Stories of the Drought
The drought ultimately affects us all but some rural boarding families at Loreto Normanhurst have been experiencing it first hand. Many farmers are now experiencing a ‘green drought’ where the rain has turned the top layer of soil green, but a little further below it is a very different story. They still must manage their stock carefully so they do not consume all this new green food to then have nothing for the months ahead.
When planting and harvesting, the soil, as we know, must have the depth of moisture. Our prayers and support must continue for our own farming families and those in country towns and for all Australian farmers. With over $17,000 raised to date, we will continue to support awareness and fundraising efforts for the remainder of the year for the ‘Buy a Bale’ campaign for our farmers.
Our first story is from Leigh Mace, (’71) of Walgett – an Ex-Student and past parent, followed by stories from our boarders.
LEIGH MACE (Class of ’71)
“We live in north-western NSW located about 680kms from Sydney. For us, this drought has been a gradual, incremental experience that began in 2012. We enjoyed a good season up until June and then the rain stopped, plunging us into drought until 2016 when for three months, we experienced a very wet winter which nearly triggered flood conditions. The rain stopped again and we haven’t had beneficial rain since.
We have traditionally run our property as a mixed farming operation with Angus cattle, merino sheep and dry land farming up until 2014. That year we elected to sell our cattle, after feeding them for a number of months and then having to truck them off on agistment for several more months. Our last crop was in 2016 when there was a glut of grain causing a flattening market, due to oversupply. We sold the majority of our barley after harvest for $150.00 per tonne and now, after exhausting our own stored drought reserves, we are now buying barley to feed our sheep for $430.00 per tonne.
The Walgett Shire is a large farming region and like us, most of these farmers have had no crops in the last few years and have substantial financial commitments with their machinery sitting in the shed. This situation has really impacted badly on the whole population, including the township of Walgett, which services us all. Those who have sheep have been more fortunate as wool prices, along with meat prices have been fairly stable. However, the challenge of keeping production going has been fraught with ups and downs. We began by supplementary feeding of our sheep to keep the ewes strong and avoid pregnancy toxaemia.
As the drought lengthened and the paddocks became barer it progressed to totally feeding them in the paddocks. Even with these measures in place, we lost many ewes at lambing and subsequently many lambs. We had a daily routine of collecting the ‘poddy’ lambs before the crows and eagles found them and our son Nick and his children, took on the very dedicated role of feeding them intensively, in a small yard at his house with powdered milk in bottles and then ‘lamb bars’. At the same time the kangaroos, emus and pigs have been competing with the sheep and coming in to the feeders for their fill too. In fact, it is not unusual to hear thud, thud of a kangaroo in our garden at night, hopping around to chew on a bit of grass, something they would never do in normal seasons.
The sheep we haven’t sold are now kept in centrally located small yards, so that they don’t have to walk too far and for more efficient management of water and feed for them. Our dams are all dry, however we have been so very fortunate to have bore water since 2013. This water has been our salvation but not every one else around our area has been so lucky. The water itself is quite salty and deemed not suitable for gardens which caused me such heartache as I loved having a garden and I have lost much of it since 2012. Since the arrival of the bore water, we put a special magnet on the pipes which claims to neutralise the water and has enabled us to replace some lawn and have hardy shrubs like oleanders and native trees.
When I think of the Dorothea McKellar poem of 1908 in which she writes of Australia as the ‘sunburnt country’ of ‘droughts and flooding rains’, it reminds me that droughts are one of the ongoing challenges of life in Australia. There is a degree of ‘romanticism’ in this poem which many Australians connect with, including myself but the time frame of drought isn’t included. I think it’s the length of this drought that is the biggest challenge for us all. It has been so pervasive and debilitating, particularly the ongoing feeding of sheep which has become a monotonous daily routine and means we can’t go away for much more than an overnight stay. Although we continue to remain positive, we have had our hopes dashed countless times and wonder why the Weather Bureau can be so confident a week out from an event but as it gets closer to the event, the forecast dissipates, sometimes completely.
