The NSW floods have been as gut wrenching as drought and caused more damage

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Mark Swift

Our farming systems and research programs are built to deal with drought, but recovery from these floods will take years – and cost billions

Dead carp on a bare red dirt paddock
Top soil was eroded and carp washed up two kilometres from the nearest creek after Mark and Katrina Swift’s paddocks in Tichborne NSW, were flooded in November. Photograph: Mark Swift
Top soil was eroded and carp washed up two kilometres from the nearest creek after Mark and Katrina Swift’s paddocks in Tichborne NSW, were flooded in November. Photograph: Mark Swift

I try not to let significant events pass without inserting some reminders for the future, because memory fades.

It is now three weeks after the flood in New South Wales’ Lachlan Valley, and the peak is downstream. I’ve been identifying the high-water marks around our farm and the local roads.

The landscape looks relatively flat here at Tichborne, just south of Parkes. But even in this country, I have been amazed at the variations in depth of the flood water. At one choke point in a crooked creek, I had to climb a tree to record the high-water mark.

The floods lasted weeks. I don’t think Qantas’s planes had been out of the sky this long at the start of Covid, before the government was scrambling to bail them out. But the best we can hope for when it comes to government assistance will be crappy roads made less crappy and $75,000 recovery grants – if we can navigate the application hurdles – to assist in patching up infrastructure.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting everyone should be bailed out for everything, but perhaps it reflects the difference in political attention between various sectors. Maybe if we were a holiday destination, the politicians might have shown a bit more enthusiasm.

I will not let this disaster die quietly. There is potential for worse in the future. There were probably worse events pre-European settlement and I take it as my responsibility to be better prepared next time.

A red dirt road with deep rivets filled with water
Road damage in Tichborne after heavy flooding. Photograph: Mark Swift

The rain started mid afternoon as I drove my daughter to the dress rehearsal of a play. We rushed to beat the rain in the hope of it was a passing storm as the BoM had only forecast 20 to 30mm.

It was still raining heavily when I picked her up later that evening and did not abate till early morning.

We live beside the train line between Sydney and Perth, and the water is frequently backed up on the upstream side of it. I’d never seen water come through the ballast on the tracks but that night it did.

Come morning, the water had largely left our yard and receded from the train line. My family were greeted with a brown lake, a sight unlike anything we had ever witnessed in the valley.

The rain band had essentially dumped 100mm from Condobolin to Cowra. It’s a bloody lot of water when you consider 100mm spread out over 20,000 sq km, all trying to find its way to the lowest point in the landscape.

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Forbes had only just dried out from the previous flood. The sheer devastation of this event shocked me with its size and power. We have been assessing the damage as we get access to various parts of the farm and prioritise the clean up effort while still needing to run a business.

For example, before we even get to harvest this year’s crop, we need to rescue the remainder of 2021’s crop from flooded storage bags. The only reason we couldn’t fully deliver the 2021 crop was persistent rainfall and impassable roads.

We’ve likely got many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of tonnes of topsoil to put back on to paddocks which will be a significant cost. We have many kilometres of fencing to rebuild which is an issue of limited importance in our cropping business but will be of great urgency to the livestock farmers.

Based on our local landscape and its people, recovery is going to take years and billions of dollars across the states. We are not alone. Much of the western side of the dividing ranges has experienced flooding this spring.

Our farming systems and so much of the industry’s research programs are built to better deal with drought. We have kept abreast of the advancements in farming systems and technology. We are not laggards by any stretch.

I have an agribusiness degree and studied innovation as a Nuffield scholar. We have 17 years of control traffic farming and over 30 years of minimum tillage and stubble retention: considered best practice management in dryland farming in Australia to protect our soils from wind and water erosion and to improve overall productivity. This was not enough.

This event has been as gut wrenching as the drought. And we’ve got more significant damage after this flood than we had from the recent three-year drought.

We operate in a variable climate in central NSW. I would argue it is more challenging to farm than anywhere else in the world from an environmental perspective. We range from multi-year severe droughts that put us in the arid zone, to years such as this where we are completely rain fed and have excess water to run off. We have been aware as a business that wetter years are our money makers and have worked to optimise them.

Now we have a new challenge, to not let the excessively wet years diminish us. I have no desire to watch a second time or to inflict upon the future custodians of this land the destruction of decades of good work in one wet November afternoon.

  • Mark and Katrina Swift farm at Tichborne, central NSW.

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