Page last updated at 03:27 GMT, Friday, 2 May 2008 04:27 UK

'Big Dry' hits Australian farmers

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Sydney

A New South Wales farmer walks through a dusty field after its barley crop failed, 26 October, 2006
The drought has forced 10% of farmers off the land in just five years

More than 10,000 Australian farming families have had to leave their land as a result of the country's ongoing drought, new figures reveal.

There has been a 10% drop in the number of farmers in the past five years, the figures released by the Australia Bureau of Statistics revealed.

Australia is presently in the grip of the what's known locally as the "Big Dry" - the worst drought in a century.

The figures reveal its impact on the nation's farming communities.

They show that the number of farmers in Australia has dropped by a third in just 20 years.

Bankruptcy looms

Rural communities are now dotted with 'for sale' signs, as farmers try to sell-up.

They have been hit not just by the difficulties of farming water-starved land, but interest rates which are at a 12-year high.

It is a particularly vicious cycle: farmers borrow heavily to plant seeds for crops which yield well below average harvests.

The result for many is bankruptcy, and the irksome decision to leave land which their families have often farmed for generations.

Neither is this a problem restricted solely to Australia.

One of the main reasons why global wheat stocks are at their lowest levels since 1979 is because of the ongoing Australian drought.

Normally, the country would hope to harvest about 25m tonnes of wheat - in 2006 the crop yielded less than 10m tonnes.

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