Whenever we go to town or meet up with others, we are continually buoyed by the positivity and resilience of those around us. Last year there were a number of morale boosting efforts to make it rain in the form of rain dances. One very large one was staged at Coonamble, 100kms from here and attended by 800+ people. These were such fun and allowed people to lose their inhibitions, let down their hair and have a laugh together. Another feature of this current drought is the ongoing dust and wild wind storms. They have been relentless and seem to penetrate even the smallest crack in our weatherboard house.
A highlight for me was an event held on a neighbouring property which focused on ‘feel good’ activities for the women. The instigators of this day were all local women who belonged to the Carinda sewing group. There was a hairdresser, masseur, manicurist and several stalls in a market style set up plus a fashion parade of swimming costumes modelled by the girls in the sewing group. These girls showed true bravado with their gorgeous spray tans, flashing smiles and looked like they had stepped right out of some very trendy fashion house. There were many endorphins generated on that occasion with so much laughter and good pampering, enjoyed by all. We do recognise that Australia is the lucky country and we see ourselves as some of the luckiest people in Australia, as we get to wake up each day living so closely with nature in a clean and peaceful environment, generally without the competitive, frenzied lifestyle of many of our urban counter parts.
As I write this, we have just trucked off another load of lambs to greener pastures. There has been a raging dust storm which began late yesterday afternoon and meant that visibility was so poor the truck had to pull up until conditions improved. The wind dropped this morning and loading commenced and we are again experiencing a dust storm today. We have heard reports of 50+mms of rain in the Dubbo area, so we can’t help but wonder when it will be our turn. We have now reached yet another ‘increment’ of this drought where we are selling further sheep, as we can’t justify feeding them any longer. Up until now we have been feeding out cotton seed, grain and hay but each of these has gone up so incredibly in price, it isn’t viable to buy anymore. As an example, cotton seed was originally being sold for about $300+ per tonne and now is worth $625 per tonne.
We are in exceptional circumstances at the moment and it is so difficult to make decisions based on the unknown. Do we keep our core sheep, our young breeders which have been classed and bred for our unique operation, or do we destock completely? How do we stay mentally strong and engaged in coping with this drought? Do we have a plan for when the drought breaks? How do we begin again?
One thing we do know though, is that it will rain again.
When the Heavens open for us all there will be much jubilation. We have four little grandchildren who haven’t seen a regular season and live close by. I can see them already, out in the rain, sliding in the mud and puddles and having the time of their lives. I might even join them!”
BOARDERS AND THE DROUGHT
“My name is Sarah and I am from a property which is 70km from the country town of Scone NSW.
At home, we have been severely affected by the drought. As an insight to our situation, people from home are being forced to truck drinking water from a nearby town, Muswellbrook (two hours away). We are also being forced to truck cattle to Queensland as there is no water or feed. The cattle travelled 2009 kms (23 and a half hours) to Julia Creek, Queensland, which is actually further away than New Zealand.
Below are some photos showing how dry it is getting in the country and I hope my story helps raise some awareness.”
“My name is Bridie and I come from a small 300-acre property in Murulla NSW which is about 20 minutes out of Scone in the Upper Hunter. Normally my family has four dogs, three goats, three cats, nine horses and between 30-60 head of cattle depending if we have calves or not. Currently, we still have the dogs, goats, cats, horses and we have also adopted a joey, but we only have three cows and three calves as we didn’t have enough feed or water for any more. Over the past few months we ran out of water, our dam went dry and our well is now dry too.
We are buying truckloads of water as well as a truckload of hay that had to be brought in from South Australia. Although I only live on a small property and my family doesn’t fully depend on the farm to provide for us, it has still had a huge impact on my family as my parents have to feed all the animals and check water tanks/troughs before and after work while myself and my two siblings are at school and university.
This has been the hardest factor for me during this time because I know how hard things are at home for my parents and I wish I could be there to give them a hand. I would really recommend following the Facebook page ‘One Day Closer to Rain (Drought)’ as it has been a place for many farming families to share their struggles, stories and photos to support one another and let them know they aren’t alone.
