On the side of a road somewhere in southeastern Australia sits a man in a motionless pickup truck, considering the many ways in which his world has dried up. The two most obvious ways are in plain view. Just beyond his truck, his dairy cattle graze on the roadside grass. The heifers are all healthy, thank God. But there are only 70 of them. Five years ago, he had nearly 500. The heifers are feeding along a public road—"not strictly legal," the man concedes, but what choice does he have? There is no more grass on the farm he owns. His land is now a desert scrubland where the slightest breeze lifts a hazy wall of dust. He can no longer afford to buy grain, which is evident from the other visible reminder of his plight: the bank balance displayed on the laptop perched on the dashboard of his truck. The man, who has never been rich but also never poor, has piled up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. The cows he gazes at through his windshield—that is all the income he has left.
His name is Malcolm Adlington, and for the past 36 of his 52 years he has been a dairy farmer, up at five every morning for the first milking of the day. Not so long ago Adlington used to look forward to a ritual called a dairy farm walk. State agriculture officials would round up local dairy farmers to visit a model farm—often Adlington's, a small but prosperous operation outside of Barham in New South Wales. The farmers would study Adlington's ample grain-fed heifers. They would inquire about his lush hay paddocks—which seeds and fertilizers he favored—and Adlington was only too happy to share information, knowing they would reciprocate when it came their turn. That was the spirit of farming, and of Australia. A man could freely experiment, freely reveal his farming strategies, with the quiet confidence that his toil and ingenuity would win out.
"That," Adlington observes today, "was before the drought came along." A decade ago, Adlington employed five farmhands. "It's just the wife and I now," he says. "The last three years we've had essentially no water. That's what is killing us."