Farmers across New South Wales and Queensland are calling it the worst drought in living memory. Many are facing ruin and say it is time for their city cousins to acknowledge the disaster.
Cattle and sheep farmer Bev Hicks breaks down in tears as she points out her dying trees.
“My trees, they’re 100 years old and I’m losing them,” she says. “Things like that really do devastate you.”
Ms Hicks is based near Denman in the Upper Hunter region of NSW where many landholders are running out of water. And they are not alone.
Ninety-eight per cent of NSW and around two-thirds of Queensland is in drought or drought-affected, with pastures turned to rubble and the cost of freight and feed skyrocketing.
“People in the city need to look at what’s going on and understand that if you’ve got constant drought, the price of food will go up and you’ll lose your country towns.”
In the neighbouring New England region, farmers say the dry conditions are the worst they can remember.
“It’s certainly the worst drought I’ve ever seen,” says cattle farmer John Sylvester.
“But you’ve got to keep persevering, or you don’t come out the other end.”
An hour up the road at Currabubula, publican Kathy Smith sees firsthand the emotional toll the drought is taking.
“One farmer said to me the other day they’re feeding their lambs, but the feed costs more than they can get for the lambs if they sell them,” Ms Smith says.
Ms Smith says farmers’ pride keeps them quiet, but their plight needs to be recognised.
“Farmers don’t ask for handouts,” she says. “But it’s time we all looked in our backyard and supported our lifeblood.”
Tamworth stock and station agent Simon Bourke says the drought is unprecedented.
“Australia should be concerned because everyone is tightening their belts,” he says.
“We’re selling livestock we don’t want to sell … down the track there’s really not going to be too many cattle or sheep left.”
And it is not just traditional farmers who are suffering. Tamworth beekeeper Ray Hull has run out of nectar.
“We can buy sugar syrup to feed our bees, but the trees are 100 years old and once they’re gone you never get them back,” Mr Hull says.
“People might say ‘it’s just a bee’. Well, it’s just my income and it’s just my living.”
In the lower Darling region near Pooncarie, sheep farmer Phil Wakefield scratches his head when asked where he will get his next lot of feed.
“We’ve purchased about $100,000 worth of hay but I don’t know if I can buy any more because it’s too dear and it could be another $40,000 for freight on top of that,” he says.
Mr Wakefield has had to significantly de-stock, while watching ewes abandon lambs.
“The poor little fellas have been trampled,” he says. “But there’s not much we can do about it.”
He says money for bores would be handy, as the wait for rain and for the Darling River to fill drags on.
In the Central West, Western Plains and North West Slopes regions, farmers say it is the worst drought in a century.
In 2013, sheep and cattle farmers Tony and Marie Knight suffered huge losses in the Wambelong bushfire near Coonabarabran. Their last decent drop of rain was more than a year ago.
“It’s gone on for so long, it’s like back-to-back droughts … everybody is a bit shocked, horrified, because we never thought it could get as bad as this,” Mr Knight says.
“In a good year we can produce enough food to feed hundreds of people, but in a bad year we have trouble feeding ourselves.”
On Sydney’s doorstep, the Southern Highlands region is deceptively green. But stockfeed supplier and sheep and chicken farmer Ken Walters says conditions are dire.
“We’ve had droughts over the years, numerous times, in the ’60s, ’80s, the millennial drought, but a lack of rain combined with record temperatures has just decimated everything,” he says.
Mr Walters’ partner Deb Murtagh says they have had to ration hay to customers.
“No-one’s talking about drought because everyone in Sydney has still got water from the big dams and they can still wash their cars and their driveways,” Ms Murtagh says.
“But we’ve got farmers out here who are going broke because they can’t afford feed.”
Greg Schofield is a fourth-generation dairy farmer at Avoca in the Southern Highlands, and says consumers don’t ask questions when they can buy dollar-a-litre milk.
“It’s hard to look too much into the future with the price we’re getting for our milk compared to the price I have to pay for input products like hay, and there’s not a great deal of hay left in NSW,” he says.
“Mentally, it’s quite stressful, that’s why we have a thing called beer.”
In Western Queensland, farmers are comparing this big dry to the famously severe drought of the 1880s.
Genevieve Hawkins runs a cattle station near Aramac in Western Queensland where 2017 was the driest year in 38 years of records.
“It’s patchy — some people have had rain, some people have had close to nothing and we are in the close-to-nothing patch,” she says.
Ms Hawkins has had to sell a lot of her cattle, while feeding what’s left with cotton seed.
“It’s just relentless, you don’t sleep because you can’t stop thinking about it,” she says.
“It’s important to look after your own.”
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Contributors: Samantha Turnbull, Kerri Kapernick, Gavin Coote, Justin Huntsdale, Jessie Davies, Cecilia Connell, Col Kerr, Jennifer Ingall, Matthew Bedford, Melanie Groves, Ollie Wykeham, Jennifer Douglas, Cherie von Horchner, Luke Wong, Aimee Volkofsky, Josh Becker, Micaela Hambrett.