Australia’s drought crisis and farmers’ stories of anxiety, fear and resilience

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We asked readers to share their stories from rising grain prices, to the falling value of stock and the urgent need for help

The price of grain is rising. The price of stock is falling. Everywhere is dust, and the trees are dying. You dont hear frogs any more.

South-east Australia is in the grip of a drought worse than many can remember.

Last month was the second-hottest July on record, and the driest since 2002. It continued a 15-month run of below-average rainfall across New South Wales, central Queensland, the north-west of Victoria and into South Australia.

Here, those on the land cattle farmers, grain growers and others living through the drought share their stories of anxiety, fear and resilience.

Lindy Piper, sheep farmer from Coolah, NSW

I have lived here since 1982 and there have been some very tough times and droughts, but this is by far the worst I have ever seen our farm. What concerns me most is the widespread nature of it from where are we to source grain even if we can afford it? We had no harvest last year and none this year along with most other farmers in south-east Australia.

We, my husband and kids and I, have worked very hard all our working lives to improve the land and our sheep enterprise. It is very hard to see the state of the land now. Many farmers cannot take a break because of the constant feeding of stock and are pretty exhausted.

Maxine Finlay, sheep and cattle farmer from Baradine, NSW

The government has abandoned farmers. If you worked in the city for 12 months and then didnt get paid everyone would be up in arms the government would intervene. Our income from last year has gone on feeding animals to keep them alive. What happens when the feed runs out and we are forced to give up? Well, thats next years income gone too. How would that go down in the city offices if they asked you to come back to work next year without pay? I think the government needs to think more seriously about drought assistance, because loans dont really cut it.

How about the divorces and resultant ongoing ill health, the accidents and suicides that are the results of drought? People say how tough farmers are, but eventually everyone has a breaking point.

Its not only whether this drought is worse, or longer, or whether the drought is over. Its that its another one! Ive been on the land for 40 years and the longer you have been here the more you realise how many times you have lost your income, and watched animals and family suffer. You cant watch animals go hungry and be happy feeding yourself. Or you cut out little treats for your children. Cut back, cut back. You dont buy a business to go broke. You invest to be successful. To work for reward. To prosper.

Mark Robinson, grain grower from Coonamble, NSW

Mark
Mark Robinson, a grain grower from Coonamble, NSW, on his property, Nyleve. Photograph: Cherie Robinson

Alison Harris, doctor in Tamworth, NSW

I dont depend directly on the land for my livelihood but many of our patients do, and the farmers and their families are struggling.

We live 10km out of Tamworth. Our garden is dying, we have no grass except the little bit watered by the grey water outflow. Everything is dusty and so dry. I have been buying water for most of the last year, every month another truckload.

Normally you dont see roos except at dawn and dusk now we see them any time of the day, they have come out of the hills and are in the paddocks, eating the last of the tall dead grass. Huge mobs. They are even coming into town, eating any grass or plants they can find. They are desperate.

Even the indigenous trees are dying. Driving in through the pass in the hills behind Tamworth, the gums on the ridgelines are starting to die dead leaves, dead branches on almost every tree.

There are no frogs the last six months we have hardly heard any frogs at all.

We are losing things that are precious to us the breed lines for the farmers, the special trees and plants in our gardens and parks, the lovely green lawns we used to have. It seems so long since we have seen green grass, since we have heard rain on the metal roof. It is a hard slog, minimising water use, shuffling buckets of water out to the remaining treasured plants, knowing that it may all be useless unless the rain comes.

And yet, on the mainstream news bulletins, it is as if we dont exist on the other side of the sandstone curtain. Weather reporters blab on about lovely clear skies and sunny weather as if the cities were all that mattered. But how will the people in the cities eat if the country isnt producing food for lack of water?

Kathy Fragar, cattle and sheep farmer from Tottenham, NSW

Kathy
Sheep being fed on Kathy Fragars property in Tottenham. Photograph: Guardian Witness

Its tough. Trying to keep stock alive. Watching as the roos in droves demolish what little feed we had tried to save for our stock. Hand-feeding, seeing lambs born into the dust, feral pigs cleaning up the sheeps feed. Cows dying.

But the real challenges are the people challenges. Seeing neighbours struggle but unable to help them because you are trying to keep up with things yourself. And the paperwork. It took eight months for Centrelink to finally let us have farm household support allowance and meanwhile we had to go without groceries and use a donation of a food card from the Rotary club.

Ian Shackle, organic vegetable grower from Frog Rock, NSW

I live totally off-grid. Solar electricity, solar hot water and my only water supply comes from rainwater collected into tanks from the roof. In my first 10 years here, I was forced to buy in a 3,000-gallon [14,000-litre] tanker of water once. In the past 18 months, Ive had to buy it four times. Weve had just five rain incidents in that time, only one of which exceeded 10mm.

For 10 years I had a lush and productive vegetable garden, but for the past two years Ive given up on it. The combination of searingly hot summers and lack of water has put an end to that.

On my 100-acre [40-hectare] bush block, I estimate Ive lost a couple of hundred old trees. Their bark peels back and the trunks develop huge splits from top to bottom. I figure Ill have enough firewood now to see out my days, but with the increasing temperatures, will I need heating at all?

Luckily, I have a regular office job in Mudgee and Im not dependent upon my gardens to survive. Its the farmers who I sympathise with.

Pierre Malou, Congewai, NSW

Since October 2016 our small Congewai valley has missed out on all large rain events, including the usual February and March storms. All the valley dams are empty. The iconic Ellalong Lagoon too, home to the largest bird reserve in the Lower Hunter, is now gone.

My in-laws grew up in Coonamble and a station near Ivanhoe, so I realise my 14 years on 100 acres in the Lower Hunter dont necessarily qualify me as an expert in Australian climate.

But what happened in January this year where local king parrots and bowerbirds literally fell out of the sky and died in front of us in a 47-degree day was heartbreaking. Now its our 600-year-old Xanthorrhoea (grass trees) tucked in one of the gullies on the property that are dying too. It just does not rain. Since December 2016 we have had to buy water for our home as rainwater tanks and dams are empty.

I may not be a native myself but when native birds and native trees start to die, something is wrong. I just cant fathom what Australian farmers are going through at the moment: losing their income and seeing their family properties dying before their eyes.

Mike Wardell, semi-retired beef farmer from Childers, Victoria

The drought affects everything. Our paddocks are still quite green in Victoria, but we see the effect in the price of grain and the value of our stock. When we went to sell livestock at the fat market, the price had halved from a couple of months ago, denting our income substantially. We need to hold our remaining livestock waiting for an improvement, which means we need to buy in more feed at double the anticipated price. This needs more cash, which we will have to borrow, and delays further anticipated income.

Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/aug/04/australias-drought-crisis-and-farmers-stories-of-anxiety-fear-and-resilience

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