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TABLE 4.13. Farmer Attitudes to Luck

Response Low Risk Sites High Risk Sites Total
  Pinnaroo Murrayville Paruna Millewa  
Important 30 24 36 55 37
Somewhat important 9 14 16 11 12
Minor importance 27 34 26 18 26
No importance 32 26 22 14 24
No response 2 2 0 2 1
  100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
N= 53 42 50 55 200

Source: Field surveys 1971-72.
a: 0: "I believe that luck . .. ,,
b. See Table 4.1.

TABLE 4.14. Farmer Attitudes to God

Response Low Risk Sites High Risk Sites Total
Pinnaroo Murrayville Paruna Millewa
Supreme 34 13 26 19 23
Helper 34 23 30 26 29
Exists 6 11 8 5 7
None 7 44 16 38 26
No response 19 9 20 12 15
  100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
N= 53 55 50 42 200

Source: Field surveys 1971-72.
a. a "As far as my own life is concerned, God ..." Supreme = accept as, believe to be ultimate being, trust in as basis for life; Helper = recognized as a "doer" (helper, guides; Exists = only recognized to exist; None = means nothing, not effective in life. b. See Table 4,1.

TABLE 4.15. Farmer Emotions during Drought by Attitudes to God

Response Attitudes
Supreme Helper Exists None
Despair 22 19 20 27
Stress 35 35 33 31
Stress avoidance 20 16 13 13
Not affected 17 26 7 21
Other 6 4 27 8
  1 00% 1 00% 1 00% 1 00%
N = 46 57 15 52

Source: Field surveys 1971-72.

a.Q: "The emotions I feel while I am going through a drought are " Despair = despair, depressed, helpless; stress = anxiety, worry, tensions; stress avoidance = optimistic, will end soon; not affected = emotions normal, no different; other = no response or incomprehensible response.
b. See Table 4.14, note a.

TABLE 4.16. Farmer Emotions during Drought by Religion



Catholic Anglican Protestant Other Not Indicated
Despair 0 23 24 0 22
Stress 38 31 34 25 29
Stress avoidance 12 18 18 75 20
Not affected 44 15 15 0 24
No response 6 13 9 0 5
  100% 100% 100% 100% 100%
N= 16 39 100 4 41

Source: Field surveys 1971-72.
a. See Table 4.15.
b. Protestant = excluding Anglican and mainly Methodists or Lutherans.

Finally, the field study provided some evidence of reactions to the possibility of environmental stress-namely drought -being forecast. The general response was to prepare (52 per cent), but over a third (37 per cent) were sceptical of any such forecast and in the high risk sites the figure was over 40 per cent (Table 4.17). When considered in the light of their prior experience of drought, the conclusion from Table 4.18 seems to be that any experience of a drought immediately reduced the willingness to accept and prepare for another drought and increased the sceptical reaction to any such forecast! By contrast 64 per cent of the inexperienced newcomers to the area would accept and prepare for the forecasted drought. When considered by educational qualifications, the higher the qualification the greater the scepticism towards the forecast (Table 4.19). Scepticism similarly increased as number in the household (as a surrogate for family responsibilities) decreased: the bachelors and couples without children showed least concern while the larger families tended to be less sceptical and prepare for the forecast (Table 4.20). Yet even in the largest households, where anxiety over forecasts of drought might have been expected to be highest, 28 per cent of respondents were sceptical of such forecasts. Even if forecasts of drought occurrence could be made therefore, they would be greeted by a significant amount of scepticism from the Murray Mallee farmers.

TABLE 4.17. Farmer Response to Drought Prediction

Response Low Risk Sites High Risk Sites Total
  Pinnaroo Murrayville Paruna Millewa  
Sceptical 34 31 42 40 37
Dismiss 2 10 6 7 6
Accept 4 5 0 2 2
Prepare 60 50 50 49 52
Always prepared 0 2 2 2 2
No response 0 2 0 0 1
  1 00% 1 00% 1 00% 1 00% 1 00%
N= 53 42 50 55 200

Source: Field surveys 1971-72.

a.Q "If a drought is predicted, I "Sceptical = deny prediction, disbelieve it, carry on as
usual; Dismiss = wish it away; Accept = passive acceptance, unable to do anything; Prepare =
accept and act upon it, take precautions; Always prepared = accept but no action needed because always prepared for it.
b. See Table 4.1.

