Near Woodburn in the Northern Rivers region is Olive Gap Organic Farm, a property run by siblings Alex and Tess O’Reilly and their families, raising cattle, growing and distilling organic tea tree essential oil, and harvesting seasonal cut flowers.
It sounds idyllic, but this farm was just one of many immersed in catastrophic floodwaters affecting parts of New South Wales and Queensland in February and March.
When the floodwaters came, Alex’s partner Tara Luca describes it as feeling “surreal” as despite earlier heavy downpours, when the flood arrived there was no current or rain, just still waters rapidly rising before their eyes.
Despite this almost gentle arrival, the destruction was anything but. The waters rose up to 3 metres, inundating two of the property’s three residences, farm machinery and sheds, submerging tractors and welders, as well as their newly packaged tea tree oil stock, ready for launch in April.
“We did flood preparation the night before knowing it was going to flood, but even in the last few big floods, it’s only ever touched our back paddocks.”
It was 2 to 3 metres deep where we have our higher ground on the farm, ground that’s never gone under before.”
The family saved all the animals, even kayaking two calves across waters to reunite them with their mothers, but it’s not lost on them the trauma experienced by so many other farmers, who were unable to save their stock and suffered even greater infrastructure losses.
A devastated community to rebuild
During the conversation with Australian Farmers, Tara’s phone line was intermittent, with telecommunications still not fully restored.
“There was pretty much nothing for the first week. That was one of the hardest things for people they couldn’t get in touch with anyone. People couldn’t even call triple zero.”
Tara said they had received incredible support, including orders coming in for what stock they salvaged, but it would be a long time before their community of Woodburn could return to normal life.
“Woodburn was just devastated and I have no idea how many buildings will be condemned and need to be torn down.
“We have no shops, we have no post office, or even a police station.
“There are so many homeless people and it still looks like a war zone – the rubbish hasn’t been collected, the mains street is covered in people’s belongings.
“Defence has been here and people had short term accommodation but that’s drying up and a lot of temporary accommodation being offered is on the Gold Coast, but people have jobs they need to come back to.
That was one of the hardest things for people they couldn’t get in touch with anyone. People couldn’t even call triple zero.”
“In my kids’ school there are three different schools and a pre-school on site, as the other schools are not going to be habitable for a long time.”
Adding further pain to the situation was an already existing housing crisis in the region, further amplified by a shortage of tradespeople and materials.
“I don’t know how it’s going to get fixed and it’s going to highlight the housing crisis tenfold and it’s so frightening that flooding could happen again.”
Looking to the future
It’s hard to comprehend where to even start in the aftermath of flood a disaster. At the moment, Tara said they were letting everything dry out and doing “unplugged work” – mopping up and using using the tractor. The off-grid farm lost its generators and invertors in the flood, but they hope to salvage solar panels.
“Amazingly the tea tree is flood resistant, but it still doesn’t like being under 3m of water. Undoubtably our harvest will be smaller this year, but it still has about six months to put leaf back on.”
Tara acknowledged the flood was a “game changer”, not only for them but the wider communities affected.
Amazingly the tea tree is flood resistant, but it still doesn’t like being under 3m of water.
“We are definitely lucky we grow an Australian native that doesn’t mind the floods and the fires, but I am rethinking the flowers and it’s making me reconsider what crops to grow.”
There are also practical measures, such as more resilient buildings and creating a better evacuation plan.
An optimist and grateful for what they’ve been able to salvage, Tara said: “We ended up quite lucky in lots of ways, we do have some positive stories.”