hi, I think I found your blog through Mamamia. I loved your article, it spoke to me.

    I live in Hay, NSW (A recent move due to my first permanent teaching move.

    Will continue reading!!