Saving the Outback: Inside One Woman's Positive Approach
Australia’s Outback—the country’s vast, wild, beautiful heartland—is one of the few large-scale natural regions left on Earth. An area of stark contrasts, alternately lush and inhospitable, it supports people, jobs, and economies as well as a rich and biodiverse landscape filled with some of the world’s most unusual plants and animals.
Today, though, it is under threat. Across much of the Outback, there are fewer people managing the land than at any time in world history, which is causing problems such as the uncontrolled spread of feral animals, noxious weeds, and wildfires. This land needs people. It has been home to Indigenous Australians for more than 50,000 years; they have shaped and nurtured the landscape, and had their identity and culture shaped by it in return.
Pew works to conserve this critical region of the world and recently issued a report, My Country, Our Outback, that celebrates the relationship of people with the land by profiling those who live and work in the Outback, and are attempting to carry it safely into the future.
FIRST IN A SERIES
Ann Ballinger is a rebel with causes. She defied the expectations of many when she chose to keep running the 27,000-acre Stockholm Station ranch in western Queensland by herself after the sudden death of her husband, Bill, in 2000.
Her causes have included everything from the local sheep show to mental health and the environment. But above all, she’s always been an evangelist for life in the Outback. It has been her beloved home for most of her life, and she hates to see it depicted as hellish instead of heavenly.
Ballinger yearns for an Outback where there are many more people enjoying its charms, as she does, in order to make it more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. She believes the best solution for safeguarding the Outback’s environmental health is to have more people living in it and managing it appropriately.
“The greatest asset we have is people, and when my generation goes, there’ll be a new breed of young people coming through, and with them will come enthusiasm and confidence,” she says. “And that’s what the Outback needs—an injection of confidence and enthusiasm.”
Ballinger is intensely passionate about the kind of lifestyle Outback living can offer to anyone prepared to give it a try. “It’s a fantastic place to live in and to bring up families,” she says. “I know what a great life it offers and how lucky we are to live here. And sadly, so much of the rest of Australia doesn’t recognize it. They see all the negative things like snakes and dying of thirst and the isolation.”
Pew Report: My Country, Our Outback
Just as Ballinger has a son who has gone to live in a big city and loves it, she believes there are plenty of city kids who would fall in love with the Outback if they experienced it.
“A good example of that is when teachers come to these parts,” she explains. “When they find out they have been posted to somewhere remote, they spend the rest of their summer holidays in tears. But when they get here, they have the most wonderful time, because everyone’s so friendly. One of my main goals is to get across to people that it’s a good life here in the Outback. We don’t tell people enough about it.”
She believes that if enough people resided in the Outback, all would be good. “People create industry. Get the people here and the rest will look after itself.”
She hopes more Outback residents will share their stories on social media and help overcome the negative perceptions that urban people hold toward remote Australia. She would also love to see a high-quality TV miniseries about Outback life. “I think people would love to look into our lives more,” she says.
If a camera were to peer into Ballinger’s life, it would show her tackling Stockholm’s biggest threat, prickly acacia, in the cool of the early morning—spreading pellets and spraying from her four-wheel motorbike to kill off the invasive weed. It wouldn’t show her covered in dust and sweat, straining against a fence in the baking heat of the afternoon, though. That’s when she takes her daily siesta in the air-conditioned comfort of her homestead.
The camera would find her in her office doing important work on the phone or the computer for farming and natural resource management support groups. At sunset it would show her sitting beneath the deep eaves of her veranda, nursing an ice-cold can of beer as she gazes over a breathtakingly vast paddock of golden Mitchell grass and kangaroos drinking from a pond.
This end of the house was once the post office in nearby Muttaburra but was hauled out to Stockholm to become the homestead in 1936. Its pastel colors, high ceilings, rural curios, corrugated iron, art, nooks and crannies, peeling paint, farm furniture, and knickknacks all come together beautifully in what could best be described as bohemian Outback style.
The view from the veranda also includes the tennis court; flowering bougainvillea, frangipani, and poinciana; fruit trees; tall gums; and a patch of green grass. In this environment of extremes, Ballinger is particularly proud of the many trees she has planted and nurtured to maturity.
Indeed, Stockholm Station feels every bit as charming and sophisticated as its Scandinavian namesake.
This tidiness wasn’t evident when her husband was alive. “It’s what happens when a woman gets in charge,” Ballinger confirms. She believes tidiness and image aren’t just there to make one feel good—they are key factors in running a successful business and in making the Outback a beautiful place to live.