TABLE 4.18. Farmer Response to Drought Prediction by Drought Experience


Drought Experience

None One Two Three
Sceptical 27 37 42 38
Dismiss 9 7 2 8
Accept 0 0 2 3
Prepare 64 52 52 49
Always prepared 0 4 2 2
  100% 100% 100% 100%
N = 11 27 57 106

Source: Field surveys 1971-72.
a. See Table 4.17. b. See Table 4.1.


As with the United States there appears to be no body of data documenting the cost to the farmer of soil erosion on his property. The loss of productivity, both to the farmer and the nation, is implied but rarely documented. In the Murray Mallee, the detailed survey of eroded farms of 1975 suggested that for the neglected and eroding farms "the income . . . would be very low and it will only be a matter of time before the landowner will need to sell" (Wood 1976, 15). The report further acknowledged the cost of soil conservation, for lack of capital was claimed as a barrier to erosion control on 20 (77 per cent) of the farms, and the lack of inclination claimed on a further 7 farms (27 per cent) was suggested to be "closely related to the lack of short term return and the time, labour and capital costs of reclaiming eroded areas" (Wood 1976, 9). Such information, however, can only hint at the economics of soil erosion and in the commercial context of farming activity this is only one of the many economic criteria confronting the farmer. As a recent survey of the South Australian Murray Mallee indicated:

TABLE 4.19. Farmer Response to Drought Prediction by Education



Primary Secondary Tertiary
Sceptical 35 41 50
Dismiss 5 8 0
Accept 3 2 0
Prepare 55 47 50
Always prepared 1 2 0
No response 1 0 0
  100% 100% 100%
N= 127 59 4

Source: Field surveys 1971-72.
a. See Table 4.17.

TABLE 4.20. Farmer Response to Drought Prediction by Size of Household


Household Size

  1 2 3 - 4 5 - 6 7+
Sceptical 46 47 32 39 28  
Dismiss 0 0 13 2 5  
Accept 15 0 3 0 0  
Prepare 39 53 51 59 56  
Always prepared 0 0 1 0 5  
No response 0 0 0 0 5  
  1 00% 1 00% 1 00% 1 00% 1 00%  
N= 13 30 76 59 18  

Source: Field surveys 1971-72. a. see Table 4.17. b. Total persons in household.

Decisions that a farmer has to make in managing his farm are concerned with the availability of capital and ready cash, the availability and cost of labour, markets and prices in relation to potential crop and stock production, actual crop and stock production as affected by soils, environment and available genotypes {pasture and crop varieties, breeds of stock}, together with allied factors such as size of farm, equipment, land preparation, soil fertility, weeds, pests, diseases, soil erosion, grazing management, water supplies, conserved fodder, transport, communication, etc. Family needs can also influence a farmer in deciding how best to manage his farm. [Fawcett 1978, 29]

Bearing this in mind, perhaps the real clue to farmers' attitudes to and concern for soil erosion lies in Figs. 4.8 and 4.9. As Fig. 4.9 in particular shows, the limited surpluses of the 1920s were followed by the long period to 1946 when, apart from 1937 and 1938, incomes were below break-even point. The boom of the 1950s, associated with the Korean War-induced wool prices, was broken temporarily by the 1959 drought, then renewed in the 1960s until broken by the 1966-67 drought and the quotas on wheat production and further droughts in the early 1970s. A recovery of prices in 1975-76 was affected by further drought in 1977 but prices have continued to improve since then. Given this fluctuation and the general coincidence of droughts and low income (since droughts effectively reduce income), if droughts are severe enough to stimulate soil erosion, this problem occurs at a time of reduced farm income-in other words at a time when farmers are least able or willing to do anything about it. Further, the increases in farm size, necessary to provide economies of scale at times of the cost-price squeeze, will reduce the effectiveness of farmers' soil conservation measures "because it will be more difficult to give the individual attention to areas of high erosion risk . . . [that] has been possible in the past" (Fawcett 1978, 48-50).

