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What Aussie Farmers Plan To Do On Christmas Day

For some farmers who have been fighting to survive in a summer of drought and fire, it doesn’t feel like Christmas -- they’re simply too exhausted to drag out the tinsel, cook up a feast or wrap presents.

Instead, many say they have been too busy facing extraordinary circumstances -- struggling to survive the compounding impacts of drought and an unrelenting bushfire season which has threatened homes, crops and livelihoods.

For the farmers 10 daily spoke to, Christmas is on their mind, and they want to enjoy a day with family and friends. But some are feeling far from festive, and the joy of rain and relief is a gift they probably won't get.

This week, NSW farmer Lynette Keneally said she found herself with a rare moment of downtime to cut down a Christmas tree for her kids.

"The kids are doing it tough, to be honest ... they're really sad," she told 10 daily.

"They still need a bit of Christmas."

Lynette Keneally visited the Green Wattle Creek fire command centre to pass on her thanks to fire crews. Image: Facebook / Top Forty Orchard

Keneally runs Top Forty Orchard in Oakdale, on Sydney's western outskirts, where she farms fruit and Christmas trees.

For three summers, she has battled drought conditions, but things have taken a difficult turn this year.

For almost two weeks in December, she said she was forced to close as she helped NSW Rural Fire Service crews defend her property from a ring of bushfires.

For a Christmas tree grower, that's the busiest time of year in terms of business.

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This weekend is meant to be Sydney Christmas tree grower Lynette Keneally's busiest time of the year. But instead, her plantation is blocked by fires so no one can pick them up.

At one point, she said flames from the Green Wattle Creek fire came within six metres of her boundary fence.

"We were pretty well surrounded by it," Keneally told 10 daily.

Because of the fight to save her property, Keneally said she hasn't had time or energy to put up Christmas decorations, see any Christmas lights or buy Christmas presents with her family.

In her words, she has been busy "trying to survive".

It just doesn't feel like Christmas. You try and keep that cheerful face on for the kids but within myself, I couldn't care less.

"The biggest Christmas present I could hope to wish for would be an inch of rain. You can't put a bow around that," she said.

Bushfires rage near Keneally's property on December 10. Image: Facebook / Top Forty

Rural Fire Service crews managed to backburn and get the blaze under control so Keneally could briefly reopen her orchard and experience some reprieve.

But she was far from complacent. Four days later, the same fire was a threat once more, and continued to burn through Saturday.

A Time Of Intense Drought

The Bureau of Meteorology said Australia's rainfall last month was the lowest on record for November.

Rainfall levels across the country between January and August 2019. Image: BoM

In NSW, 100 per cent of the state is drought-affected and about half of the state is experiencing 'intense' water shortages. In Queensland, 67 per cent of land is also in drought.

The weather bureau warned these conditions were 'prime' for high fire danger.

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Residents of a historical valley nestled in NSW’s Hunter region have resorted to defending their area's heritage buildings and properties as bushfires threaten to wipe out the pieces of Australian history.

Keneally. a third-generation orchardist who has lived through drought growing up, said conditions now are "as dry as [she] can remember".

"You can see things starting to really shrivel up. Areas that had a tinge of green in the grass have gone brown and crispy," she said.

It's alarming how fast this has happened.

She said the combination of fires and drought has left the orchard looking an 'absolute mess'. as starved wildlife creep their way in to hunt for food.

Keneally said she has faced ongoing struggles to protect her trees from wildlife. Image: Emma Brancatisano

Keneally said an infrared camera picked up 1500 animal movements inside the orchard during a two week period.

"I've never had this problem before, but I can understand why they're doing it -- there's nothing for them to eat anymore," she said.

"As much as you extend compassion to the animals, it doesn't make it any less frustrating to cope with the damage they're creating."

No End In Sight

Tony Biffin runs a dairy with his son Todd in the Wollondilly Shire, about 20 kilometres east of Keneally's property in Oakdale.

Fortunately, his property has not been threatened by bushfire, but the effects of climate change weigh heavy on him -- as does the decision to keep farming as he waits for the drought to break.

"Now we're starting to get really desperate. We don't know how long this will go on for," Biffin told 10 daily.

Dairy farmers Debbie, Todd and Tony Biffin at their Cawdor property. Image: Emma Brancatisano

The family have called their dairy farm home for more than 100 years, weathering the elements for two milkings a day since 1912.

Biffin described the last year as a 'roller coaster', as dams turned dry and their finances dwindled.

"We've been in a slow decline all year," he said.

We just started pumping from a new dam that was further away. It's getting to the point now where it's just a small puddle.

"Once that runs out, that's all the water we've got."

Cows attempt to graze the dry paddocks at Cawdor. Image: Supplied

Last week, the Biffins had to send some of their 300 stock to slaughter. It wasn't a decision made lightly.

Normally, the family would sell 40 cattle each year and rear another 40 replacements. This year, they've already sold 50.

Tony Biffin's son Todd and his wife Brooke with their son at the Cawdor property. Image: Emma Brancatisano

"It might sound callous but it's unavoidable," Biffin said. 

"You can't have unproductive animals in any system, but at the moment, while it's as tough as it is, you'll just go broke."

At home, Biffin and wife Debbie are trying to keep life as normal as possible for their family. They recently welcomed a grandson.

"He's the light of our life at the moment," he said.

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"The control rests with supermarkets, but the problem is they pit the processor against the farmer."

For the Biffin's, Christmas is a 'normal day' with a morning and afternoon milk, and enjoying a breakfast and lunch with the family.

"We just do the usual things, but it will be a bit more low key ... we won't be spending much on presents," Biffin said.

Do We Want To Do This Anymore?

As Christmas comes and goes, Biffin and son Todd will have a tough decision to make.

They're focused on surviving the drought until it rains. The weather bureau said the downpour they need isn't likely anytime soon, and high temperatures -- along with dangerous fire conditions -- are forecast to continue through summer.

"Strategies are in place to deal with things until about March or April. At that point, we'd start to consider whether we want to do this anymore," Biffin said.

There is hope for relief as summer ends. Image: Supplied

Meanwhile, Keneally is determined to "stick it out".

"We just have to get through this until the drought breaks, and then we'll have to pick up what we have left and deal with it," she said.

"It's not about trying to thrive now, it's just about trying to survive."

Contact Emma at ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au