Despair as crippling drought hammers Australian farmers

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MURRURUNDI, Australia, Aug 8, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – A crippling drought is
ravaging vast tracts of Australia’s pastoral heartlands, decimating herds and
putting desperate farmers under intense financial and emotional strain, with
little relief in sight.

While the country is no stranger to “big drys” and its people have long had
a reputation as resilient, the extreme conditions across swathes of
Australia’s east are the worst in more than 50 years.

A smattering of rain earlier this week did little to ease one of the driest
starts to the year on record, turning pastures to dust and destroying huge
areas of grazing and crop lands.

With no feed, farmers have been forced to ship in grain or hay from other
parts of the country to keep sheep and cattle alive, spending thousands of
extra dollars a week just to stay afloat.

Some exhausted graziers spend hours each day hand-feeding their stock
because the ground is too dry for grass to grow. Others have been forced to
shoot starving cattle.

“They are shooting their stock because they don’t want them to suffer. They
are shooting them because they just can’t afford to feed them anymore,” Tash
Johnston, co-founder of charity Drought Angels, told AFP.

Farmers have also had to ration water for their families and their herds
because the dams on their properties are dry or nearly empty.

Many face the prospect of abandoning their homes altogether — some after
being on the land for generations.

It is a scenario repeated across New South Wales state, where agriculture
contributes more than Aus$15 billion (US$11 billion) to the state’s economy
annually, employing more than 77,000 people.

Authorities on Wednesday officially declared the entire state in drought.

Conditions are similarly dire in Queensland to the north, where the state
government says nearly 60 percent of land is suffering drought conditions.

“This would be the first time in two generations, back to the 1930s, that
we haven’t got a crop up in the autumn or winter time,” Greg Stones, who runs
a small farm of cattle, sheep, grain and crops near drought-hit Gunnedah, a
five-hour drive north of Sydney, told AFP.

“The land is too dry… We’ve put cattle on the highway (near the farm) for
the first time in my life (so) they get a bit of rough grass.”

With farmers facing ruin, the national government stepped in last weekend,
pledging a Aus$190 million package of immediate relief measures.

It includes two lump sum payments worth up to Aus$12,000 per household, and
changes to an assets test to grant support to thousands more farmers. There
was also cash for counselling and mental health services, with drought-
related stress and even suicide a mounting concern, compounded by the
isolation many feel on their remote properties.

“We are the land of droughts and flooding rains. We recognise that. It’s a
very volatile and often capricious climate and Australian farmers are
resilient, they plan for drought, they are good managers but it can become
really overwhelming,” said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

“They understand drought is part of the Australian climate and they manage
for it, but this drought is longer and more widespread than any drought we’ve
seen in over 50 years so that’s why we’ve got to provide additional support.”

– Shocking to see –

NSW Farmers’ Association president James Jackson welcomed the government
measures, but cautioned it was vital to ensure ongoing support, particularly
to address mental health.

Others said it was too little, too late.

“I think the only problem is it was probably a little bit late coming for
some people. They didn’t act fast enough,” Col Barton, whose family has been
on their farm east of Gunnedah since 1938, told AFP.

“All the climate gurus that know all about the weather still can’t tell us
when (the drought is) going to break. We’ve got no idea so we run blind.
We’ve just got to plan and hope and pray that it rains.” Australia’s weather
bureau has warned there is no end in sight and the Red Cross has set up a
relief appeal, while the Salvation Army is distributing food hampers.

It is not just farmers doing it tough, but also the towns that service
them.

Murrurundi, some 300 kilometres (186 miles) north of Sydney, has received
less than 170 millimetres of rain this year and could run out of drinking
water within months.

Severe restrictions are in place, including three-minute showers and only
two washing loads of clothes a week, with fears the town may need to truck in
supplies.

Grazier Mark Wylie has spent Aus$30,000 in the past six weeks boring for
groundwater, to no avail.

Even if he or Murrurundi authorities find a water source, he told local
media: “It’s a finite resource, it won’t go on forever.”

Water diviner Glen Shepherd, who has lived in the town for more than three
decades, said these were the driest conditions he had ever seen.

“It’s shocking to see,” he told AFP. “And the people in the city don’t
realise, or they are starting to realise now, everything does come off the
land — the bread, the cereal, the milk.

“If the drought doesn’t break, it’s going to happen,” he added, referring
to farms going out of business.

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