Six years ago, I was one of the farmers being driven to breaking point by drought. These are the people we need to remember when weighing up the merits of assistance, writes Fleur McDonald.
The word drought conjures up images of dusty paddocks; dry, cracked dam bottoms; and skeletal stock.
Of trees grazed bare and flies buzzing over carcasses. Of hungry wild dogs or pigs tearing at the animals, still alive but too weak to move.
It also provokes differences of opinion and therefore emotion.
When dealing with people’s livelihoods, you can’t take the emotion out of it and I’m as guilty as the rest of us. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing this.
There are many questions being thrown around at the moment: Are agriculture resources being handled correctly? Is climate change causing these droughts and floods? Do we need drought plans? Is the farm viable and therefore entitled to help? And the big one – who, in fact, is responsible for helping which farmers at crisis time?
They are all really good questions. But not for right now. Not while farmers in New South Wales and Queensland are suffering.
Stop for a moment and think about the people. Forget about all the political bullshit.
Farming is like a cup-a-soup. Just add water and everything is OK. No water? Not OK.
Drought equals destruction and ruin – of our land, our animals, our income, our families.
Our dams slowly dried up, leaving nothing but a muddy slosh that animals got stuck in. Our hay stacks dwindled.
Each day, before we went outside, we checked the weather forecast on the internet, then again at lunch, tea and, for good measure, in the hope something had changed, at bedtime. The weather reports became an obsession.
When it got to about March and things were looking bad, my husband made the call to look for agistment. Within about four weeks, we had nearly 800 cows scattered up to 900 kilometres away from our farm.
Most of the area we live in doesn’t have underground water. We rely solely on dams and surface water, which means we require rain to fill them. In the previous two years, when we did have rain, every time those black clouds darkened our horizons, it had to “wet the catchments” enough to make the water run.
Imagine a sponge. When it’s dry, it soaks up the water until it’s saturated. Then you can squeeze water out of it. It’s the same with the clay catchments. It’s not going to let any water run downwards into the dam until it’s wet.
During the 2006/2007 season, yep, sure, we did get rain. But not enough to make the water run into the dams. So in 2008, when crunch time hit, our water supplies were already depleted. The drought just finished them off.
We make our own hay. We always ensure we have more than enough to get us through two years of feeding in case something disastrous, like no rain, or a fire, happens.
The cattle love hay, as do the sheep. But it still doesn’t take the place of green grass and all the vitamins and minerals that precious commodity contains. The stock are more than able to live on supplementary feeding for some time. However, they barely hold their own body weight; they won’t get pregnant for next breeding season; and the longer they go without green grass the less likely they will be viable in years to come. Cows in particular find it hard to recover from extreme loss of body weight.
In the two years leading up to 2008, we made hay and harvested and stored grain for fodder, but with the reduced rainfall, not as much as usual.
As the drought began to bite, my husband became quieter than usual. He snapped more often, and his worry lines deepened. In between feeding what stock we had left, we spent hours in the office, re-jigging the budget.
Together we dragged sheep out of the muddy slosh, all that was left in the dams, and stood ewes up that had “got down” and were too weak to get up again.
Every week my husband spent 36 hours straight on the road, checking the stock we had away, leaving me and two young kids to continually feed the sheep, drag the dead ones away and cry over the calves that were born onto bare ground and left there when their mothers walked away, knowing, as only animals do, they couldn’t raise a baby if they, themselves, were to survive.
We hurt together, and hurt with and for our animals, who relied on us.
In bed I’d toss and turn with secret fears; well, I think we both did. Thoughts that I could never voice to anyone. What if it all got too much? What if one of us cracked? What if, what if, what if?
One particularly horrible day, when my husband was away, I found a dead cow in one of our dams. I had to swim out to put chains around her neck, so she wouldn’t pollute what little water was left. Swimming back to the edge, I was so sick of the whole situation; I alternated between yelling in fury at Mother Nature and begging her to change these clear blue skies to dark rainy ones. Then, knowing the school bus was due home soon, I climbed into the tractor, pulled her out and buried her.
My husband shot some of his favourite, best stud cows because they were old and couldn’t handle the dry.
The teachers at my children’s school reported that all the stories written by the kids in English were about dry times and sad families.
We didn’t have any money. The main street in town was quiet. Some businesses, unable to continue, shut their doors.
It affected every crevice of our community.
A girl who calls herself “Jillaroo”, on the Facebook page “Countrygirls Out and About”, explains it like this:
I think for us, the biggest thing I want to get out about drought, and farming in general is just that, we aren’t big business, we aren’t faceless corporations.
We are families, men, women and children, we laugh we cry, we love, and we suffer heartbreak. Every single animal we own, we are attached to in some way, ok, they don’t all have names like pets in the city, but we care for them and want the very best for them.
So when we see them suffering, we suffer with them.
Drought isn’t just a surfeit of sunny weather, drought is a long backbreaking, heart aching, gut wrenching loss of water, loss of life, and loss of the things we love.
It is a feeling of desperation like no other!
But oh the triumph when you save just one animal that everyone else said wasn’t worth the effort.
Now I really don’t care if a farm, in good times, is viable or not. I really couldn’t give a toss if agriculture is judged by people who have no idea how it works. But I do care if people who don’t understand our industry make decisions for us. Or they exclude farmers who should be entitled to help.
The fact is, there are some farmers in this country who are hurting and need support. Right now-they can’t wait while the pollies argue and bicker over who is entitled to what. Sort out all the rubbish later.
The fact is, we supply your food and, if we go under … well, I’m really not sure what you plan on eating.
ABC’s Landline interviewed a man this week, who told the story of a farmer in either NSW or QLD (I’m not sure which) who had run out of both feed and water. He booked a truck to take his remaining 400 head of cattle to market. You know why? He had run out of options.
And of hope. There was nothing left to do but sell.
And let me tell you, once hope is gone, then you are well and truly buggered.
When the truckie got there, he told the farmer he couldn’t take those cattle to market because they were too poor, too undernourished. Some of them would probably not survive the trip.
The farmer shot those 400 head of cattle before turning the gun on himself.
He. Shot. Himself.
All because of no rain, and the consequences it brings.
This isn’t something we can change. It’s in Mother Nature’s hands.
There are many things I haven’t mentioned here: the land and how it suffers is just one.
But one thing that helps us get through is the support from other people and other communities. Their willingness to do something practical, like provide food hampers, or try to find food for stock, is almost, almost, as good as that life-giving water we crave so badly during times of drought.
We must also remember that once we do hear that sweet sound of rain on the roof and the beautiful smell of moisture on dry earth, that isn’t the end of the drought. Not by a long shot.
Yes, it’s a start. But we need follow-up rain – slow, steady, soaking rain. Rain that will germinate the seeds that still lie in the ground, rain that will water not only that new growth but also the souls of the families who work this land. The families who feed you. We’ll still need to be remembered then.
So, please, before you judge, before you make a comment, before you say the government should or shouldn’t help, just think back to that farmer and his family and the human consequences of drought. Realise we are people who have a breaking point.
This article first appeared on ‘ABC‘ on 14 February 2014.