NSW farmers ‘hanging on for grim death’

Lachlan Gall says the rains will eventually come, it’s just a matter of hanging on until it does.Across western NSW farmers are “hanging on for grim death” as they run desperately low on both feed and funds in the struggle against a devastating drought that has gone on for two years and shows little sign of breaking.

Kangaroos are dying in their thousands, but only after they raid rubbish dumps and homes as they search for anything to eat, even cardboard.

On the highways east of Broken Hill heading to Wilcannia and further north to White Cliffs, road kill litters the bitumen every few hundred metres, with the carcases of roos, emus and wild goats constantly picked over by crows and eagles.

The desperate animals gravitate to the verges in search of grass tufts that grow from the dew that descends during the freezing clear nights.

On the land, some dams and bores still have water, but many graziers have been forced to severely reduce stock numbers as they resort to hand feeding.

The price of hay has skyrocketed because of the escalating demand and diminishing supply, plunging many heavily into debt, putting their future in grave doubt.

After such a long period without any meaningful rain, the ground is parched and even the slightest breeze whips up blinding clouds of dust.

What plants continue to grow in the harsh environment, where summer temperatures can easily top 50C, are either toxic or unpalatable.

It’s a depressing sight for anyone passing through, not to mention those who have to deal with the issues every day, watching the health of their herds slowly, and heartbreakingly, deteriorate

“Obviously it’s desperately dry,” Pastoralists Association of West Darling President Lachlan Gall told AAP.

“Quite often, even during the worst of droughts, somebody will be getting some rain.

“But in this drought no-one’s getting any rain anywhere. There’s no respite.”

The situation is also taking a toll on the people of the western plains, with mental health issues an increasing concern.

Speaking about the stress, the wife of one farmer said, “you can just see it on their faces”.

“They’re struggling because they care. Mentally the men don’t deal with it very well.”

“They’re just not the same.”

Another grazier told of the tough decision to sell off almost all his sheep, gambling on restocking once conditions improved.

He said sometimes those dealing with the drought and all that entails on a day-to-day basis don’t appreciate the impact it’s having on them.

It’s an attitude that leads some to refuse help when it’s offered, though for the most part farmers in the west are grateful of recent assistance from the state and federal governments including cash handouts and freight subsidies.

But they say that assistance “won’t help much at all” and more needs to be done.

The pastoralists association has called for a range of measures including the national adoption of an emergency water infrastructure fund to provide assistance with the cost of sinking bores and laying pipelines to provide water for both domestic and stock use.

It also wants to see the streamlining of application processes to speed up approvals for drought support, incentives to fence open waters to better control grazing animals and the commercial harvesting of kangaroos by allowing them to be taken for their skins only.

Gall said his group was similarly concerned that the process of applying for support measures was simply too long-winded.

“Honestly, we simply haven’t got the time and sit down for a couple of days to cross the T’s and dot the I’s on applications for assistance that we may or may not be eligible for when all day, every day we’re out hand feeding our animals, checking troughs and pumping water,” he said.

“It’s like Groundhog Day at the moment.”

But despite all these issues, most remain convinced that both they and the land will get through the current situation and emerge stronger and better prepared.

This area has survived probably the worst drought ever in the late 1960s, similarly dry conditions in the 1980s and 1990s and the so-called millennium drought which prevailed across much of south-eastern Australia from 2002.

They need and want some rain, desperately, but aren’t just sitting around waiting for the heavens to open.

They have farm and drought management plans in place and are taking other steps, such as improving water retention on their land and fencing to reduce the load on pastures, to make their properties more sustainable over the long term.

Gall said pastoralists in the west were a tough bunch and there was no-one in the region worrying about where their next meal was going to come from.

“We’ve been dealing with this situation for well over 12 months now and we’re a very resilient lot in the far west of the state,” he said.

“We realise there’s always going to be droughts just as there are going to be floods.”

Gall said just when the next big rains would come might still be a matter of “guesswork”.

But until then, farmers would continue “hanging on for grim death”.

“It will rain eventually, it’s just a matter of hanging on until it does,” he said.

Louise Turner, an environmental scientist whose family runs a 37,000-hectare sheep station about 50 kilometres northeast of White Cliffs, is also optimistic about the future.

“This is my home. It’s a pretty good part of the world to be,” she said.

“And even though I have my moments every now and again, I’m a glass half full type of girl.”

Her husband Zane takes a pragmatic approach.

“There’s no uncertainty. We’re going to have droughts out here, it’s a fact of life,” he said.

“We’ve just got to try to prepare for them and hopefully not too many are as bad as this one.”