Goyder’s Line: Life on Goyder’s Line

By James McCormack 21 September 2009
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As climate change bites, a historic rainfall marker in South Australia’s marginal lands has increasing importance.

THERE’S A MODEST BRASS brass plaque just north of the village of Melrose on the edge of South Australia’s Willochra Plain, amid gnarled river red gums and in the shadow of Mt Remarkable. Another, identical to the first, sits near Pekina, below hills where the wind seems to blow constantly and wild grasses bend low with each gust. There are several other such plaques, at various points along the great plains of SA’s mid-north. They commemorate one of Australia’s most visionary, enduring, misunderstood and under-recognised land-management accomplishments: Goyder’s Line of 1865.

As a geographical concept, Goyder’s Line is claimed to rival Wallace’s Line in Asia (see page 97). Yet outside of SA the line is barely known, and even within the State it is frequently oversimplified. It’s usually neatly packaged as following the 10-inch (250 mm) rainfall isohyet – the line linking places of equal rainfall – but it’s much more complex than that. It isn’t as simple as stating: “land inside the line is more reliable for cropping and land outside is less reliable”; “the region is on the brink of catastrophe”, and “the current string of poor seasons is due to climate change”. Yet in each of those statements there is some truth.

History of Australian drought

The drought of 1864–65, one of the worst in SA’s history, led to the line being drawn. For nearly two years, properties in the north received insufficient rain to saturate the soil. Stock losses were immense and, with the vegetation gone, great dust storms swept away the topsoil. Pastoralists demanded rent relief, and George Goyder – SA Surveyor-General from 1861 to 1894 – was sent north “to lay down on a map, the line of demarcation between that portion of the country where the rainfall has extended, and that where the drought prevails”.

The result was his line of “reliable rainfall”. Sweeping up in a great arc from the Victorian border north of Pinnaroo, it runs to the east of Burra and then more or less north to two “horns”, an eastern one near Orroroo and Pekina, and a western one near Melrose and Mt Remarkable. Then it curves southwards, down near Moonta on the eastern shore of Spencer Gulf; from south of Cowell, on the gulf’s western shore, it continues towards the north-west, and finally peters out north-east of Ceduna.

According to Goyder’s biographer Jan Sheldrick, the line’s most contested section was always its northern limits – an area that acts as a microcosm for many of the issues facing Australia’s marginal lands.

“You’ve picked the right year to look at the line,” Keith Nutt told me. It was Friday, the night to be seen at Pekina pub, and there were more patrons than the village has residents. Every seat was taken, and the jukebox ground out a steady stream of rock classics. Amid the trading of farmer gossip, Keith and his neighbour Trevor Laskey told me that in 2008, crops inside – south of – the line had been successful, even if yields were down slightly. For most farmers outside the line, and for many right on it, it had been yet another poor year, one in a painful succession. Their last good crop grew in 2001.

It’s not just the run of bad years that hurts. For starters, the rain is falling, but outside the growing season. Then there’s the issue of profitability. While grain volume, quality and prices fell, input costs rose dramatically. “I got drums of glyphosate [a widely used herbicide] at Christmas 2007 for $127 each,” Trevor said. “By seeding time in May, they’d jumped to $337 a drum. And fertiliser did the same. It’s gone from $750 a tonne up to $1600–1800.”

But worst perhaps is the psychological damage caused by the heartbreaking so-near-and-yet-so-far quality of 2008, a year that could have broken the string of bad ones. “When the season opened it was a really good start,” Trevor said. But the spring rains never materialised, and the crops failed. “This is the first time in my life I’ve seen crops get knee-high and then die.”

“It really pulled the rug out from under a lot of people’s feet,” Jeff McCallum told me earlier in the week, while we baled a failed barley crop on 400 ha Willochra Creek, near Melrose, where his family has been cropping since the 1870s. “At the beginning of September, people were starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. The paddock Jeff and I were in, under a sky as hard and flawless as a diamond, is just 1 km outside the line. In 2008, that was the difference between reaping and not reaping. Jeff has property on both sides of the line. Unlike this paddock, his land just inside the line yielded nearly 50 bags to the hectare. “The bottom line is always rainfall.”

You’ll never understand the line’s uncanny prescience without understanding Goyder himself, who for almost three decades shaped SA’s land-management policies. Jan believes Goyder was a genius: “He was enormously perceptive and an uncannily sharp observer. Nothing escaped his attention.” He was famously dynamic, picking up the nickname ‘Little Energy’ (he was only 1.6 m tall).

Goyder’s climate line 

Trained as a railway engineer – at the time some of the best possible experience for a surveyor – Goyder arrived in SA in 1851. Spending a tremendous amount of time in the field, he rode extensively around the margins of settled country. On journeys in the late 1850s, he witnessed the flooding of the inland – Lake Blanche in 1857 and Lake Eyre in 1859 – and the extraordinary transformation of the desert that takes place after rain. This experience enabled him to identify the key importance of rainfall variability. In 1864–65 alone, while valuing pastoral leases, he covered an astonishing 30,000 miles (48,300 km), changing mounts twice daily. He took numerous transects, zigzagging across the country and taking note of vegetation changes.