It has also been a place for people to offer any assistance they can with some people offering to wash clothing in town, where there is more access to water, and to cook meals for families. This is a great example of country communities coming together during a tough time.”
“I’m a boarder from the Upper Hunter where the drought is affecting many farmers and the livelihood of many families. The drought has affected specific areas of the town, not just farms – the town pool is not being refilled next summer and schools are running out of water.
The area of Scone is the horse capital of Australia and its biggest industries are primary farming or produce sectors such as horse racing, cattle, sheep and crops.
My family and I live on a horse racing and breeding property that has meat cows, such as Whitebred Shorthorn. In Scone this year, it will be the driest time in recorded history and the average monthly rain fall in 2017 was 8mm.
Even though my family is affected by the ongoing drought, my mum being a teacher and my Dad running a race horse stud, means my sole livelihood doesn’t depend on the weather or crops unlike a lot of my friends in the dorm and I will always be very grateful for that as I know how stressful this experience can be for many people.”
“My name is Claudia and I live on a property in Humula, which is 60kms south east of Wagga Wagga. The drought has been affecting my farm as there isn’t enough grass to feed the cattle and sheep, meaning my dad has been having to buy feed, which has become increasingly expensive as it is hard to grow crops anywhere without any rain. My farm is going through a “green drought” which means that the paddocks have around 1-2cms of grass instead of 15cms, so even though in some photos its green, it isn’t enough feed for the cattle and sheep.
However my farm is a bit luckier than others, unlike my cousin’s farm near Warren, who are struggling with feed and haven’t got any green grass at all. They have been feeding for quite a while and haven’t had any rain for many months now. Hopefully the community can all come together to help this situation.”
“My name is Eliza and I am from the central west of NSW in a place called Bobadah. My family and I live on a 57,000 acre property where we have Merino sheep and we grow wheat and oat crops. The drought has had a significant effect on my family’s income from sheep and crops. We haven’t been able to harvest a crop since 2016. This drought has really affected our farm. We have fed out all our stored fodder and have been buying fodder since December from as far as South Australia and Victoria. Our sheep numbers are down by at least 40%.
So far this year we have received 60ml of rain, when usually by this time we would have had around 300ml. Because of this little amount of rain, we must cart water to our house and to some paddocks. My small community was fortunate enough to receive drought relief packages from the Ku-ring-gai Netball Association and the Berowra APEX Club last weekend. They delivered water, dog biscuits and grocery items which was extremely generous and gave everyone a well needed boost.
Everyone was so thankful at the effort made for the Bobadah community. It is great to see such lovely caring people helping the farming communities in need. It has shown us that we aren’t going through this on our own.”
“My name is Caitlin and I live 40kms from the small town of Gulargambone NSW, which is 115kms north-west of Dubbo. In total we own 1900 acres of land, on which we run sheep and grow crops, however this year our crops of wheat and barley have nearly all perished. They were sown dry as a large rain event was predicted, however it didn’t eventuate. The crops are just poking out of the ground, but without a decent rainfall soon they will not be worth harvesting. The other problem we are having is the huge number of kangaroos, since it’s so dry, they are coming in from western areas, eating the crops and the sheep feed we have left. Our sheep are surviving because mum and dad are hand feeding wheat and hay from a frosted canola crop last year.
They have sold some sheep so now we are down to our core breeding flock. Feed is quite expensive now as most farmers are feeding their remaining livestock. My dad grew up on a neighbouring property and has lived in this area his entire life and he says that it’s the driest he has ever experienced. 2018 will be only the second year in three generations and the first since 1965 that our family will not harvest a crop. Living over 500kms from home has to be the hardest factor for me.
Coming home in the holidays was a massive shock to my brothers and I as we had no idea exactly how dry it really was. However, living with others who are experiencing the same struggles helps me, knowing that my family and our community are not the only ones doing it tough during this drought. “