The Communities' Views

To obtain a representative cross section of the views of the local and regional "promoters" and the South Australian and Victorian "general public" on the question of desertification would have required separate surveys. However, some evidence is available from limited field interviews with the 31 non-farm respondents (mainly townsfolk), unstructured interviews with local community leaders in the study area, and content analysis of local and metropolitan newspapers.

Although there was some recognition of the wind erosion associated with drought onset, most urban traders and shopkeepers in the Murray Mallee associated drought onset with the run-down of trading activity as the farmers reduced their purchases In fact the economic run-down began with the failure of "opening rains" and continued unless the rainfall improved during the growing season. Given the service and general trading function of the small urban centres in the Murray Mallee, such a reaction would be expected, for the financial well-being of the small country towns is still directly related to the well-being of their farming clientele despite increasing evidence of long distance farm trading with the larger metropolitan centres (Smailes 1969). The increase of town-farming, i.e., residence in town for ease of access by farmers adding additional lands for economies of scale in their production, will probably reinforce local urban sympathy for the farmers'

FIG. 4.9.Estimated Net Farm Income in the Murray Mallee, 1907-77 view on soil erosion.

More surprising was the evidence of contrasting appraisals of the significance of the soil erosion problem between the local community and what might be tentatively identified as the metropolitan (or general public?) viewpoint. Prior content analysis of the main local South Australian news paper (The Pinnaroo and Border Times) for the period 1944 to 1970 had shown a changing trend over time (Fig. 4.10):

Trends in Drought impact

Despite the lowest rainfall and soil moisture figures for the period in 1967, the newspaper reports were only one-third the intensity of 1944-45, wheat yields were higher than 1944, and sheep numbers did not decline markedly. Apparently more extreme drought stresses in 1967 could not result in the same loss of production or create as much local interest as the 1944-45 drought. [Heathcote 1974, 134-135]

This reduction in local concern, as measured through newspaper coverage, appears to have been parallelled by an increase in concern at the metropolitan level. Analysis of the coverage of drought and soil erosion in the metropolitan newspaper and the South Australian and Victorian local newspapers for the two major drought years of 1944 and 1967 contrasts the increased coverage at metropolitan level and decreased coverage locally (Table 4.2, A). By 1967 the coverage varied between the sensational metropolitan view and the more matter-of-fact and more optimistic view of the local newspapers (Table 4.21, B). In 1971 further evidence of This contrast appeared when a series of seven articles on "The Rural Crisis" appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser in August 1971 (Cockburn 1971a-g).They were claimed to review the economic prospects for farming in South Australia at a time of a cost-price squeeze and drought impact (Fig. 4.9). Their titles indicate their character:

1 1) "The Battlers"
2) "Gigantic test of nerve for farmers"
3) "Disaster in the Mallee"
4) "Nostalgia at Naracoorte"
5) "Fighting for a way of life"
6) "Moment of truth in the north"
7) "what will the political consequences be?"

Reports numbers 1 and 3 paid particular attention to the Mallee and stressed that, while the efficient farmers could survive, for many the combination of poor prices and drought would be fatal. The third report began:

When they die, the word Mallee could probably be found written on the hearts of more bankrupt farmers than that of any other rural district place name in the State. Just now there is a sad new crop in the making. One Mallee farmer in four is facing failure today. Some have gone already. The rest will walk off their properties some time in the next two or three years. [Cockburn 1971c, 2]

The reaction from the local newspapers was perhaps predictable. The apparent attack on the viability of farming activity and indeed the future of land settlement itself was vigorously disputed. An editorial in the Pinnaroo and Border Times on 19 August 1971 asked:

What in the world can reporters and editors think can be gained from a series of articles on the plight of the farmers such as we have had printed for us in "The Advertiser" recently.... Let's face things as they are -not paint a picture that will play straight into the hands of farm aggregators.

