Thu, Aug 09, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Drought chars Australian farmers


Farmer Ash Whitney on June 3 throws hay to his cattle in a drought-effected paddock in Gunnedah, Australia.

Photo: Reuters

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 nation 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,” Drought Angels charity cofounder Tash Johnston said.

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, where agriculture contributes more than A$15 billion (US$11.13 billion) to the state’s economy annually, employing more than 77,000 people.

Authorities yesterday declared the entire state in drought and gave farmers new authority to shoot kangaroos that compete with livestock.

Conditions are similarly dire in Queensland, where the state government said that nearly 60 percent of land is in 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,” said Greg Stones, who runs a small farm near Gunnedah, a five-hour drive north of Sydney.

“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,” Stones said.

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

It includes two lump-sum payments worth up to A$12,000 per household and changes to an assets test to grant support to thousands more farmers.

There was also cash for counseling 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 recognize 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,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said.

New South Wales Farmers’ Association president James Jackson welcomed the government measures, but said 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,” said Col Barton, whose family has been on their farm east of Gunnedah since 1938. “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.”

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