These extensive travels and acute observations allowed Goyder to recognise the extreme inconstancy of the Australian climate. “He was remarkably ahead of his time in terms of understanding risk and reliability and the variability of rainfall in Australia, which is the key issue,” said Peter Hayman, principal scientist within the Climate Applications Unit of the SA Research and Development Institute (SARDI).

Upon being ordered out to map the extent of the drought, Goyder spent just three weeks in the field. But his experience of the country enabled him to return with something far more complex than his superiors envisaged. He mapped a series of lines, the southernmost being his line of reliable rainfall. Initially, despite some rumblings, the line itself was not overly controversial; debate at the time was focused on the necessity, or otherwise, of drought relief. However, the line soon came to be viewed as a practical limit for agricultural development, which Jan believes was Goyder’s intention from the outset. In 1872 it became law and no land grants were made outside the line.

Almost immediately, there was a string of good seasons, fuelling a land rush. The previous decade’s horrendous drought was forgotten, and many came to regard the line as an unreasonable hindrance to settlement. While Goyder had his supporters, others ignored or misunderstood the reliability aspect of his line. He was mercilessly satirised and criticised in parliament. It didn’t help that there developed at the time a widespread folk belief in rain following the plough; the act of tilling the soil, it was claimed, permanently increased rainfall in the newly cropped areas by releasing either the Creator’s munificence or the soil’s moisture. By 1874, despite Goyder’s reservations, pressure on the government was such that the line had to go.

It took only a few seasons for Goyder to be proven right. The hauntingly beautiful ruins north of his line are, in part, a legacy of the folly of this 1870s push north. There’s the feel of an open-air museum about the country near Goyder’s Line; around every bend, over every hill, there is likely to be another ruin, another abandoned farmhouse, another raw, crumbling dream.

But it’s possible to read too much into the ruins. Whether inside, on, or outside the line, ruins abound throughout rural SA. The State’s past preference for close settlement – most properties in the 1870s were of 1 square mile (259 ha) – meant many holdings were simply too small to be viable.

Farmers today can draw on a dazzling array of tools. From air-conditioned harvesters and tractors they can use GPS technology to sow seeds centimetre-perfect. They can sow entire crops in days, allowing them to time it with rainfall. Back in Goyder’s day, sowing took many weeks, leaving farmers no choice but to plant regardless of whether rain had fallen. These days, farmers can use DNA technology to understand soil pathology, and electromagnetic induction instruments to map their soil types with precision. There are new, shorter-stemmed, more drought-tolerant wheat varieties. And the soil is barely disturbed now. There is no longer wholesale tilling; instead there is one-pass sowing and direct drilling. Stubble is no longer burnt; it is left intact. Weeds are fought not by ploughing, but with the largely environmentally benign glyphosate. Fifth-generation Black Rock farmer Jim Kuerschner told me: “The soil structure is better than ever.”

Thanks to these new management systems and technologies, “we can grow a crop now on less rain than they could 100 years ago”, said Jim’s father Gerald. This has blurred Goyder’s Line, making it possible, and indeed profitable, to crop beyond it. Yet the technologies come at a price; none of the farmers I spoke to on Goyder’s margins have taken up the more expensive GPS and zone-mapping technologies. And for all, a new $400,000 harvester is out of the question. There are social costs, too. Because technology allows increased yields, it also enables farmers to manage more land, so fewer are needed. Jamestown-based Michael Wurst, of government-owned farm consultancy Rural Solutions SA, placed this in a local context: “Very few properties would be sold in the area with a new person coming in. There was a sale [near Pekina] on Friday; that was one farm, and now that’s been split up between four neighbours.”

Increasing holding sizes has been a survival tactic for Goyder’s Line farmers, probably since the land was first cropped. But it isn’t merely the safety of cropping more land that drives this; diversification is a critical strategy. “If you have a failed crop you can either graze it or cut it for hay. It just gives you more options,” Jeff McCallum told me.

It’s easy to look at northern Goyder’s Line towns like Terowie and Yongala – dilapidated, fading, nearly all their businesses shut – and blame their demise, as some news stories have, on the poor seasons. But this phenomenon of village general stores closing and businesses being usurped by larger town supermarkets is hardly unique in rural Australia. And if you dig a little deeper, you find that Orroroo and Melrose – towns right on the tips of the horns, which you might suspect to be the hardest hit by drought – seem to be doing quite well. Orroroo, with about 550 residents in a grid of solid stone dwellings, is spruced up and freshly painted. A newly landscaped avenue of kurrajongs lines its main street. Melrose, population 200, with two pubs and a steady stream of passing travellers, hasn’t had a business close in five years.

