Shadow of a drought


By Claire Bakker

Boorowa farmer Daniel McGrath stands in his near-empty dam with his sheepdog Pearl.

“I’ve been running my property for over 40 years and I have never seen it this bad. My dam has just about dried up and I don’t know what I will do when we run out of water.”

They are the despairing words of Daniel McGrath, a sixth-generation farmer and grazier from Boorowa on the south-west slopes of New South Wales.

The record-breaking drought affecting NSW and Queensland has forced farmers like Mr McGrath into desperate measures just to keep their business alive.

“In the last two weeks I’ve had to start hand-feeding my sheep, and I have spent over $40,000 on hay and grain just to keep my animals alive,” he said.

Boorowa – a district known for its fine merino wool – has received less than half its average rainfall in 2019. Worse might be still to come with the forecast of above-average temperatures this summer.

“Without rainfall I have nothing to sustain my land. It’s a problem that affects not only me and my family but my livestock and other properties around me,” Mr McGrath said.

In NSW, the drought has been so severe that up to 10 towns are predicted to run out of water in the next six months.

Boorowa is not worst-affected but the strain on the district’s farmers and the impact it then has on the small town is an example of the pervasive nature of this long-running dry spell.

Daniel McGrath says the lack of rain is only adding to the skyrocketing cost of running properties and feeding animals plummeting.

“In the last two weeks I’ve had to start hand-feeding my sheep and have spent $40,000 on hay and grain just to keep my animals alive.

“This will last me until March next year but it is a constant ongoing cost that has to be done otherwise I won’t be able to keep my property running,” McGrath said.

Sustaining the farm has become so perilous that his wife travels the three-hour round-trip to Canberra every day for work to give the household an income.

Mr McGrath’s three adult children also travel to neighbouring towns, such as Young and Cootamundra, to find work.

“My sons would love to come home and work on the farm but it wouldn’t be viable for them and there just wouldn’t be a living in it for them,” Mr McGrath said. “It’s hard to tell them that doing what they love isn’t the best option for their future.”

Source: Bureau of Meteorology
The majority of Australia has experienced very much below average rainfall in 2019.

The strain of the drought is not just being felt by those on the land. Small businesses in country towns rely on farmers to keep them alive, and when farmers aren’t spending money these small businesses suffer.

Tom Corkhill, who owns and runs a local agriculture and agronomy service shop in Boorowa, says the drought has affected his business in a number of ways.

“The farmers aren’t buying what they usually would be buying, which are their add-ons such as fencing and small improvements.

“We have had to diversify in the products we sell and it’s been challenging finding products and sourcing the right one for the right situation, but that’s what we’ve got to do to keep the doors open and the business ticking,” he said.

Mr Corkhill said he relies on his regular customers and is always finding ways to help the farmers source products that they need in order to keep their animals alive.

“In times like this it’s really important that we stand together as a community to make sure all of our livelihoods survive,” he said.

Managing all of those stresses is also challenging the resilience of people and communities affected by drought.

The Australian Rural Mental Health Study found that farmers’ psychological distress increases in severe climate events, such as the drought.

In addition, those on the land in remote and outer regional areas are particularly under strain because of isolation and limited access to social networks.

Ally Corkhill is a mental health nurse in Boorowa and she has noticed the reluctance of farmers to seek help even though its affecting their emotional wellbeing.

She says one of the impediments to farmers seeking help is the lack of affordable support services.

“It is quite easy to get in to see your GP but there is a lack of services that are free to the person accessing the help and there are a lot that cost money,” Ms Corkhill says.

“During the hard times we are having at the moment, people are finding it challenging to obtain the cash for anything, let alone mental health services,” Mrs Corkhill said.

She says there is still a large stigma attached for men, as the financial provider of the household, to reach out for help.

“In farming communities there has always been a lot of pressure on the man of the house to be the very strong, stoic figure and to provide for their family, and when that’s not happening there are a lot of self-esteem issues that can impact on their mental health,” Mrs Corkhill says.

Back on the farm, Daniel McGrath says that although these times are extremely tough, giving up is not an option.

“Farming is all I’ve ever known and it’s not something that you can just walk away from.

“I don’t know what will happen when we run out of water but I just have to take it day-by-day, do the best that I can to keep my animals alive, and keep our fingers crossed that we get some rain.”