THE BIG DRY: How you can help a farmer survive

It’s been almost a year since the Upper Hunter had a decent drop of rain.

A single downpour won’t do. The farmers need big falls for several days. 

As the drought gripping the region rolls on, farmers are being forced to offload thousands of head of livestock because conditions are too harsh.

Most old farmers who have been working their land for a lifetime say they’re determined to hang on and be resilient because they see no other choice. 

But they’ll also tell you they’ve never seen it so dry.

In Merriwa, Ron Campbell said the drought was “as bad as we’ve had”.

“We want at least 50mm – that’s two inches – of rain and then in the next while another two inches,” he said.

“This is what quite often happens: it’s so variable, our rainfall, that you’ll get 50mm then you’ll go for two months. It’s the follow-up rain that’s the really big benefit.

“Everybody’s looking for rain. Droughts always break but you just don’t know when. It’s just how long you can hang on.”

Veteran Scone stock agent Peter MacCallum said his personal rainfall records showed the town received 13 inches last year – about half the usual amount.

And while he said serious drought conditions took hold about once a decade, the hot weather since Christmas made things different this time around.

“The heat has been particularly severe,” he said.

“Just day after day of 40-plus temperatures. It’s impacted on the water. The dams are dry, the rivers are dry - the ground water supplies are dwindling.

Merriwa in the Upper Hunter Valley. Picture: Simon McCarthy

Merriwa in the Upper Hunter Valley. Picture: Simon McCarthy

“We just need a major rain to replace all that. The rainfall in the last year has been so patchy. 

“Any storms have tended to fall on a very small area, most people have missed out.”

Something that particularly frustrates many farmers is the localised nature of the dry conditions – that they can drive a couple of hours and come across properties that haven’t been sucked dry and scorched.

Bureau of Meteorology data shows that parts of the Upper Hunter, around the Scone area, are going through a one-in-20-year rainfall deficiency. 

Most of the remainder of the valley is experiencing a once in a decade deficiency.

BoM senior climatologist Felicity Gamble told Fairfax Media that most of the Hunter Region was experiencing conditions that ranked in the worst 10 per cent compared to its historical averages.

“While we’ve seen such a dry month [January] we’ve also seen particularly hot temperatures,” she said. 

“So you’re getting that additional evaporation as well as the low rainfall.”

Driving out to Moonan Flat, about 50km from Scone, out past Gundy, it’s impossible to miss the dead brown hills, one after the other.

Ian MacCallum’s family has worked Bells Brook, a property near the Victoria Hotel, since 1855. 

He’s the fifth generation to have lived and worked there and, at 76, has handed much of the day to day operations over to his son.

“Drought robs you of your time. The workload becomes unrelenting,” Mr MacCallum said. 

“Every day you’ve got to feed and it takes away your time.”

If they were hoping that the new year would bring some relief, the Upper Hunter’s farmers have been left severely wanting so far.

Rainfall was well below average across the region last month, with 5mm recorded at Scone, where there has been a 61.8mm January average since 1994.

There was 42.5mm of rain Moonan Flat, compared to a 82.7mm January average since 1897, and 21.6mm at Blandford – about a third of its January average.

A weather eye on the rain:

Further down the valley, the big dry has also made its presence felt.

Maitland recorded its driest January since 1932, with 6mm, Paterson registered its driest January since 1903 and Cessnock and Singleton received 6mm and 3.3mm respectively. 

Even on the coast, at Nobby’s Beach, the bureau recorded 9.8mm of rain last month. There’s been less rain recorded at that site only three times previously in the past 156 years.

For the rest of February in the Hunter, meteorology website Weatherzone predicts there will be seven days of less than 25 per cent chance of rain and nine days where the probability of wet weather is between 25 and 50 per cent. There are no days forecast for a 75 per cent or greater chance of rain and only three days predicted to be above 50 per cent.

Craig Murphy was feeding his cattle a few bales of hay at Blandford when Fairfax Media caught up with him this week.

Mr Murphy, who runs his operation alone, said his family had worked his property for about 130 years. 

He recently had to let his farmhand go and said conditions were the hardest they’d been since at least the early 1980s. If there’s no decent rain by the end of this month, Mr Murphy said he’d have “some hard decisions to make” – whether to sell more stock early and leave him further financially exposed.

“We’ve been here all our time. Normally we’ve been able to pump out of the creek and now there’s nothing at all,” he said.

“The worst thing I found was going to get some hay and you drive two and a half hours to Manilla and it’s pretty good all the way. It’s just the Hunter Valley that’s missed out.”

  • The Big Dry is a special ongoing series by the Newcastle Herald, Maitland Mercury, Singleton Argus and Hunter Valley News investigating the widespread effects of drought on farmers and the communities of the Hunter.

Deeper reading: The Big Dry

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