The editorial went on to admit that there were problems - in part from the government quotas restricting wheat production because of a world surplus at the time, but it strongly denied the hopeless picture painted by the Advertiser and invited the reporter to visit the areas again to substantiate his claims. It was suggested that he would find local officials helpful but "practical men" who "believe in their district."

Part of the concern of the local editors rests on their dependence upon advertising revenue from metropolitan sources, particularly the larger department stores. Adverse publicity on seasonal farming conditions had, in the past (1967-68), led to cancellation of these advertisements and on one occasion a report of farmer applications for official drought relief had led to a curtailment of credit to local farmers by the metropolitan department stores. Such actions can only exacerbate misunderstandings and the alienation of rural and urban communities.

Such evidence as can be inferred from the structured and unstructured field interviews suggests that for the local communities, soil erosion is not directly recognized as a major problem and that of more concern is the loss of population as a result of the restructuring of the rural community. The dust storms are regarded as a fact of life in the Murray Mallee; it is the deteriorating social atmosphere which is of greater concern. The dwindling services and job opportunities provided by the local towns, the isolation of farm life on the dispersed properties, and, not least, the limited choice of programmes and poor reception from the local television stations were among the strongest complaints about life in the area from both
farmers (Table 4.6) and non-farmers.

Such evidence as is available therefore suggests that the communities' views on soil erosion are distorted by rural-urban rivalries and misunderstandings and that, not perhaps surprisingly in an area of scattered farms and declining rural population, the views are overshadowed by concern for the social rather than the physical stresses of the environment.


The evidence available has demonstrated the variety of perceptions of the character of the soil erosion hazard in the Murray Mallee. There seem to be at least three appraisals current. The official view, overlapping with and in part reinforced by the researchers' opinions, is that the hazard exists but has been significantly reduced from the past levels, and is controllable. For the future the official view is, with some reservations, reasonably confident:

History would indicate that it is foolish to attempt to predict the future of this area. It is rather unique, with its combination of low rainfall and sandy soils and it has taken 50 years of traumatic experience to solve the problems which prevented the establishment of a stable system of agriculture. However, the technical problems have now been largely solved . . . and it appears likely that a relatively stable, if subdued, period lies ahead. [Potter et al. 1973, 104]

The view of the local communities seems to be that there are more pressing problems facing the area, particularly from the impact of the need to aggregate properties to achieve economies of scale when prices do not keep up with costs. To such communities, the sensational metropolitan media coverage of their general problems is taken, therefore, as further evidence of their own isolation from the urban majorities in the larger cities, as the denial of the success of their rural settlement and its production, and as a failure to recognize the economic predicament of the farmers producing for a fluctuating world market.

For the farmers, soil erosion is a recognized problem, but one which tends to be overshadowed by more immediate economic problems of costs and prices. In an area where seasonal variations are expected and drought makes significant inroads on crop and pasture yields, the additional variations in prices for products can, and have in the past, provide a disastrous combination. At such times, even for the most conservation-conscious farmers, the costs of soil erosion control will be too high.

In summary there seem to be certain pressures which will continue the threat of soil erosion in the Murray Mallee. Quite apart from the fluctuations of the seasons which will continue to cause crop failure and soil erosion, the variation in farmers' perception of the nature and significance of soil erosion will mean that mitigation will be piecemeal and local "hot spots" may develop. Given the commercial context of farming activity, the importance placed upon personal initiative and financial backing by farmers, and their belief in the importance of luck, the long-term effects of soil erosion are likely to be ignored in the fare of the need for short-term profits. There is little doubt that technological innovations have reduced the general land-management problems in the Murray Mallee since the 1944-45 "Dust Bowl." The extent of further desertification, however, will depend in the future just as much as in the past upon the fluctuating curves of rainfall and profits, and because the latter is in part dependent upon the former, the seasonal rainfall will be as important a guide in the future as it has been in the past.


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