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Farmers still in the grip of drought despite widespread rain

By Nadia Daly, Monday February 24, 2020 - 06:50 EDT
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Chris Blunt's farm has not had decent rain in three years. - ABC

Third-generation sheep farmer Chris Blunt has not seen rain for so long that all 30 dams on his 1,000-hectare farm are empty.

"The family has been here since 1902 … and I think this is probably the driest the forebears or myself have experienced," he said.

For his 4,000 sheep it is a curiosity. They wander around the edge of what are now dusty craters, dotted across the property east of Orange in the New South Wales Central West.

But for Mr Blunt, it is a daily reminder of the three long years of drought that, despite heavy rainfall and flooding on the other side of the state, has not yet broken for him.

"I've had an agreement with a good friend of mine for two years that we'll go and have a feed when we get 50 millimetres of rain, and we haven't had that dinner yet," Mr Blunt said.

"It's been a long time between good rainfalls."

The other inescapable reminders are the daily storm clouds that lurk overhead, grey and swollen, but fail to deliver more than a sprinkling to his parched property before they pass.

"It's quite depressing at times to see the big black clouds coming towards you and you hold out hope, you get quite anxious about it, and nothing happens," he said.

"It does start playing with your psyche a little bit.

'It certainly hasn't broken this drought'

Farmers have almost become used to the pattern of hope and disappointment, made worse by the images of rain and flooding that have reached their fellow landholders in other parts of the country.

They want the rest of Australia to know the drought is far from over.

"I've got to say we're quite resilient, but no-one's completely infallible. And even the strongest of us, it starts messing with you at times," Mr Blunt said.

The continued wait for rain while others watch their dam and creeks fill up is taking a toll on the mental health of many farmers.

"It has at times affected me, I will say that," Mr Blunt said. "Not at a depressive level, but I'd just say it's normal anxiety."

The Central West region has had some rain over the past two months, but it has been patchy and not enough for most producers who are still pumping bore water and handfeeding their animals.

The weather bureau said that for many properties in the region, the state of the soil and the long stretch without rain meant they would need several months of above-average rainfall to take them out of drought.

"Some people are getting enormous rain and their next-door neighbours are getting virtually nothing," Mr Blunt said.

"It certainly hasn't broken this drought, that's for sure."

Mr Blunt's property is called Bondonga, which he says means "place of many waterholes" — a far cry from the state of the place at the moment.

The family is spending $1,000 a day on hay to handfeed their animals, which has doubled their workload but certainly not their profits.

'We don't expect three horrors in a row'

It is a similar story at Anne Knoblanche's cattle stud property, located 50 kilometres west of Mr Blunt's, where it has been months since decent rain has fallen, and even then "it was erratic … just enough to settle the dust".

While some of Ms Knoblanche's neighbours have green paddocks from recent rain, the downpour cruelly missed her property altogether, so the paddocks remain dry and dusty and the cattle eat pellets instead of green grass.

"It's not financially viable. It is definitely not making a profit," Ms Knoblanche said.

"But that's farming, we all expect one year in 10 to be bad. We just don't expect three horrors in a row."

It could not look more different to the lush green paddocks with waist-high grass and flowers in the photos she took before the drought a few years ago.

Ms Knoblanche is not sure she will ever see her property looking like that again.

"There's a lot of farmers have to consider moving forward … there's a lot of anxiety around what's coming," she said.

"A lot of places have had a bit of rain. But is there a complete change in climate? Or is this just a drought and in the next five years it's going to be fine?

"I think that what's happened is people have lost their overall confidence in the climate and the environment."

Ms Knoblanche is staying optimistic and is hopeful she can get a good price for the bulls she is preparing to sell in March.

Mr Blunt is also trying to stay optimistic.

"This continent is a pretty harsh old mistress — we've had bushfires, we've had floods, we've had droughts, and I guess that's what makes Australians what they are. They're resilient, tough people," he said.

"We'll get through this and come out a lot stronger at the end."

Both farms received some patchy rain one evening last week, enough to wet the soil and see a little water flow in the creek on Mr Blunt's property, but not enough to break the drought.

Watch this story tonight on 7.30.


© ABC 2020

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