Above: Townsville floods, 2019.
Below: Paragon Turf, during the Townsville floods, 2019.
From drought to flooding rains and the ripple-effect of a building industry slump caused by the mining downturn, Townsville turf producers have copped the lot in the past five years. Sandra Godwin speaks to four Townsville growers to find out how they’re coping.
Despite the tropical location, Townsville is known for its variable climate – dry winters and bursts of monsoon rain in summer – but severe drought began to take hold across the region in 2012. Month after month of below average rainfall sucked moisture from the soil and dam levels plummeted.
Urban water restrictions followed and in November 2015, drought was declared in Townsville. That year set a new record for the city’s lowest annual rainfall: 397.6 millimetres (mm) compared to the average of 1128mm. By then more than 86 per cent of Queensland was in drought.
The state’s graziers were sending huge numbers of livestock to slaughter and, after three failed wet seasons in a row, many left their properties unable to cope with the financial and mental strain.
Townsville turf producers, although fortunate enough to have access to unlimited supplies of bore water, also found themselves in difficulty.
Lachlan Moncrieff, of Paragon Gardens, recalls they could grow as much turf as they wanted, but once water restrictions kicked in, they couldn’t sell it. At one stage, laying turf was banned and growers were forced to negotiate an exemption with Townsville City Council.
“It slowly but surely crippled our industry,” Lachlan said. “We had nearly three years of water restrictions and in that time our industry shrank. Our turnover decreased by 75 per cent.”
In 2016 the collapse of Queensland Nickel and closure of its Yabulu refinery, which directly employed 780 people and indirectly supported another 1190, punched a $1.1 billion hole in the economy, undermining business and investor confidence.
This intensified the ongoing slump in building activity that had already caused a decline in demand for turf. The residential building sector, which had been their “bread and butter” and peaked at more than $564 million in 2009-10, dropped to $246.1 million in 2017-18.
Aaron Radeck, of Laudberg Park, said his sales had dropped at least 50 per cent and 2018 was the most difficult he’d experienced in 21-years of producing turf.
“People don’t want to buy it if they can’t water it,” he said. “I could grow it, but I couldn’t sell it. I had to look further for markets; north, south and west out of town because of the water restrictions.”
After a similar fall in sales, Darren Poole, of Acacia Turf Farm, found himself working another job to make ends meet – at the quarantine station handling cattle being prepared for live export to Asia.
“I was doing a fair bit of that at one stage, just to survive,” he said. “Yard work, dipping, drenches, feeding and tagging before they get on the ship. That (started in) 2017 when we were in the middle of the water restrictions here, so it was very tough. Luckily, at that stage there were still some new houses getting built and there was a watering exemption for new housing, so that was pretty much the only thing that kept us in the game.”
As well as imposing water restrictions, the Council embarked on an education campaign encouraging people to choose turf varieties that needed less water, such as Couch and Zoysia.
Andrew Beasley, of U-Bute Turf Farm, said he had diversified into more drought tolerant varieties, including Sapphire Soft Leaf Buffalo, as well as Greenlees Park Couch and the traditional North Queensland Carpet Grass, also known as Tropical Buffalo, he’d always grown.
Darren started growing Zoysias – he now has Nara Native, Matrella and the Hybrid ZT-11 – six years ago and said they had saved his business.
Lachlan said there had been reasonable demand for Zoysias since the drought declaration was lifted in May 2018, but he expected it would take time for people to adjust.
Above: Left – Lachlan Moncrieff, Paragon Gardens. Middle – Aaron Radeck, Laudberg Park. Right – Darren Poole, Acacia Turf.
As if all that wasn’t enough, an unprecedented rainfall event dumped more than a year’s worth of rain on the region in early 2019.
Townsville itself received 1392.4mm between January 27 and February 8 and another 151.6mm in late March.
The Ross Dam was unable to cope with the summer deluge and authorities opened the spillway gates, adding to the flooding that damaged more than 3300 homes.
Lachlan said the flood caused fungal disease in his turf and left a thick layer of slime on the ground.
“Then we had two weeks of really hot weather, so everything cooked,” he said. “That was probably the worst, the heat. After 1.5 metres of rain we were irrigating five days later … to try and stop the ground from heating up.
After that it continued to rain intermittently, and we were unable to work for about 10 weeks straight.”
“We’ve been through a tough time, but things are different now and we’ve turned the corner.”
Townsville’s disaster recovery effort has so far focused on repairs and the rebuilding of flood-affected houses –by July 1471 were still uninhabitable – diverting builders and tradesmen away from working on new homes.
Lachlan took whatever odd jobs he could find during the initial clean-up, trucking rubbish to the dump, trimming trees, repairing fences and doing general maintenance.
With the aid of a State Development Small Business Digital Grant, Lachlan and his wife, Sacha redefined the direction of their business and developed a solid marketing plan.
Lachlan is confident the worst is now behind them.
“We’ve been through a tough time, but things are different now and we’ve turned the corner,” he said.
Building approvals for new homes, which shrank to just 12 in February, have begun to pick up.
A 15-year City Deal signed in December 2016 by the Council and the Queensland and Federal Governments is geared towards growing the economy of Townsville and revitalising the city.
Among its 16 projects are the $250 million 25,000-seat North Queensland Stadium which is under construction and scheduled to be finished ahead of the 2020 Rugby League Season.
There are signs of recovery in the broader economy as well, with the approval of Adani’s $2 billion Carmichael coal mine, a $300 million expansion of the Sun Metals zinc refinery, new solar farms and a proposed $2 billion lithium-ion battery plant.
Darren said he was hopeful this activity, and the jobs they provided, would bring people back to Townsville and business would pick-up.
“We’re at the bottom now,” he said. “With interest rates being low, when banks start lending a bit of money … and there’s a bit of money being spent around town. It filters through eventually.”
Andrew said work was now starting to trickle in from people repairing lawns after the drought as well as those hit by the floods.
Deputy Mayor Councillor, Les Walker, who is also Chair of the Townsville Local Recovery and Resilience Group, said the Council was determined to prevent a repeat of the hardship endured during the drought.
“The City’s three-point approach to the long-term water security for Townsville is now fully funded by government and will ensure the City’s businesses and community don’t experience the same shortages and impacts again,” he said.
This includes the $215 million 36.5-kilometre Haughton Pipeline duplication project due for completion next year, a recycled water reuse scheme and $10 million in incentives for householders to reduce outdoor water use.
Aaron said water security would be crucial for the future of his business.
“That’s probably been the biggest killer for turf,” he said. “People don’t want to buy it if they can’t water it; can’t look after it.”
Lachlan has high hopes for a decent monsoon season in 2019-20.
“People are still scarred by the whole water use thing, so they’re reluctant to spend the money,” he said.
“Hopefully, we’ll get a wet season at the end of this year and that will fade in their memory and they’ll start buying more grass.”
Source: Bureau of Meteorology