Upper Hunter farmers doing it tough as the drought continues

Barren ground and not a cloud in the sky.
Barren ground and not a cloud in the sky.

IT’S been a long time since Australia rode the sheep’s back to prosperity.

Nowadays, primary production is just a small percentage of our national output. But if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed about agriculture, it’s the hardships that farmers can face in a famously drought-prone country. For the bulk of Australians living in coastal towns and cities, a sustained lack of rainfall is likely to mean nothing more troublesome than some moderate water restrictions.

But for those whose lives are tied to the land, the outlook during an extended drought becomes harder and bleaker, as the days and weeks and months without rain tick over, reducing the usual cycles of cropping and animal husbandry to a grim game of hanging on for dear life.

This week, the Newcastle Herald’s Nick Bielby and photographer Marina Neil travelled to the Upper Hunter to see the impact of this latest big dry first hand. Under perennially cloudless skies and on grass-less hills, farmers spend small fortunes to hand-feed stock. It’s less personal, perhaps, in corporate feed-lots and other agricultural pursuits owned as big businesses. But for individual farmers, often from families who have been on the land for generations, the need to hold on against the drought is as much an emotional decision as it is a commercial one. Inevitably, attention turns to the sorts of help that the state should – or should not – provide to primary producers. Governments have changed the way they approach rural assistance schemes in recent years, arguing that old methods tended to encourage a hand-out mentality.

But however the assistance is provided, the idea is to provide practical help to farmers in need without disadvantaging those who – by good luck or good management – have managed to make it this far in better shape. And then there’s the national attitude toward the sector in general.

Farmers often cop a hard time in the environmental debate but we should never forget that without those farmers, the rest of us don’t eat. In good times and bad we rely on Australian primary producers to keep us fed in the style we’re accustomed to. The only cure for a drought is rain, but in the meantime, the government funding bodies and the banks that many farmers must inevitably turn to should remember what side their bread is buttered on, and do the right thing by our drought-ravaged farmers.

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