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Running on empty: The farm hit by a new disaster every year

By Courtney Wilson, Saturday November 23, 2019 - 11:05 EDT
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Black frost was just another disastrous weather event for the Pratts' family farm. - ABC

Five seasons of disaster, including hail, black frost and now an unrelenting drought, are financially and psychologically crippling some fruit growers.

John Pratt grows stone fruit and grazes sheep and cattle on his property near Pikes Creek, about 50 kilometres west of Stanthorpe in southern Queensland.

In the grip of drought, there's never been more work to do for little to no reward, and the Pratts are wearing out.

Mother nature has handed them five consecutive years of misfortune.

In 2015 and 2016, the crop was destroyed by massive hail storms.

2017 brought a warm winter and therefore less fruit.

Then last year, a black frost at the end of winter saw the mercury dip below -9 degrees Celsius, wiping out 70 per cent of the orchard.

"It's just mind blowing what it does to you, and this year, what have we got? The granddaddy of it all. Just an unbelievably hard run," Mr Pratt said.

At least 8,000 of the Pratts' trees will die this year.

"The hard part is if everything went OK now, if we started to get really good rain and the dams filled up next year, we're still looking [at] probably $600,000 to $700,000 required [for] when we'd start to get any money back from the fruit," Mr Pratt said.

"I can tell you my bank manager won't be able to loan me that money by any stretch of the imagination "

Mr Pratt said working the farm had been his life, but the struggle to keep going day after day in the toughest conditions was taking a toll.

"You think about it. You think about it a lot. I've basically been doing what I've been doing to try and set the kids up," he said.

"It's been my life, my love, but they hate seeing us, what we're going through.

"It is time for the Government to take a really hard look at agriculture: the small farmer will be gone.

"We can't survive under this pressure and we don't want to survive under this pressure."

With no grass and a rapidly dwindling water supply, the farm's 4,500 sheep have had to be fed for this entire year.

It's a huge and expensive job that has to be done every other day.

"It's about probably six hours a day feeding cotton seed and about six hours plus cutting timber," Mr Pratt said.

Cutting timber involves selectively chopping down trees with a chainsaw for the animals to eat, to give them variety in their diet.

"With my son or daughter home, it's a hell of a big help but cutting scrub, yeah it's tough stuff," Mr Pratt said.

"Because you've got to do it in every paddock every two days, it is very time consuming.

"You use a lot of fuel and it's hard on gear and its hard on the humans doing it."

Picking fruit to throw it away

While they're working around the clock to try and keep production going in the paddocks, in the orchard it's a different story.

At the start of spring, Mr Pratt made the difficult decision to abandon this year's crop.

Of his 24,000 trees still alive, the young fruit is being picked and thrown away on all but 1,500.

Ironically, that involves plenty of hard work.

"There's only X amount of moisture in the ground — nearly zero — and some of the trees haven't had any water since May," he said.

"If we don't take that fruit off, the tree will die, it's as simple as that."

Mr Pratt said he realised he couldn't do the job himself, but also couldn't afford to pay for picking when they'd be tossing the unripe fruit, instead of packing and on-selling it.

He put out an SOS, calling for volunteers, and was overwhelmed by the response.

"I'd say we've had 50-odd offers, from Innisfail to Adelaide," he said.

"We've had 12 to 15, some locals, one's a Swiss backpacker.

'They've been here for 10 days now and haven't asked for one thing. It is humbling."

Horticulturists feeling forgotten in drought

During prolonged droughts, much attention understandably goes to people with livestock, but disasters don't discriminate among farmers.

David Thomson is CEO of the peak representative body for Queensland horticulture, Growcom.

"We've got to get the message to government that horticulture and plants die," he said.

"Animals have been treated traditionally as industries that need some help immediately.

"With horticulture, when you run out of water, that's a full stop.

"You can't send your apple trees off for agistment somewhere. They just die."

There are low- and no-interest loans on offer for drought-affected farmers, but with provisions, such as having sufficient equity and the ability to repay borrowed money relatively quickly.

For some families, the reality is that any extra debt is simply impossible.

"We've borrowed as much as we can borrow. There is a point where there's no return," Mr Pratt said.

"If we thought we had a bit of condition to carry a few problems five years ago, all that meat is gone. We are back to bare bones, we need cash, it's as simple as that."

Watch this story on ABC TV's Landline this Sunday at 12:30pm or on .



© ABC 2019

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