As any climate-change denier will tell you, there’s nothing new about drought. These days, all our good farmers have learnt that, though you can never tell when, another drought is always coming, so you have to be ready for it.
But Kidman was on quite another level: he found a way to make money out of drought. Dr Leo Dobes, an economist from the Crawford School of Government at the Australian National University, has written a paper attempting to uncover the secret of what Kidman would never have called his “business model”.
Kidman’s modern relevance is not just in overcoming a harsh and unpredictable climate, but in coping with unexpected changes.
From the turn of the previous century, Kidman, born in modest circumstances, built up a collection of cattle properties in the most marginal country in Australia’s Dead Heart – the area around the Simpson Desert, to the north of Lake Eyre – and in the “corner country” where the borders of the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and NSW meet.
In this arid core of Australia, rain was very irregular and occurred mainly through thunderstorms after very hot weather. Kidman said his South Australian properties generally got less than 100 to 200 millimetres a year.
Kidman was always buying and selling properties, ending up with properties extending across the whole continent.
There was an underlying rationale to his acquisitions, however. He had several breeding properties in the north, including Newcastle Waters in the NT and Augustus Downs and Fiery Downs in Queensland, which had a tropical climate with a short rainy season.
Further north in the Gulf country, the summer rainfall seasons were more prolonged, and Kidman also used his properties there to source cattle for southern markets. Properties in the Channel country of south-western Queensland, where the grasses where softer, were used to fatten cattle for market.
A second characteristic of his holdings was the concentration of adjoining properties, running from west of the Darling River to the SA border, along the Diamantina and Georgina rivers and Cooper’s Creek in the Channel country, and along the stock route to the west of Lake Eyre via Charlotte Waters to Marree and Farina. This amounted to two major chains of properties.
“Because the holdings were on, or in close proximity to, major stock routes (and associated watercourses), they afforded easy access to rail heads connected to southern markets” in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, Dobes says.
So, what was the business model that allowed Kidman to succeed where so many others failed? You can see signs of a supply-chain model – a vertically integrated business, from properties that bred cattle, to fattening properties and final sale in capital city markets.
Also signs of spatial diversification. Lack of rain or feed on one property could be compensated by moving cattle to a property with sufficient feed.
“Kidman’s drovers were shifting, shifting, shifting all the time. There was no such thing as starving or dying stock on Kidman’s stations. They just shifted them.”
But Dobes sees Kidman’s business model as captured by his creation of three “real options”. In financial markets, buying an “option” gives you the right, but not the obligation, to buy (or, in other cases, sell) a parcel of shares at a set price at a specified date in the future. It’s a way of trying to protect yourself from uncertain future developments.
In Kidman’s case, however, the options weren’t financial, they were real – physical. Kidman could easily move his stock to better conditions because his properties were adjacent and because he kept those properties understocked. The opportunity cost of understocking was the price of the option.
Second, because his properties followed stock routes and waterways, Kidman could move his stock towards better conditions – and towards the market – in a way that gave his cattle priority over other people’s herds on the route. Again, understocking was the price of this option.
Third, Kidman’s practice of holding properties near rail heads, plus his maintenance of a network of drovers, camel drivers, Aborigines, dingo trappers and friendly telegraph operators, who provided information about the movement of competing herds being driven to various markets, allowed him to direct his cattle to the city market where prices were likely to be highest.
Kidman’s modern relevance is not just in overcoming a harsh and unpredictable climate, but in coping with unexpected changes – in his case, rabbit infestation, erosion, the rapid spread of cattle ticks in northern Australia and the results of overstocking by earlier pastoralists.
Kidman’s “real options” were innovative ways of coping with, reducing and even profiting from uncertainty – which Dobes concludes is the hallmark of climate change. Australia’s farmers and others can adapt to climate change by finding their own real options.
Ross Gittins is the Economics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.