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Drought-stricken farmers in NSW's far-west Wentworth Shire Council feel like they're in a 'forgotten corner'

Christopher Testa, Tuesday October 22, 2019 - 06:21 EDT
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Patty and Ned Byrnes at Wamberra Station with their kelpie, Mouse. - ABC

Drought-hit farmers in far-west New South Wales say they feel increasingly isolated, and like they're in a "forgotten corner" of the country, as politicians visit other regions and interstate councils.

Patty and Ned Byrnes, near Wentworth, just across the Murray River from Mildura, are on track for their all-time driest year on the land.

The have rainfall records dating back to 1882 for their property, Wamberra Station, about 40 kilometres north-east of Mildura at Arumpo, and so far this year, they've received only 76 millimetres.

"Even in the '40s, '67 and '82 severe droughts, the difference with this one is we've had two years of severe drought following one another, whereas those years we had an average or above-average year either side," Mrs Byrnes said.

"We can cater for one drought year as farmers and we do that with farm deposits, storage of hay and grain but this time — and it's not over yet — we haven't had a cereal crop for two years.

"We are now going to be selling all of our cattle, and our sheep are our last income, and we desperately hope we can hang on to them."

Mrs Byrnes said her family felt they had done what they could to survive the conditions, even sending 600 head of cattle to another property they'd bought in South Australia.

Last year they sowed 4,000 hectares and didn't even get feed for stock.

"We have stock containment areas, grain and hay storage, we've extended our pipelines, so we've got permanent water supplies," she said.

"We've done what we can to drought-proof ourselves and buying a property in a high rainfall area that's near markets was a long-term vision but we had to bring it forward last year as a last resort."

The shire is drought-declared, yet the local council says it hasn't received any requests for hardship assistance from farmers struggling to cope with drought either this year or last.

A 'forgotten corner'

The Byrnes family made a public plea for more drought assistance, a day after federal Drought Minister David Littleproud visited farmers in the Millewa region of north-west Victoria and a week after .

On that occasion, Mr Andrews visited a property south of Werrimull, over the Victorian border but less than two hours' drive from Wamberra Station, and said the region's farmers couldn't have done any more to deal with the conditions.

"If we've got to be back here with more money and more support next year or the year after, then we'll be with those communities that need us most," Mr Andrews said.

Mrs Byrnes said many might not be aware the drought in NSW stretched well beyond Dubbo.

"We do feel a forgotten corner here and I haven't heard from any politicians, I don't know if they're aware of the situation here," she said.

Around the same time, the Moyne Shire Council in south-west Victoria made headlines — money the council quickly voted to hand back.

Mrs Byrnes was contacted by one of her former contract workers, who lived in the Moyne Shire and wanted her to explain the severity of the drought to those in his area.

"He'd been through Wamberra a few weeks before and he was shocked so he asked me if I'd speak to the local ABC," she said.

Council says its hands are tied

Like farmers in Victoria, the Byrnes family is most interested in being given relief from paying rates to their local council.

But unlike in Victoria, where some councils have started the conversation with farmers about rate relief, Wentworth Shire Council says NSW legislation restricts it to offering farmers payment plans and time extensions.

The Byrnes' rates bill for Wamberra, which spans more than 51,000 hectares, totals $293 per week, and they've had a request for help knocked back once before, when the farm was struck by a freak storm in late 2016.

"As a council, there are not many options available to us," said the shire general manager, Ken Ross.

But, despite the angst, Mr Ross said no drought-affected farmers had actually contacted the council, either this year or last, and asked for help due to financial hardship.

He said the council would urge struggling farmers to access the Farm Household Allowance and other assistance provided by the Country Women's Association and St. Vincent de Paul.

"We're happy enough and we'll show empathy and consideration and try to put them on the path to opportunities available to them, but council doesn't have any opportunity to approve or facilitate any rate relief," Mr Ross said.

Mr Ross said the council had shared its ratepayers' concerns with NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall last week.

"We certainly try not to be the forgotten part of the state and have Government know and share our plight in terms of the dire straits [of being in drought]," he said.

Shearing contractor and wool classer Cassandra Burgess, who works at Wamberra and many other stations across Victoria and western NSW, said the drought was the most widespread she'd experienced.

She said even farmers who made it through would still need help to get back on their feet.

"By the time the drought breaks, all the farmers who have been feeding and spending a lot of money getting through it all, they're not going to be able to afford to buy sheep back at all," she said.

"They [sheep prices] will be through the roof. They'll be about $500 each and buying lambs will be even more expensive."


© ABC 2019

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