Ann Ballinger surveys her property and home for decades, the 27,000-acre Stockholm Station ranch in western Queensland. The Outback is "a fantastic place to live in and to bring up families," she says. "And sadly, so much of the rest of Australia doesn't recognize it."
Ballinger can’t understand why Outback Queensland can’t win people back by once again embracing some of its former industries. She also sees a fantastic future in new industries such as alternative energy. A massive $70 million, 80,000-panel solar farm is already planned for the nearby town of Barcaldine.
But the most important requirement for building a vibrant Outback, she believes, is cutting-edge internet and telecommunications technology that will enable people to reside there while making a living through connecting with the world. “We don’t have to stick solely to these industries,” Ballinger says of wool and beef.
Add to that education and best-practice resource management and you have Ballinger’s recipe for maintaining an economically and environmentally sustainable landscape in this part of the continent.
Right now, though, things are pretty bleak in the Muttaburra district. Drought has hit hard—some say it’s the worst anyone can remember. By late 2015, more than 80 percent of Queensland had been classified as drought declared—the biggest portion of the state ever to be covered by this official proclamation of rural hardship.
Struggling farmers who qualify can get tens of thousands of dollars in drought assistance to keep going. There are drought fundraisers going on in the cities, and a rural debt and drought task force is touring Outback centers trying to come up with solutions. The Rotary Club is putting on an outdoor cinema night near Muttaburra to get people off their properties and lift their spirits.
Stockholm Station is looking better than most in the district, but even here can be found all the stereotypical features of an Outback drought: dust, dung, patches of bare earth, baking heat, shimmering mirages, empty dams, dry creek beds, flies, gaunt livestock, barbed wire, emaciated kangaroo carcasses. A headline in The Courier-Mail newspaper declares: ‘Queensland drought crisis: families suffer Third World-like malnutrition.’
That kind of media report causes Ballinger angst. She despairs that such images are constantly shown to metropolitan Australia as being synonymous with Outback life, where life is a constant struggle, people rely on the charity of others, and the climate is relentlessly brutal.
Ballinger wants people to also hear about the fun times, like the night out at the Muttaburra pub for a neighbor’s birthday. Outback people know how to party, even when times are tough. She would also love urban people to experience all the fun at Muttaburra’s biggest event, the Landsborough Flock Ewe Show, with its livestock competitions, fashion parade, and entertainment. “The main reason for holding the show is for people to get together,” she says. “It does everyone a lot of good to have a nice day out.”
Ballinger tosses poison pellets to help control the spread of prickly acacia, a major invasive species across the Outback.
But even retaining residents who are born to the Outback life is proving to be a challenge. Despite Ballinger’s passion for the country life and what she says were idyllic lives growing up on Stockholm Station, only one of her three adult children still lives in the Muttaburra district. A sign outside the only pub says Muttaburra once boasted six hotels, but that was back in 1890. Today it’s a village of about 60 people.
Ballinger says life has been lonely at times, and it has been hard managing Stockholm by herself. She has had to do some things she had never done before, such as kill and butcher livestock. And her work includes driving trucks and tractors, fixing fences, pumps and pipes, distributing blocks of lick to the cattle, and cleaning out stock troughs.
Still, she has relished the challenge of running an Outback station on her own. “I’ve always felt quite confident,” she says. “It’s been interesting and enjoyable. I wouldn’t have stayed here if it wasn’t.”
On Stockholm, Ballinger controls feral pigs and wild dogs, but prickly acacia takes up much more of her time. “It’s a fantastic stock feed,” she says—full of protein—but it eventually forms an impenetrable, thorny scrub that outcompetes all native plants. Imported into Australia as a shade and fodder tree in the 1960s, prickly acacia is now considered one of the worst invasive weeds in the country. It has been declared a Weed of National Significance [considered among the most difficult to eradicate] and is classified as a Class 2 pest plant in Queensland. Prickly acacia is also a major focus of Desert Channels, a natural resource management organization of which Ballinger is a board member.
Desert Channels works with landholders to resolve land management problems and issues such as weeds and feral animals. It’s always on the lookout for innovative ways to address the common threats facing Outback land managers. It has its own expert team that attacks prickly acacia on thousands of acres each year in the southwest third of Queensland that drains toward the Lake Eyre basin. The team has even enlisted the help of a drone helicopter to intensify its war on the weed.
