The 'Quiet' Drought That Has Snuck Up On Our Doorstep

'I can see the rain clouds. I can smell them. But they're just not forming.'

Lynette Keanelly is trying to peer through a crystal ball with a huge crack in it.

Every morning, she pulls on her boots -- slightly later now, being a mother of two -- to tend to her fruit trees, always thinking six, seven or eight years ahead. Her husband, a truck driver, works overnight to make ends meet.

But it’s all guesswork, because she has run out of water.

Farmer Lynette Keanelly walks through a bare paddock. Image: Emma Brancatisano

“I can see the rain clouds. I can smell them. But they're just not forming,” Keanelly tells ten daily, from her Oakland property in the Wollondilly Shire, on Sydney’s south-western fringe.

Fifteen minutes up the road, Gavin Moore points out the city skyline from the highest hill on his family-run dairy farm. Milk is just an hour door-to-door to Sydney “as the crow flies”.

But this once-green picture is practically bare, the ground beneath the grassed hills cracked, dams drained empty and farmers’ hands left calloused -- with many reaching breaking point.

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Directly north of Gavin Moore's property is Sydney. Image: Emma Brancatisano

As a quiet drought sets in across the country, farmers are left praying for rain. But not just any -- a gradual soaking that will seep into bone-dry dirt and begin to fill the cracks.

“We have been through droughts before … but this is the worst,” Moore tells ten daily, “it has hit so hard and is so widespread.”

According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the entire country has been gripped by an historic lack of rainfall, with parts — particularly in eastern states — recording the lowest rainfall on record.

“Normally in drought in Australia, you’ll have one or two states that are dry, then two or three that are still having a good season, so there is still available feed,” Moore says.

"This time, there is nothing. Everyone is dry.”
Ninety-nine percent of NSW is experiencing drought conditions. Image: NSW DPI

Farmers in New South Wales are among the worst affected, with virtually all of the state experiencing drought conditions. Fifteen percent, including the Wollondilly Shire, is now in intense drought.

But this means "very little", Moore says, after the state government stopped making drought declarations -- a process that in the past triggered the release of some assistance measures.

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‘We’re still waiting’

Moore hasn’t seen decent rain since May or June last year. One dam that feeds into his irrigation network has been bone-dry for eight months, the cracks in the ground now 40 centimetres deep.

“The complete underground water table has dropped significantly,” he says. “We would need around 20 inches (50 centimetres) over a significant period of time to fill it up again.”

The cracks in Moore's dam are 40 centimetres deep. Image: Emma Brancatisano

Moore's family has been on the property since the early 1800s. Growing up through drought in the mid 1990s, and -- worse -- the late 1970s and early 1980s, he remembers the warning signs.

“This drought has just happened so quickly. Once the rain stopped, the hot weather set in and the hot winds came … We’re still waiting.”

The same goes for Keanelly, a third-generation orchardist, who has never seen her property so dry.

“A fire makes a lot of noise, and everyone can see it, smell it, taste it. The only thing that is different about drought is it’s quiet and insidious; it sneaks up on us.”

Four hours north of Sydney, in the state’s central west, the heartache for Richard Martin’s family started several months earlier. In February last year, a bushfire burned 160 hectares of land and killed up to 200 sheep.

“Forty percent of our place was destroyed. Suddenly having a drought after that is testing … we still haven’t recovered,” he said.

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Sold stock, false blossoms, rising debts

After the bushfire, Martin’s family had to sell about 2,000 castrated males and 200 sheep. Since then, they haven’t had stock to sell or enough money to pay for feed.

“At the moment, we’re paying about $21,000 each week on stock feed alone. That’s before petrol and workers’ wages,” he said.

“We know that when the drought breaks, we won’t have anything to sell. We’ve already sold everything.”

Feed prices have skyrocketed in the last year, with many worried their levels are running low. Farmers are also facing rising freight costs, with those in New South Wales forced to source from interstate.

“It’s just an added burden,” Moore said.

Gavin Moore's day starts at about 5am, with first milk. Image: Emma Brancatisano
Dawn breaks. Emma Brancatisano

He is among those calling on the NSW government to reinstate freight subsidies, scrapped in 2015 and replaced by a new system of interest-free loans, to put cash where it's needed.

“Farmers already have loans. Why would I want to owe more money when all it would take would be something as simple as bringing back in a freight rebate?”

But drought is not just emancipated stock, dry dams and paddocks. In different fields, farming are facing less visible hurdles.

On a tour of Keanelly’s orchard, she holds up a tiny apple and calls it “a disaster.”

A tiny yet unassuming apple is a disaster for Lynette Keanelly. Image: Emma Brancatisano

The fruit, which should remain a closed bud until October, flowered early this year.

“These apples should not be here... Now that is fruit I won’t be getting when I should be.”

The mother of two, who also grows Christmas trees, is now behind with planting. Up to 1,000 seedlings should already be in the ground, with new plantings  postponed.

“I planted 80 young trees last year, and of those, I lost 60. I just ran out of water,” she said.

“It was a kick in the guts.”

“I had to make a choice -- do I water the actively growing trees with fruit that are going to make me money or do I water trees that are going to be my future? I had to sacrifice those that weren’t bearing.”

Every day, farmers are making heartbreaking sacrifices for their families. Image: Emma Brancatisano
‘You keep it to yourself'

These are heartbreaking sacrifices that affect a family’s livelihood.

But Keanelly says she is luckier than most.

“At the moment it’s tight. There’s no more trips to the movies with the kids ... but we can still put food on the table,” she says.

These are choices Keanelly, who is as resilient as her crops, will keep making.

“And you keep it to yourself …. because you have to.”

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or rural helpline Virtual Psychologist on 1300 665 234 (or send a text message to 0488 807 266) 

For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

If you want to help Australian farmers in need, you can donate to a registered charity. Donate online to Rural Aid's Buy a Bale, Drought Angels or Lions' Need for Feed. You can also support farmers by buying Australian grown produce at your local supermarket.