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."
Except there is water. You can see it rippling underneath the main road just a mile from where his truck is parked. It's the Southern Main Canal, an irrigation channel from Australia's legendary Murray River, which along with the Darling River and other waterways is the water source for the South Australia capital of Adelaide and provides 65 percent of all the water used for the country's agriculture. Adlington possesses a license to draw 273 million gallons of water annually from the Murray-Darling River system. The problem is the water has been promised to too many players: the city of Adelaide, the massive corporate farms, the protected wetlands. And so, for the past three years, the New South Wales government has forbidden Adlington from taking little more than a drop. He still has to pay for his allocation of water. He just can't use it. Not until the drought ends. Adlington finds himself chafing at the unfairness of it all. "It's the lack of rain," he says, "but also the silly man-made rules." Those rules seem to favor everyone except farmers like him. Meanwhile, he's selling off his treasured livestock.
"It's easy to get depressed," he says in a calm, flat voice. "You ask yourself, Why have I done it?" Malcolm Adlington didn't use to doubt himself, but then he has not been himself lately. The drought has depleted more than just his soil. He finds himself bickering with his wife, Marianne, hollering at the kids. He can't afford the gas to take Marianne into town as he used to. With all of the other farmhouses closing up, the nearest boy for his son to play with now lives ten miles away.
Adlington has put his own family acreage up for sale. "Haven't had one person look at it," he says. Not his first choice, obviously. Not what an Adlington would ever wish to do. But when the hell did his dad or granddad ever have to deal with a bloody seven-year drought?