The Long Dry


Despite much needed rain, the drought that has anguished every Australian State and Territory is far from over. Even if 2007 provides a miracle, hard-hit farms and communities in New South Wales and Victoria where the drought has been declared the worst in a century will take at least four years to come to grips with the losses caused by six years of dry.

This year’s promising start has the agricultural sector crossing its fingers for a break. However, while debts can be repaid, paddocks restocked and crops replanted, dealing with the social and emotional impact of drought is not that simple.

In some cases, rural communities won’t survive, predicts Jan Bruce, Drought Support Worker for the NSW Department of Primary Industries. Shops have been closed, farms sold and workers retrenched, she says. As people leave in search of reliable income, populations shrink and towns lose facilities, including schools and hospitals. ‘The impact of drought escalates,’ Bruce laments. ‘Towns of all sizes are in trouble because people just can’t make a living.’

Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics illustrate just how dramatically agricultural production has plummeted across the country. Summer crops including sorghum, rice and cotton are expected to drop by 57 per cent this year, while wine grape production is estimated to have fallen by 33 per cent.

Livestock sales have been even more dismal. For instance, in South Australia last year, sheep that would normally fetch $20 sold for as little as 20 cents, the ABC reported. That translates to around 16 sheep for the price of a coffee. Faced with selling sheep at a huge loss or watching them starve at home from lack of feed, farmers sometimes feel shooting their animals is the best solution.

Not surprisingly, depression is inevitable for many, whether or not they persevere with the industry. One Australian farmer commits suicide every four days, the Australian General Practice Network announced in October 2006. The report was based on 2003 research, and Chair Dr Tony Hobbs fears the rate may now be higher. He has called for increased access to mental health services in drought-affected areas, including face-to-face and online consultations with psychologists and psychiatrists.

Reverend Terry Logan has seen first-hand the kind of emotional tension that ‘drives people to despair’ in Yass, a wool-growing community about 40km from the outskirts of Canberra. He tells of a ‘fairly typical’ couple who sold the family property to their son three years ago. Unable to make enough money to repay his loan, the son on-sold the farm. By then, the drought had caused real estate values to drop, forcing him to sell for less than he paid. Meanwhile, the parents worried about the loss of the family farm and the son nose-dived into depression.

This story is about far more than finances and the sale of land. ‘It’s really about dislocation and grief,’ Logan says. ‘In situations like this, people lose their identity and can feel they’ve betrayed their ancestors or robbed their children of an inheritance.’ The real issue is loss of heritage.

Although she’s not a counsellor, Jan Bruce also finds herself listening to similar difficulties. ‘Farmers call me just to have someone to talk to,’ she says. ‘It’s hard because I can’t solve their personal problems, I have to refer them to a mental health worker.’

What she can do, though, is offer practical help, the kind that ‘puts food on the table’. As a drought support worker, her main task is to arrange opportunities for drought-affected farm families, rural communities and agriculture-dependent small businesses to access Government and welfare support. The Federal Government supplies wide-ranging assistance to people living in drought-affected areas, including free financial counselling and management training. In addition, from 1 July 2007, an extra $8 million is being distributed through the Country Women’s Association as emergency aid grants to meet immediate household needs and fund community-based activities.

In every State and Territory, there are regions the Government calls ‘exceptional circumstances’. In such places, the drought is so severe that the agricultural industry could not possibly be expected to cope, even with responsible management strategies. Half of South Australia and Queensland, and almost all of New South Wales and Victoria, fit the bill. The Federal Government provides families, communities and agriculture-dependent small business in these areas with income support and grants to help farmers who have sold their farms and left agriculture to re-start their lives.

At the same time, the generosity of everyday people has been overwhelming. ‘Last Christmas was amazing,’ Jan Bruce enthuses. ‘Semi-trailer loads of food and pamper packs of beauty products arrived from our cities. I never run out of gifts to distribute — the recipients are so touched that others have thought of them.’

Terry Logan agrees. While he knows gifts don’t save animals and farms, they do boost community spirit. ‘Some people realistically need $200,000 to get out of trouble,’ he says. ‘We obviously don’t have that kind of money, but we can bring happiness in small and practical ways. We can encourage the community.’

Nonetheless, kindness can cause complications. Pride and shame make some hide their need. There’s also bitterness, which causes some in needy communities to judge who does and doesn’t deserve help. For example, Terry Logan was informed of one woman who was ‘too rich’ to receive a complimentary Mother’s Day gift. Another time, food donations ended in hostility rather than happiness when allegations surfaced that some people had received more than others.

Just as the ambiguity of climate means drought has no easy solution, responses such as these reveal the complexity of its psychological fall-out. Regardless, one thing is certain: as Jan Bruce points out, ‘The extent and length of this drought means that everyone has suffered.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.