They don’t want to stop farming, but the thought of rebuilding when they are so far behind is too much for Bill and Nicole Hannah.
If the big dry doesn’t break by Christmas, they say, there will be no water and no animals left on their 2000 acre beef cattle farm about 40km from Scone, out past Gundy.
When that happens, Mr Hannah will likely go elsewhere to find work – despite being a farmer his whole adult life and spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to keep the small family operation running.
“They [stock] have to go because we’ve got no more money,” he said.
“We can’t get any more money to bring in more feed – we can’t afford it, that’s all there is to it.”
The Hannahs are just one example of the many producers doing it tough across the state as the dry conditions wear on.
According to Bureau of Meteorology data, as of Friday evening, 150.2mm of rain had fallen at Scone so far this year, while 673mm was recorded at the Nobbys rain gauge in Newcastle.
The Isis and Pages rivers, north-east of Scone, were last running more than a year ago.
They have since totally dried out, leaving a stony-floored valley running through properties.
The four dams on the Hannahs’ land are mostly empty and the search for more bore water has yielded a frustratingly poor result at the farm, which belonged to Mr Hannah’s father until about seven years ago when Bill and Nicole moved from their property at Wybong to take over.
Mr Hannah said they needed “inches and inches” of rain over several weeks to get feed growing.
Mrs Hannah said the thought of rebuilding – starting from nothing and buying back stock at a much higher price than what they were forced to sell for – was too much for the pair given how far behind they found themselves.
They need the big dry to break now.
"We talk about different stages of the plan and we crossed a line in the sand last week when a load of cattle went,” she said.
"That will start happening regularly now, it has to.”
The Hannahs were prepared for a lean stretch. They made and stored enough feed to carry them from May to December last year.
But since then, they’ve spent an estimated $70,000 to feed their animals.
“We had the bank manager up yesterday and I said ‘look, I need more money’,” Mrs Hannah said.
"We’ve liquidated an annuity, $50,000, and that was gone in no time. These are things for our retirement. Because of our land we won’t get a pension.
“We can’t go into debt much further. The money you squirrel away in good years, that’s all gone.
“The day in day out grind is just wearing a lot of us down.”
About 20km down the road from the Hannahs’ property, another beef cattle farmer explains his take on the business predicament producers face.
James Archibald, a lifelong farmer whose property was handed down from his father, has spent more than $100,000 feeding his stock since January while the value of his cattle dropped.
“If everyone had sold early, we would’ve been a lot better off financially. But the issue is, when’s it going to rain? Nobody really knows,” he said.
“And all of a sudden cattle that were worth $1000 each were worth $500 – that’s cows.
“If you’ve got to turn around and buy them back again, you just might not be able to. It’s not as simple as everybody seems to say.
“What do you do? Do you sell your property, which nobody wants to buy? Do you let your cattle die? Do you sell them for nothing? They’re big, big decisions that get to the inner core of a man.”
Mr Archibald said the freight subsidy the state government announced this week would be an “enormous” help.
Under the measures, drought-affected farmers would be eligible for a subsidy to cover half the cost of freight for stock, feed and water up to the value of $20,000 per property, as part of a $500 million package.
The government will back-date the subsidy to the start of this year.
The announcement also included funding to waive local land service rates, fixed water charges and class one agricultural vehicle registration.
With many farmers having to get feed brought up from South Australia, freight costs are a pressing issue.
Mr Archibald said his last load of hay cost about $10,000, with $7000 on top of that for transport.
“If I get $20,000 now, that will pretty much help me through until I sell,” he said.
“We’re all playing catch-up. We’re all borrowing money. Most of us don’t have a lot of money – we’ve got an asset.
“It’s bloody heartbreaking when something goes wrong and we’re all going broke trying to keep [stock] alive.”
As well as the practicality of the financial relief, Mr Archibald said the measures showed the government was “recognising there’s a really big problem”.
But he remains angry the original freight subsidy was taken away in the first place.
“If people are rorting it, punish them and then people won’t do it,” he said.
“That’s not the fault of some struggling farmer.”
Aside from government help, there’s been no shortage of community assistance extended to farmers.
Mrs Hannah recalled seeing a brightly-coloured truck pull into the driveway with a donation of hay and groceries.
She said it came on a day she and her husband were feeling particularly fragile about their situation and the act of kindness brought them both to tears.
Mr Archibald was also quick to point out how grateful Hunter farmers were for the generosity they had been shown through various donation campaigns, from vegetable packs to feed for stock.
On a drive around his property, he showed Fairfax Media the feeding trays he built with materials donated by a Hunter mine.
He’s a regular at a monthly get-together that recently started at Gundy’s Linga Longa Inn, where local farmers gather for a drink, a chat and some company.
Innkeeper Dan Bennett, a new face in the area, said he’d noticed a change in the community since taking over the pub a little more than a year ago.
He said he could see the tough conditions were having “a massive impact”, but the monthly catch-ups were a chance to “come down and have a yarn”.
“Generally it’s pretty tough,” Mr Bennett said.
“The old cockies you used to see every night now come in once a week, once a fortnight.”
Mr Archibald said the gatherings helped him meet people new people in the district who were facing similar problems.
“It’s probably a bandaid, but it’s a really good one at the end of the day,” he said.
“I think it makes you realise that everyone is going through it.”
Meanwhile, between Scone and Murrurundi, Brian Hunt turned 84 this week on the property that his great grandfather Owen started farming 150 years ago.
Mr Hunt has de-stocked all his cattle but has managed to keep his sheep, which are much less susceptible to dry conditions.
He hopes the strong wool market will ultimately keep him going until the dry spell breaks and will justify the money he has spent transporting hay to his property from interstate.
Mr Hunt said it was costing about $1000 a week to feed his sheep and the government measures announced on Monday would help – but more needed to be done.
He said the dry spell was the worst he had ever seen.
“It’s a disaster, there’s no question about it,” Mr Hunt said.
“I didn’t think we’d ever bloody bring hay from South Australia.
“We just have to ride it out and see what happens.”
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