Ballinger is particularly full of praise for the mapping and control work that Desert Channels does to respond to threats from weeds and feral animals. The organization monitors and targets feral pigs over vast areas of the Outback, is helping to protect the recently discovered population of the mysterious night parrot, conducts studies on climate change, and runs public awareness campaigns to encourage pastoral activity that is good for the land and also good for the wallet.
Ballinger is looking forward to seeing a new generation of young land managers develop innovative practices that overcome the destructive cycle that often affects Outback farming enterprises—the high debt that leads to overstocking and a reluctance to thin herds when drought hits. That can lead to damage to the landscape and the inability of vegetation to recover when the rains return, resulting in even more debt for those young managers.
Colorful, boisterous birds called galahs congregate around a dam at Stockholm Station, where they arrive to find water.
Ballinger is a big fan of providing education for pastoralists, such as the Grazing for Profit School, that stresses the link between economic and environmental sustainability: the need to destock before doing long-term damage to your land.
“They’re simple things, but we make it seem so difficult,” she says of some traditional approaches to pastoralism. “We’re grass merchants, and without the grass we can’t do anything—our whole livelihood depends on having enough grass. We’ve got to look after that first.”
Ballinger says the pattern that has been established during a hundred years of mostly unsustainable pastoralism has to be broken by putting the environment first; then the other things will look after themselves.
The top 20 percent of farmers—those who are always doing well financially—are testament to this philosophy, she says. That’s why she believes it’s crucial that governments subsidize education programs, because it’s a small investment that will prevent billions of dollars’ worth of land degradation and welfare support over the longer term.
Ballinger also dreams of a day when that same grass she nurtures can deliver her another income stream: cash for the huge amounts of carbon stored in its deep root systems.
She believes one of the biggest improvements to the Outback environment in recent years is the way people have embraced rotational grazing, in which livestock graze a small area for a short time before being moved on, allowing that land to recover before being grazed again. The grass is treated as the most precious commodity, not the livestock. “It’s very obvious that it’s certainly the way to go,” she says.
Ballinger says a big part of the Outback’s environmental problem is that “we’re the most conservative people, but we’re the biggest gamblers in the world. Our whole life depends on the weather. It’s a total gamble.”
Another of her projects is aimed at ending that game of chance. She’s on a task force set up by the Queensland farmers’ body, AgForce, that is working on solutions to help pastoralists in places like the Muttaburra district to drought-proof their properties.
She believes people are getting smarter, and the Outback environment is becoming healthier as a result. “People are grazing their land in a more sustainable way,” she says. “They’re more likely to sell [live]stock when things get dry, to protect their grass.”
One of Ballinger’s great fears for the sustainability of the Outback way of life is the perennial concern about reliable access to water. Stockholm and all the Muttaburra district stations are reliant on underground water from the Great Artesian Basin, and she worries that extensive drilling and fracking for coal seam gas could eventually cause the “poisoning” of that water source.
Standing beside her bore, Ballinger describes it as “the lifeblood of Stockholm,” providing water for her livestock and also for the bounding kangaroos and dancing brolgas.
Like many other stations in the region, Stockholm made the transition from grazing sheep to cattle a few years ago. But even the cattle that graze on Stockholm these days aren’t Ballinger’s.
As part of her transition to eventually retiring and moving off the property, she has sold all her livestock and now earns her income through agistment—the money other graziers pay for having their cattle graze on her land. She photographs the cattle with her iPad and emails the images to their owners to show how they’re doing.
While agistment is not as lucrative as having her own livestock, it means Ballinger doesn’t have to worry about mustering and marketing anymore. It gives her more time to enjoy life and manage other income streams.
Ballinger says earning off-farm income is also a key to making a success of life in the Outback. Her off-farm portfolio includes investment properties plus a part share in the Muttaburra Motel, of which she says, “There’s not much in it financially, but it’s been a fantastic thing for the community.” One of her investment properties is on the Sunshine Coast, which will one day become her home when she retires from Stockholm and leaves the Muttaburra district. Like so many others, Ballinger will eventually gravitate to the urbanized coast. She’s sad at the prospect but appreciates the importance of being close to health services and other support in her retirement.
Regardless of where she ends up living in years to come, Ballinger says her heart will always be in the Outback. She’ll never stop singing its praises in the hope that many others will eventually lose their hearts to it, too.
Photography by Kerry Trapnell