What helps keep both towns vibrant is a mirroring of the strategy pursued by the farms they serve: diversification. In Melrose and Orroroo, it’s the income boost of tourism. In the case of the farms, diversification is achieved through running mixed operations and – perhaps even more importantly – by securing off-farm income. Rather than towns being dependent on the health of farms, it’s possible that the reverse relationship is more critical, with farms increasingly dependent on the health of towns.

When Merv Lewis told me his wife was his “best paddock”, I didn’t understand him at first. A fourth-generation Wandearah farmer, he’s an imposing man to match the corpulent river red gums that line the (now dry) Broughton River, which runs though his richly loamed, 500 ha Broughton Lee. “She’s retired now but when she was working, she was bringing in more money than any of the paddocks on the farm,” he said. “For a lot of farmers, having a supplementary income is really critical. The fact that their wife, or son, or son’s wife can work off-farm means they’ve got a regular income, and it insulates them from market prices, fertiliser prices, the price of fuel and,” he stressed, “rainfall.”

Because of this off-farm income, most farmers I spoke to aren’t eligible for income support. And many don’t want it anyway. “I don’t think any farmer wants handouts, at least not the ones around here,” Merv said.

Government support, however, need not be mere handouts. Jim Kuerschner said support could take the form of maintaining health and education infrastructure. Referring to the nearly 70 nursing staff at Orroroo Hospital, he said: “A lot of them are farmers’ wives, and they all buy their groceries in Orroroo. As soon as you downgrade your hospital, you lose half your staff, and it just has a snowball effect.”

Climate change models

The big question is whether the current string of bad years along Goyder’s Line is simply cyclical, or something more permanent. The farmers, for their part, seem unified: none said this is definitively climate change. The experts seem to agree, at least with respect to precipitation.

“In terms of temperature rises, the global climate model is pretty clear,” said Darren Ray of the Bureau of Meteorology. However, he cautioned, “the rainfall signal is a lot less clear in terms of climate-change impacts”. Similarly hesitant was SARDI’s Peter Hayman: “The rainfall outlook is the most worrying, but also the most uncertain.”

But there are disconcerting signs. Darren said the rainfall declines in recent winter and spring growing seasons are exactly as projected by CSIRO climate-change models. Moreover, he said, “You’ve got this mid-latitude belt of high pressure called the sub-tropical ridge, and the position and strength of it has a big effect on whether the cold frontal systems… can move up and drop rainfall [on SA].” As climate models have predicted, the sub-tropical ridge has been strengthening globally, and in particular over southern Australia, meaning less rainfall for SA. Pressures in the sub-tropical ridge may have increased by only a few hectopascals, but had September 2008 provided just one more decent rainfall, it could have been a good year. “We were one inch of rainfall away from making a packet of money,” said Neil Byerlee, who crops 22 km outside the line up near Carrieton.

Baroota farmer Barry Mudge, whose 1600 ha are outside the line, said: “In the worst 30 or 40 per cent of climate-change scenarios, we are faced with system change, moving out of cropping into something else.” Because no matter the improvements science yields, some things will never change: “We’re not going to come up with a wheat plant that doesn’t need moisture.”

If climate change is occurring, does this mean moving Goyder’s Line? And if so, by how much? For many farmers, there is consensus: it should never move. “Goyder’s Line must stay where it is,” Neil’s father Malcolm told me emphatically. “If we want to establish any other lines that’s fair enough. But Goyder established that line and…it’s a great reference point.”

Where would a new line of reliable rainfall be if one were to be created? Modelling done by CSIRO’s Mark Howden, in conjunction with Peter, suggests that by 2070 it could push as far south as Clare – about 120 km south of its current position, which would be devastating for SA agriculture. But long-range climate movements are difficult to predict. Moreover, according to Peter and Mark, farmers on Goyder’s Line believe technology will keep pace with climate change, at least for the time being. Most see it taking until 2030 for technological improvement and climate change to cancel each other out, and until 2070 for climate change to override technology improvement.

If farmers learn to manage risk and cope with fewer good years, then “the point at which profits are no longer achievable” could be considered the new equivalent of a reliable rainfall line. If that was the case, then deregulation, production costs, grain prices and the availability of off-farm employment will all be as influential as climate in determining reliability.

“These low-rainfall farming people are well-recognised and respected for their ability to handle risk,” Peter said. “But a small overcapitalised farm in a higher rainfall zone is also on the edge of a margin…it’s just perhaps more stark when you see the desert or the rangelands to the north of you.”

Farmers on Goyder’s Line, with their greater emphasis on diversified grazing and cropping, believe that life on the margins has made them better, tougher, more efficient producers. “If climate change causes reliable rainfall to move south, it won’t be the people here that will suffer, it’ll be the people further south,” Jim said. “We’re used to tough times… it won’t be such a big change for us.”

Source: Australian Geographic Oct – Dec 2009