Flourishing in the desert

Imagine farming in one of the most arid places in Australia. The Litchfield family manages to produce Angus cross cattle and Australian White sheep (a breed suited to the harsh conditions with a self-shedding coat) on the edge of the Simpson Desert in far north South Australia.

Ellen Litchfield is a farmer, veterinarian and scholar with a keen interest in climate change and some interesting observations about the swing towards plant-based meat alternatives. We are lucky to have captured a spare moment in time to speak with his very accomplished and very busy young mum.

Ellen and husband Blake Ward. Photo by Gabrielle Hall.

Ellen lives on Wilpoorinna Station with her husband Blake and little boy Winston, along with her mother and father. Meanwhile, her aunt and uncle live on the property next door and her brother and his family are their southern neighbours. So, it’s fair to say the Litchfields know a thing or two about living on the edge of the desert. The image many of us have of this part of the world may not be entirely accurate. Right now, it’s teeming with Mulga trees, birdlife and native grasses.

A volatile environment

“We are in the arid rangelands of South Australia. We have the most volatile rainfall of anywhere in Australia, which is pretty much the most volatile rainfall in the world really,” explains Ellen.

“It means there is a stark contrast to how beautiful and picturesque it looks at the moment to what it looked like in 2018 when we were going through a dry spell.” 

There’s a stark contrast in the landscape today compared to the recent drought years.

The fact that it’s a tough place to survive also has its advantages. Introduced weeds also struggle to survive. Properties in the region tend to be large to accommodate those arid conditions. The animals forage for native grasses and herbs. Also, perennial shrubs are crucial during the dry times.

“We are on a pastoral lease out here so there are no inputs. Nothing’s irrigated. There’s no seed being put out. We just have to make sure we manage the grazing levels,” says Ellen.

Managing the land

Part of managing this landscape also comes down to the type of animals the family choose to raise. Australian White sheep have fit in well.

“They are a composite sheep. They shed their wool. They are bigger and a better frame. Very well suited to Australian conditions,” explains Ellen. They also breed Senepol bulls which have a lower core body temperature.

In addition to the type of animals they run, the Litchfield family has other measures in place to deal with conditions becoming hotter and drier. It certainly means constantly keeping across the latest advances in genetics and technology. Solar power and solar pumps are already a fixture on the station.

Ellen Litchfield and her family farm on the edge of the Simpson Desert.

It’s clear Ellen’s knowledge of this landscape is immense. Growing up in such a place has lead her to pursue post graduate studies in climate change and also work with the advocacy organisation, Farmers for Climate Action.

We can grow cattle among the budgies, the grasslands. We’ve got great biodiversity of animals and plants.”

“We’ve always been worried about droughts. It’s a constant threat. There are two parts to climate change that really got me thinking. One of them is that, if it’s going to get drier and hotter, what that means if you already live in a desert?

“Also, when you’re hearing people say how bad cattle are for the environment but I’ve always grown up seeing cattle raised side by side with the native ecosystems out here.

“We can grow cattle among the budgies, the grasslands. We’ve got great biodiversity of animals and plants. You don’t see that in a soybean crop and it’s something we can forget about when we think of ruminants just on their efficiency,” says Ellen.

Sustainable choices

Ellen’s experience on the farm was contrasted with a stint working as a vet in London when she felt there was a sense of red meats losing its appeal.

Not all meat is bad and being able to eat a totally vegan diet is a really privileged life choice. If you want to eat meat, you can choose to eat it in a really sustainable way.” 

“All the hippest new restaurants were vegan. I think we still need vegans! That’s a valid life choice. It’s just that not all meat is bad and being able to eat a totally vegan diet is a really privileged life choice.

“If you want to eat meat, you can choose to eat it in a really sustainable way. It should be really cool that most of the beef produced in Australia is grass fed,” says Ellen.

She also believed eating “nose to tail” is more important where possible to avoid waste. Waste is a big issue for Ellen.

Ellen and her beloved horses. Photo by Gabrielle Hall.

“There’s a rise in vegan leather, which is essentially plastic. It’s gone up heaps in the last four years. 2020 saw the highest number of cow hides going into landfill which I think is such a huge shame. Leather is a fantastic material to use, and instead we’re sending cow hides to landfill. No matter what your life choice is – vegan, flexitarian – you can choose to do it really sustainably.”

Ellen believes being open and understanding all choices is important but bridging the gap between the home and the paddock is a key way forward. Think getting to know your local restaurant owner and shopping at farmers markets. Talk to the people who grow and prepare your food and make a decision that suits your lifestyle. Most farmers are only too happy to have a chat!

Hear more stories just like Ellen’s by subscribing to the Telling Our Story podcast on iTunes and follow podcast host Angie Asimus on Instagram for more updates.

Angie Asimus

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