How quickly time passes. It is already almost a year since the Irish Tillage and Land Use Society (ITLUS) tour across three states in Australia, specifically Western Australia (WA), New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland (QLD).

There were many things that stood out from the experiences of the trip and I will bring some of these to you online in the coming weeks.

Farmers' attitudes

One of them was unquestionably the attitude of the people and the farmers.

The glass always seemed to be half full and there was a level of pragmatism about the future and its possible consequences.

There was no sense of expectation or entitlement.

We met hundreds of trucks carrying fodder and straw from south to north.

Individuals had to plough their own furrow, make serious decisions unaided and live with the consequences of remoteness.

This was very much how the people we met saw the state of farming.

Western Australia

One of the things that surprised me was that much of the land being farmed, particularly in WA, was relatively new to farming, with much of it less than a century in production.

A number of farmers told us of how their fathers or grandfathers cleared areas of bushland, with permission from the state.

We visited an agricultural tractor museum near Hyden which housed many of the machines that worked on that frontier at that time.

We had travelled many miles before we saw kangaroos but they do exist!

Looking at these machines, it was obvious that most were homemade versions of standard machines - tractors that were joined together to double the power and to cope with the challenging conditions presented by the harsh climate.

The current farmers spoke of running dozers or clearing paddocks as they might call it, and then running big discs to grind up existing vegetation.

From Perth, we headed southeast to Esperance. Much of the land in this region had only been cleared in the 1960s and land further east and north is still ‘wild’.

Rainfall levels are higher closer to the coast and this helped crop farming in this area.

The land is also still quite fresh and this, plus higher rainfall and good farming, was helping to achieve wheat yields of up to 5t/ha in good years.

The situation was less favourable in other areas. Rainfall levels varied between 220mm and 450mm per year.

Three consecutive years of drought meant that much of the countryside was burned up and we had great difficulty in assessing what fields were used for.

Much of the pastureland had been grazed to the clay, as animals had little choice but to forage for that last centimetre.

While much of this pasture seemed dead, farmers reported that seeds of grass and clover survived in the soil because of the dry climate and a shallow cultivation was enough to re-establish a pasture.

New South Wales

Our move to New South Wales (NSW) brought little in the way of change. We encountered some rain as we crossed the Blue Mountains travelling west, but the countryside still looked largely burned up.

Fires had been a serious issue in these mountains.

Freerange egg production at Canabolas Eggs in NSW

In this state, farmers were defined as being dryland farmers or not. Dryland farms tended to be bigger because they needed scale to generate income. As in WA, this generally meant crops and sheep.

However, water for irrigation added massively to the land use diversity we saw in NSW.

We travelled west as far Parkes and I used the opportunity to visit the farm of Journal contributor Bruce Watson.

He was away at the time and Mark Swift showed us around the farm - an impressive operation.

In that area, we encountered a sandstorm and saw severe wind erosion in operation.

When it rained, it rained in NSW.

We visited sizable poultry operations, a big dairy farm and vineyards.

Farming decisions were built around water availability and where there was water there was macadamia planting.

As we moved deeper into NSW, we began to meet with more broken weather. Thunderstorms had become common and vicious, but the locals were glad of the rain.

Travelling from Parkes towards Griffith we came into the Riverina region and the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, which is about 160,000ha.

This water system is critical to the variety of agriculture in the region, which is said to be able to grow almost every crop, with the exception of sugar cane and tropical fruits.

Rice paddocks left idle near Griffith in NSW due to the shortage of irrigation water.

The area even grows a substantial area of rice, but production was down by 90% in 2020 because of water shortage.


Queensland was different again. Rain five to seven days before we arrived had given a green hue to the countryside.

Vegetation was quick to reappear following rain in this burned out forest in Queensland.

As we drove up towards and into the Darling Downs around Dalby, we were seeing more grassland and many different crops.

In this area, we saw cotton and sorghum, both of which depend on irrigation.

Huge overground storage tanks for water (one was 20ha) were common, as well as pivot irrigation systems.

Cotton production under irrigation in Queensland.

We later travelled north to sugar cane country around Bundaberg.

Perhaps I was surprised to hear that this was a declining crop in southern Queensland.

Limited yield potential and price was forcing farmers to look for alternatives. And there were many.

Sugar cane and maize growing side by side in Queensland.

There was sugar cane, but we also saw peanuts, sweet potato, watermelons, macadamia nuts, mung beans, avocado, pineapples, soya beans, maize and even ginger production.

Indeed, there is said to be 55 different crops in the region around Bundaberg.