August 2005


Kerryn Goldsworthy

Drought essay: Cambrai, South Australia

On a Tuesday in June, only a day or two before it finally began to bucket down, an article appeared on page two of the Adelaide Advertiser headed: “Please adopt a starving goat.” Leesa Lewis, director of the Australian Association for Dairy Goats, was appealing to “city people” for financial help, perhaps in the form of schools or businesses sponsoring individual goats. The price of feed, driven up by drought, was something she could no longer afford to pay. If no help were forthcoming, said Lewis, she would have to shoot her 40 dairy goats by Friday. The alternative was to watch them starve to death. Several nearby dairy-goat farmers were in the same boat, and whatever they received in money or feed would be shared among them all.

Lewis’s small hobby farm is out beyond the little town of Cambrai, 100 kilometres north-east of Adelaide. By the time I visit in early July a fortnight of steady, heavy rain has raised a nap of bright-green velvet on the baked earth, and one might think conditions for Lewis and her fellow goat farmers have eased accordingly. But the problem’s not that simple. Lewis’s work is breeding goats; she doesn’t have the land or labour resources to grow feed for them herself, whether it rains or not, and prices have been high since the drought before this one. “A 40-kilo bale of good quality lucerne used to cost $7 to $8. It went up to $14 to $16 in 2002 and simply never came down.” What’s more there’s no regulation, no standard-size or standard-weight bale of fodder, which means the inflated price per bale stays steady while the bales get lighter.

So this story is not directly about the ravages of nature. It is about one of their consequences: drought profiteering. With feed scarce, most of the farmers who still have any to sell have for several years been charging whatever they can get desperate people to pay. Lewis stresses not all are like this, and some local farmers have helped where they could. In response to the Advertiser article a number of readers – “mostly pensioners”, she says – took the trouble to track her down and stump up whatever they could afford to give the association.

Lewis’s share will keep her goats alive until September, when the new kids are due. Of her herd of 40, nearly all are pregnant does, so the herd will almost double at a stroke. “Then we will have to cull dramatically, from a gene pool already very small.” Because they have been underfed all their lives, some of the does are too small to survive motherhood: birthing will be the death of them. Still there will be too many mouths to feed. Culling won’t be prevented, merely delayed. “Oh, I don’t do it myself,” she says. “I couldn’t bear it. I get the bloke up the road to come down with his gun, and then I walk away.”

Lewis’s business is not, as one might have thought, the commercial production of goat’s milk. Australians, she says, simply will not consume goat’s milk, and the demand for it is persistently low despite its usefulness for people with allergies or lactose intolerance. The milk produced by her goats goes mostly to feed their own kids. Lewis, herself an allergy sufferer, uses their milk for her own consumption and that of her pets, makes cheese and yoghurt from it, and sometimes swaps it for hay or lucerne with local farmers who have orphaned lambs to feed. The basis of her business is the export of live goats as breeding stock for commercial dairies in Asian countries – Taiwan, Korea, China, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan – where the demand for goat’s milk is far higher.

Farming of any kind is a demanding and unforgiving life. Lewis is well into her fifties and has a permanent back injury, the legacy of an attack by an angry ram. Is it time to fold her hand? No, she says. What would she say to some hard-hearted unsympathetic sod who argued that hobby-farming dairy goats is impractical in a Darwinian, free-market, drought-dried world – and who wondered why she and her fellow hobby farmers don’t cut their losses and move on? “Because we love the goats,” she replies.

At this, the hypothetical hard-hearted unsympathetic sod would laugh her to scorn. The farmer’s daughter in me is torn between sympathy and impatience. Farming is not supposed to be about love. Is it? But you cannot be a successful farmer or a decent human being without some real sense of connection and respect for the creatures you breed and rear, shear and milk, train and sell and kill. It’s modern humanity’s secular equivalent of worshipping the animals you hunt.

What’s to love about goats? Until now, Lewis has been welcoming and forthcoming enough. But at this question her face lights up. “Their personalities. Their intelligence – the goats are smarter than most of the farmers. They’re affectionate, they’re easy to train and they have a wicked sense of humour.”

We go outside and into their enclosure where I am immediately engulfed, waist-deep, in goats. One delicate white doe prances up to inspect me, and is introduced as Turquoise. They are curious and friendly; very gently, they butt and bump and nibble on my fingers. Goats have long silky ears and eerie golden eyes with black crossbars for pupils. I feel a little disturbance in the small of my back. I turn to find Turquoise trying to eat my jumper. I fall in love.

It’s a sober drive home. Intuition and commonsense tell us that the profiteering farmers will have their own side of the story, and that it’s very likely they’ve been driven to it by the lack of rain. Whatever the rights and wrongs, drought is still the cause and the outcome is still the same: Turquoise and her sisters will be fed adequately and loved to bits until September, but probably not beyond. At least she’s not a battery hen; a short happy life is better than a long miserable one. A long happy one would be much better than either.

Cover: August 2005
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