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Big Dry takes toll on Australia's farmers

22 May 07 21:07 GMT
By Nick Bryant
BBC News, New South Wales, Australia

Malcolm Adlington has been farming his land for over 30 years and never has he known it so bad.

His should have been a rich inheritance: a dairy farm close to the mighty Murray River on some of the finest pasture land which Australia has to offer.

But then came the "Big Dry" - the most severe drought in a century.

"Normally at this time of the year the paddocks would be green, and the grass would be six or eight inches high, and we'd have more feed than the cows can do with.

"Now it looks like scrubland," says Malcolm, wearily. "It's useless."

Recently, he's had to sell off two-thirds of his herd and is saddled with so much debt that he's going to have to put his farm on the market.

He can barely afford the straw to feed his bony cattle.

Double blow

For the farmers of Wakool, this has been the driest 12 months in 125 years. This area used to have 19 dairy farms. Now it has got just six.

"After 35 years of milking cows - and I'd like to think reasonably successful - it leaves a bit of a stain in your mouth.

"I should have taken my mother's advice and become a plumber."

Farmers here have suffered a double blow: a chronic shortfall of rainfall and the shutting off of vital irrigation water from the Murray River.

In drought conditions the irrigation channels serve like some vast arterial system, offering lifelines to the region's farmers. But Malcolm Adlington, like other farmers locally, has not received a single drop of his normal allocation.

There has been rainfall in the past few weeks, but not nearly enough to break the drought or to offer much respite.

If the Big Dry continues, the so-called Dethridge wheels - which regulate the flow of irrigation water - will stop turning across the entire Murray-Darling Basin.

The basin is a region the size of France and Spain, supplies 40% of the country's produce and is thus known as the "food bowl" of Australia.

Jason Mathers, a 36-year-old dairy farmer, knows precisely what that will mean: hard-pressed farmers will face financial ruin.

Recently, he had to sell of virtually his entire herd - an economic necessity with profound emotional consequences. Seared in his memory is the day when he milked his final cow and the truck came to take away his herd.

"It wasn't good at all. It really got to me once and I broke down and had a bit of a sob. But then I told my wife this wasn't going to beat me."

'It is pretty gutless'

Jason is worried, though, that many of his mates on other farms are at breaking point. He hates to use the word, but effectively he's on suicide watch.

"There's a couple of guys at the moment who, as a community, we're keeping a pretty close eye on and making sure that someone goes and says 'G'day' at least once a week. We're worried about how they're going. Suicide is a dirty word around here, but it is a real possibility."

Like all the farmers who rely on irrigation water, Andrew Tully still has to pay for the equipment which delivered it to his farm. It's a bit like paying a phone rental but not being able to make calls.

Worse still, the New South Wales government actually took away water from the farmers which they'd already paid for, to cope with a shortfall in the cities. Eventually, it offered compensation, but only a third of the price paid by the farmers.

"Robbery," says Andrew Tully.

"When the government comes in and steals your irrigation water that you have legally stored away as part of a good drought management strategy, that really makes you lose confidence in the whole system. It's pretty gutless."

The Liberal-led federal government wants to take over the running of the Murray-Darling Basin from the Labour-controlled states. It's aim: to operate the system in the national interest and to put an end to the squabbles between states which have often bedevilled its management.

The reform is long overdue, according to Ciaran Keogh, the general manager of the local council.

"This place really looks like the tower of Babel on a bad day. You have so many conflicting sets of interests that you cannot have a sensible answer.

"This river system should be being run for the benefit of the whole country, but it's not. It's got tribal squabbles going on all the way down it.

"And many of the compromises reached are made with the capital cities at heart."

Rural communities are effectively being sacrificed to maintain water supplies in the city, he says.

In the meantime, rural communities continue to suffer.

Take Wakool's local primary school. If just a couple more farming families sell up and move away, it will lose yet more funds, and its teaching staff will be reduced to one. No wonder there's a feeling of such despair.

Just listen to local mayor Ken Trewin: "I was talking to our local GPs at lunchtime and I asked them how many farmers they are seeing with depression.

"Sadly, it's a lot," he says, fighting back the tears. "A lot."

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