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Last Updated: Monday, 18 June 2007, 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK
Australia farmers feel drought strain
Photo of water restriction signs by Edward Byard

Australian farmers and countryside dwellers describe their hardship during the worst drought in a century.

ESMA AND PAT BERRY, FARMERS, NEW SOUTH WALES

We have a farm, 50 or 60 miles outside the capital Canberra. It's on 500 acres of land and it's one of the smallest ones in the district. We now have 600 sheep and a few heads of cattle.

Esma and Pat Berry
We are determined to stay, whatever the weather
Esma and Pat Berry

We had a few hundred more sheep a few months ago, but we had to reduce the number because of the drought.

We have been living here for 42 years. We had droughts in the past on two occasions, but nothing like this one. This one has been lasting for five years.

We've had a little rain, so now there's a green cover, but unless there's a lot more to come, it won't make a difference.

We have water tanks for rain water, which we use for the household. And we have a well with underground water. Water is still coming out, but no-one knows for how long. That water is for the stock.

The dams are empty. In these circumstances I feel that we are luckier than others and we haven't resorted to buying water yet, like other people.

Determined to stay

We are entirely self-sufficient. We don't have a grocery shop nearby, so we rely entirely on our own produce.

Cows being fed hey
In the absence of green pastures Esma and Pat's cows are given hay

We had a big vegetable garden and an orchard. We are still keeping a small vegetable garden, but we have lost many fruit trees. We have also lost our garden.

We have been hand-feeding our stock for four months now, as there's no grass. We have some hay, but when we run out we'll have to start buying feed, which is very expensive. If the worst comes to the worst, we'll have to reduce the number of animals again.

Many people are now talking about selling their farms off and moving. The problem is that it's difficult to sell. Who's going to want to come here knowing what difficulties we have?

We have lived here all our lives, we brought up our four children on this farm and we are determined to stay, whatever the weather.

HOWARD PHILLIPS, 60, FARMER, VICTORIA

Me and my brother operate a dairy farm in northern Victoria, not far from the Murray river.

We made the heartbreaking decision to sell half of our herd. Its genealogy can be traced back to the first head of cattle that my father acquired when he started the farm 60 years ago.

Howard Phillips
Howard is turning his back on a lifetime of farming

The dam that serves the area, the Eildon dam, is at 4.5% capacity at the moment.

Even with the small amount of rain that has fallen recently, it's a case of too little too late. We are in too much debt to be able to buy water or feed.

Our farm is on 410 acres of land and we used to have 185 cows. This year we had only 150 and next year it will be 70.

During the 2002-03 drought, we were able to cut half of our cows by "renting" them to another farmer. He looked after them, but he also got the milk. We call it "cow parking".

We lost about A$1,000 (US$835) for each cow and ended up borrowing A$70,000 (US$58,460) from the bank.

This time round, we collected as much hay as we could, but in February we ran out.

We have probably lost A$150,000 (US$125,271) in revenue this year.

Breaking point

We can't afford to buy water. The price of water is normally A$50 (US$42) for a million litres, but this year it has reached A$950 (US$793).

After 10 dry years many farmers have reached breaking point. My family too had to put up with only receiving 29% of our water allocation - the lowest it has ever been.

Eildon Dam
Eildon dam levels are said to be 45m below the high water mark

I figured that there's no future in farming for us.

A local company producing farming machines hired me recently and I now live on the income from that job. I'll probably spend the rest of my years before retirement doing it.

My brother is meanwhile looking to diversify - he is thinking of growing a high-protein crop as well as getting racehorses, which don't need lush pasture.

The rain that we have been getting is normal autumn rain, but unless there's heavy rain to come, this is not going to make much difference.

JOHN PARSONS, EX-COUNTRYSIDE DWELLER, NOW IN MELBOURNE

We lived just 30km outside Melbourne. The only water we had was rain water that we collected in a tank. We did not see a good rain for 12 months. Water was so scarce that we decided to sell up and move to the city.

People in the city are not worried. People in the countryside see things differently

Where we lived was once in the countryside, but because the city has been expanding, it gradually became a suburban area of Melbourne.

We weren't connected to water mains, nobody living outside the cities is. The only things we were connected to was telephone and electricity.

Plants were dying and wildlife was disappearing. The birds went away. Even the large gum trees, that don't need much water, were looking distressed.

We grew our own vegetables, which we abandoned altogether.

The water tastes foul here in town, and we have water restrictions that mean we can water the garden once a week for two hours and we can't wash the cars.

John's house
John Parson's lush garden in greener times

But people in the city are not so worried. They turn on the tap and there's water coming. People in the countryside see things differently.

I don't know if this is a sustainable city. I don't think the politicians know either. I have been saying something was afoot for a while but people thought I was a strange "greenie". People will not alter their lifestyle until they are forced to. And I think the time has come.

There was a river once in New South Wales called the Lochlan River. I remember that you needed a barge to cross it. Now it is no longer there. It has disappeared.



SEE ALSO
Drought hits Aussie wheat profits
23 May 07 |  Business
Heavy rains hit parched Australia
18 May 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Australians warned of water cuts
19 Apr 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Queensland to drink waste water
29 Jan 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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