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Glimmer of hope for some NSW farmers as agricultural production plummets

Tim Fookes, Hannah Laxton-Koonce and Michael Condon, Monday June 17, 2019 - 06:16 EST
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Gundagai farmer Anthony Nicholls counts himself as one of the lucky ones as rain allows him to sow his crops. - ABC

As much of New South Wales continues to battle drought, farmer Anthony Nicholls counts himself as one of the lucky ones.

Since the start of the year, his properties around Gundagai in the state's south have received more than 200 millimetres of rain.

That is enough to not only sow a crop, but to see new growth.

"Our crops now actually look quite good," Mr Nicholls said.

"We've had more rain in the first half of this year than we had last year.

"This time last year we were ramping up our hand-feeding operation, whereas now we're actually scaling that down."

Mr Nicholls, like others in the Riverina, has benefited from frequent rain, something that others in central and northern NSW have missed out on.

The shows the state's cropping outlook is going to be heavily reliant on southern regions.

Despite a dry couple of years, Mr Nicholls sowed his usual crop of canola, wheat and oats on 3,300 hectares of farmland.

With the rain this year, he would love to think he could get close to an average yield, something almost unheard of for most of the state's farmers.

"We don't need a lot of rain over the winter but it's quite cold here and evaporation rates are very low," Mr Nicholls said.

"But coming into August is when we would like to see some substantial rainfall.

"August and September rain is what we need for crops to grow."

Drought impact

Southern NSW is an exception to the worsening drought conditions in other regions.

The latest seasonal climate summary from the Department of Primary Industry shows 97 per cent of the state in some form of drought.

NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall has been touring drought-affected communities in western NSW since his appointment in March.

"There have been some pockets in the state that have had some reasonable falls," Mr Marshall said.

"In normal conditions those falls would see the winter crops planted kick on, but there just hasn't been enough to make a difference.

"For some farmers it's been three years since they had a crop.

"You just keep looking at the skies saying 'our luck has to change shortly'."

New South Wales has experienced a 22 per cent drop in the value of agricultural production since 2016.

"We've basically wiped a fifth of of the production of ag in the state off as a result of this drought," Mr Marshall said.

Mixed outlook

The national grain crop is expected to be better than last year, but still 12 per cent down on average.

Despite positive signs in Western Australia and Victoria, the dire situation in most of NSW is keeping the country's grain outlook down.

Across NSW, only 60 per cent of the potential area for crops has been sown in 2019 with some farmers deciding not to plant at all.

"A lot of growers dry-sowed when looking at the forecast for rain, and some of that rain just hasn't fallen," the NSW Department of Primary Industry Grains specialist, Peter Matthews said.

"Some of the crop that was planted is now dying.

"Farmers in the central west, west and north of Parkes have missed the brunt of what rain has fallen, including some areas that are normally fairly safe for cropping."

For some farmers who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars planting a crop, it is the third year in a row where they will not get it out of the ground.

"What we need is consistent rainfall — if not, the planting window's going to close soon for a lot of growers," Mr Matthews said.

"For those in southern areas, they've managed to catch some of the rain bands that have come through, that's not the case for those further north."


© ABC 2019

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